What are zoos for?

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?

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...

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.

June Williams recalls her father's mission to build a zoo without bars at Chester. [Interview courtesy of BBC Inside Out North West]

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.

Specialist animal care

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