What are zoos for?

Open navigator

Please turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

1. Do we need zoos today?

Each year 25 million of us visit a UK zoo, enjoying the thrill of getting close to exotic creatures. But is there more to zoos than public amusement?

Since the days of the first menageries, when wild animals were caged for human pleasure, zoos and public opinion on zoos have been mixed. Today, they not only entertain us on a family day out, zoos also engage in research, conservation and education.

But when nature documentaries teach us so much about animal behaviour in the wild, is there still value in keeping animals captive in a zoo?

2. How did zoos come about?

Zoos have operated in one form or another since the Middle Ages, when the Tower of London hosted a menagerie of exotic creatures from lions to camels...

3. The creation of the modern zoo

The 20th Century saw huge changes for British zoos.

Removing the bars

Edinburgh was the first British zoo to be inspired by the idea of displaying animals without bars, opening in 1913. Zoological parks opened at Chester and Whipsnade in 1931. These were the first non-urban zoos with larger enclosures.

Creating safari environments

In 1966 a revolutionary idea arrived in Britain – the first drive-through safari park opened at Longleat, Wiltshire. Wild animals could be observed roaming across acres and interacting more freely, to the delight of visitors and the fear of locals.

Change in public attitudes

By the 1980s the British public was questioning the morality of keeping animals captive. Nature documentaries had revealed how these animals lived in the wild. The Zoo Licensing Act 1981 required zoos to educate the public, and they stopped capturing most of their animals from the wild and turned to breeding programmes.

Focus on conservation

In 1959 Gerald Durrell opened a zoo in Jersey – the first to put conservation above all else. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that other zoos took on the mission to save the most threatened species in the world.

4. Saving animals from extinction

With potentially thousands of species going extinct every year, zoos have taken on a role in preserving the very animals they hold in captivity. Select the images to find out more.

This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.

More than 20,000 species are now classed as endangered, critically endangered or facing extinction. An international body calculates this by looking at population decline, the area they occupy and current numbers. [Images courtesy of Getty Images and Science Photo Library]

5. Specialist animal care

Animal care is central to the work of zoos like Chester, which continually strive to improve their knowledge and practices...

6. The animals that couldn't survive in zoos

Although zoos have come a long way, there is still a lot to learn about animal care. Select the labels to find out more.

This content uses functionality that is not supported by your current browser. Consider upgrading your browser.

Some animals experience behavioral and psychological problems in captivity. Small and unstimulating enclosures can be a particular cause of distress. [Images courtesy of Getty Images and Rex Features]

7. Threats: the growing importance of zoos

With intensifying pressures on animals in the wild, zoos are becoming ever more important. So what are the key threats?

Deforestation

Image: Getty Images

You selected

Deforestation

Home to many endangered animals, including orangutans, between 46 and 58 thousand square miles of forest are lost each year; 36 football pitches a minute.

Hunting

Image: Getty Images

You selected

Hunting

In recent years there has been an enormous increase in illegal wildlife trade. Rhino poaching in South Africa has jumped 7,700% since 2007.

Urbanisation

Image: Getty Images

You selected

Urbanisation

Rapid urbanisation and human population growth threatens animal habitat. 54% of the global population now lives in cities and this figure is growing every year.

Climate change

Image: Science Photo Library

You selected

Climate change

Climate change threatens both animals and humans. With temperatures rising, scientists predict ice-free Arctic summers by 2040. Polar bears need sea ice to hunt