11 Things We Learned From ‘Should We Close Our Zoos?’ on BBC’s ‘Horizon’

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Last night, an eye-opening Horizon documentary on BBC Two asked, “Should we close our zoos?” Speaking to experts from around the world, the programme addressed issues such as the welfare of captive animals, the shocking “culling” of healthy animals and the “conservation con” that many zoos use to justify their existence.

The filmmakers spoke to experts on both sides of the debate – but by the end, it became increasingly clear that the answer to the question about whether zoos should be closed down is “YES!”

Here are some of the most striking facts that emerged:

1. Between 3,000 and 5,000 healthy “surplus” animals are “culled” (ie, killed) by European zoos each year.

Remember when everyone was outraged after Copenhagen Zoo killed Marius the giraffe and dissected him in front of children? Poor Marius was just the tip of the iceberg.

2. More than 90 per cent of the species kept by zoos are not endangered in the wild.

If you think zoos are mainly about conservation, you’re wrong.

3. Zoos haven’t changed as much as they’d like us to think.

Most of them still exhibit the same big “showy” animals, such as elephants and big cats, as they did in the 1820s – despite growing scientific evidence that these animals’ welfare needs can never be adequately met in captivity.

4. On average, elephants in zoos live only half as long as wild elephants.

Scientists believe that stress and obesity are the main causes of this shocking statistic. Captive elephants also frequently suffer from painful arthritis and foot conditions as a result of being kept on concrete floors and denied the chance to roam.

5. Most zoos are resistant to improving conditions.

When the Detroit Zoo in the US decided to move the elephants to a sanctuary, it faced backlash from the wider zoo industry. And zoos’ reactions to studies showing how animals suffer in captivity have been described as “negative and hostile”.

6. A study has found that around 80 per cent of carnivores engage in stereotypic behaviour in captivity.

This abnormal and repetitive behaviour, such as pacing and head shaking, serves no useful purpose, and it’s hardly ever seen in the wild. Scientists believe it reflects psychological damage.

7. SeaWorld still won’t admit that captivity is harmful to orcas, despite a wealth of research.

When asked for scientific evidence for the company’s claims, the marine park’s chief veterinarian could only cite “experiential evidence”.

8. Only a tiny 3 per cent of British zoos’ expenditure goes towards conservation projects in the field.

And that money is failing to have any real impact on conserving species.

9. Zoos’ claim that using animals as “ambassadors” helps with conservation efforts doesn’t hold up.

“There’s no evidence that seeing animals in zoos changes people’s opinion”, one expert said.

10. Around 400 pandas have been bred in captivity, but only five have ever been released – and only three of those survived.

Even though millions of pounds are being spent on efforts to reintroduce pandas into the wild, these efforts are unsustainable as long as the animals’ habitat continues to be destroyed.

11. Zoos’ captive-breeding programmes generally don’t work and send the wrong message.

Zoos have failed to save even the most “charismatic” animals, such as the great white rhino, from extinction (there are now only three of these rhinos left in the world). And they offer false hope that science can “clean up the mess” caused by humanity’s wide-scale environmental damage, distracting us from making meaningful change that will really help animals, wild or otherwise.

The programme is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 29 days, so if you didn’t catch it the first time, check it out and let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Of course, compassionate people have known for a long time that keeping animals locked up for human entertainment can never be ethical. And, as the campaign against SeaWorld shows, public opinion is shifting, and more and more people are realising that keeping intelligent, sensitive animals behind bars is wrong.

Be part of the movement – please boycott zoos and marine parks!



  • Keith Lindsay commented on April 18, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    Very interesting programme and excellent comments. Just a small point of correction: under 11. “great white rhino” should be “northern white rhino”.

  • Carol Rutter commented on April 19, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Animals are born to live in the wild, there natural habitat, it’s cruel to make a living out of keeping these beautiful animals caged, Born Free, not be caged.

  • Bobby Balfour commented on April 22, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    All their purported reasons for being were blown out of the water. How long will it be though before they admit it and become extinct themselves?

  • Jane P. Craig commented on April 29, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    I rather think that it is we humans who need to curb our growth, in all aspects. There are far too many of us, with the majority knowing little and caring less about wildlife, either flora or fauna, so long as they themselves are comfortable and well fed, have a vehicle, somewhere to live and endless clothes to wear. We have, and still are, destroyed so much wildlife and their habitat that it is doubtful it will ever recover, unless we do something NOW. But unfortunately that will not happen. Education is needed to show people that without ANY form of life from the smallest microbe to the largest animal we humans will perish; everything is interdependent.

    • Lorraine Stanley commented on May 6, 2016 at 4:11 pm

      Completely agree humans are without any compassion for animals and the planet all about money made quickly and exploitation.

