As is probably all too evident from my reviews, I am vegetarian. This is a position I have held for nearly 30 years, since as a child I spent some time with a friend at his family’s wildlife park (now renamed a zoo). I felt, and still feel, that I didn’t need to eat animals any more.
So, to phrase it pretentiously, my vegetarian awakening came at a zoo. I believe most of the people involved with that zoo were vegetarian, and really cared for the animals they looked after. However, I have always found it difficult to reconcile my beliefs and the basic principle of zoos of holding animals in an unnatural environment.
On the other hand, I know that zoos – especially but not only in the UK – have changed. When I was young, I seem to remember more of a focus on spectacle, such as shows with animals pushing balls around etc. Now these are very uncommon.
Zoos in the UK have a legal duty to carry out education and to do at least one of having a breeding programme, conservation research or reintroduction programme. I once worked in the responsible government department, so was in contact with many people from UK zoos who were extremely enthusiastic about these programmes.
Put simply, there are animals in this world whose survival chances have been greatly enhanced by the programmes only zoos carry out. Zoos also inspire people to take up biodiversity pursuits. You can talk all you like about elephants, but the sense of awe only comes when you are close to them.
Where does this leave me? I don’t know. I’m still uncomfortable with aspects of zoos, but I do think they have real educational and conservational benefits to society. Selfishly, I do enjoy looking at animals which seem content in their surroundings.
I will continue then to visit zoos, wildlife parks, aviaries and aquariums with a critical eye. If I see good practice, well, that should be standard. If I see something I don’t like, then I will recommend people don’t go.
Feel free to challenge or support this point of view, but please be nice!