After killing Marius Giraffe and four lions in the zoo of Copenhagen, the Longleaf Safari and Adventure Park in Britain killed six lions including four cubs. Now the zoo of Bern in Switzerland killed a healthy baby-bear. These actions stress the need to look critical at role of zoos.

The past centuries zoos have had varied roles in society: they evolved from collectors of animals to science centers, from recreational attractions to advocates for the conservation of species. Recent years, modern zoos have taken on a new role: advocating sustainable development.  In the last half century a global zoo community has been formed that tries to support nature and biodiversity protection through in-situ and ex-situ breeding projects. Furthermore, modern zoos try to connect their visitors  with nature and animals, and increase the public’s ecological awareness through  educational messages.

Despite these developments, the question remains what the ‘raison d être’ of the modern zoo should be? With increasing focus on international biodiversity issues, Western zoos try to find a role in the protection of (endangered) species, directly or indirectly through their educational programs .But there is little or no evidence that zoos play an essential role in the conservation of species and their educational potential is mainly restricted to a select group of people. In his novel ” Zoo Story; Life in the Garden of Captives “, the French journalist and author writes that the existence of zoos confirms our perceived dominance over other species. The opposite view is that the zoo is a place to connect people with nature, and is central in promoting sustainable development.

It remains difficult. Zoos are commercial enterprises, seeking to entertain a demanding public. At the same time they have to spend time and money for conservation purposes . Furthermore, visitors like to see the animals close-up , but the animal – visitor interactions are not always optimal for the welfare of the animals.  If at zoos animals instead of people would be put central, they would look very different. It’s all about conflicting goals.

How can zoos better combine the protection of species while ensuring the quality of life of individual animals ? The fact that zoos today strongly defend their role – not to say looking what happened at the Copenhagen and Bern Zoo and the Longleaf Safari and Adventure Park –  already shows that there is something wrong. Current zoos should better act as a shelter for (protected ) animals in distress that can be placed back in the nature – rather than being a theme park where animals also walk around . The dillema zoos face today is serious and we need to think urgently how to transform zoos over he next 20-30 years into ‘sustainable zoos’ – also from the animals’ perspective.

Pim Martens, Floortje Mennen, Carijn Beumer

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