    • Maureen Kelly commented on May 6, 2016 at 6:33 pm

      AMEN, Jane!! Very well put and unbelievably true! Humans are the problems on this entire planet. I pity any creature that isn’t human for they will likely be completely destroyed by the creatures that are human. We should be so ashamed of how we are treating the earth that God put in our care. I know I am.

    • Andrea commented on May 12, 2016 at 5:40 am

      So well-said, Jane! I find it utterly despicable and unconscionable that we’ve killed HALF the world’s wildlife in the past 40 years! How can that be? In no time it’ll all be gone. We Homo sapiens sure created a mess with our short-sighted ignorance and greed…

  • Anshul commented on April 30, 2016 at 3:54 am

    Keeping an animal in captivity, a bird in a cage, fish in an aquarium etc. is same as keeping a human in box of just enough size to accomodate him/her. So, those who support zoos should first, at least for a week, try to live in a box. A territorial animal, say a lion, lives in an area of about 30-40 sq. kilometre and you are putting him in a cage of 30-40 sq. metre. And a nomadic animal like zebra or an elephant travels more than thousands of miles every year in wild. No comment on this.
    But for a mere entertainment of ours(how can it be a fun) , thousands of animals are tortured. Zoos have become only the hot zones for earning huge. They are just the opposite of conservation.
    Ban Zoos

  • Courtney Loftus commented on May 1, 2016 at 7:01 am

    Hello, do you know if it’s possible to watch this program from the U.S.? I can’t seem to find it and would really like to tune in. Thanks!

  • denyse mcnab commented on May 3, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Iv never like zoos and I think they should be shut they dnt treat the animals well and they should be in the wild

  • Christ commented on May 4, 2016 at 9:17 am

    It just breaks my heart and put me in depression…we all have to finish with these fucking unuseful just absurd zoos and circus!!!

  • Peggy commented on May 6, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    Close zoos. Cruelty to animals!

  • Shirley Kowalewski commented on May 6, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    Let’s stop pretending that zoos educate or are in the business of conservation.

  • Mansura commented on May 6, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    please end this cruelty :((

  • Kim Fenton commented on May 6, 2016 at 11:27 pm

    I always knew zoos were wrong even though my daughter has 3 certificates in animal welfare and care. I was never convinced. What are they teaching them ? You just have to observe the animals behaviour to see they are not doing well.

  • lynn topliffe commented on May 7, 2016 at 7:10 am

    Yes shut them all down preserve the natural habitat

  • Denise Hunter commented on May 7, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    All animals should be free to exist in their own environment, not caged for people to stare at. Why the human race feel they have the right to determine the existence of other beings is wrong. We should be co-existing on this planet and animals have a right to lead a peaceful, happy existence in their own space with their own kind. Anyone who abuses an animal in any way is vile.

  • BARBARA BRITTON commented on May 9, 2016 at 3:36 pm

    I agree. Humans need to control their population, first. Putting band aids on families trying to feed their 7 plus starving children, while animals are eating their crops, because man has taken the animal’s land away, is a loosing cycle. Then in other countries, people want to ‘buy’ imported or breeder animals, while thousands are killed for convenience or no homes are available. But selfishly, we will gladly pay and take our families to be entertained, gawking at depressed animals in a cage or doing stupid ‘tricks’. There is so much work to be done because so many people have been misinformed, our animal abuse/ torture laws are pathetic, and sadly, some people don’t care. My heart feels for those people that do care and do something, no matter how small.

  • Pete commented on May 27, 2016 at 6:51 am

    Well, if we shut all the zoo’s all the animals in them would have to be killed.

  • Barbara Britton commented on June 1, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    Sadly, zoo animals already are being killed for various reasons.
    1. The zoo animals could be sent to caring sanctuaries.
    2. We, as compassionate humans, would do better by the animals, if we supported [$$$ ], animals in caring sanctuaries and other institutions, than zoos.
    3. Turn zoos into sanctuaries.
    4. Stop importing captive animals from the wild, their home and their family group [slavery?], to be placed in a cage or a so called mock friendly – similar limited space, fake environment to live out their short lives.
    5. If it is a situation where excess human population is taking away the animals environment/ food sources, perhaps we could be funding birth control and conservation, instead of buying tickets to zoos or any other business that profits thrive on caging / entertainment of wild animals.
    6. It would be a dream to have caring humans come together with a committee to solve these past brutal animal issues, that we have inherited and need to desperately rectify.
    7. Opened to other suggestions, as long as animals are the beneficiary.

  • Stacy Austin commented on August 9, 2016 at 6:02 pm


  • stephen whi commented on October 28, 2016 at 1:20 pm

    Bristol Zoo at Clifton is no longer fit for purpose. All the enclosures are of an unacceptable small size. Lions pace constantly, showing stress. The birds can’t fly in the restricted area and as for the bats who would fly miles. These animals need to be released back in the wild, or sent where there is sufficient space.

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