Can you remember the very
first time you ever went to a zoo? Didn't the animals seem amazing? The very first time
you ever saw an elephant - can you recall how huge it seemed, how unbelievable its trunk
was, how extraordinary it was that this great fantastic creature was actually there,
sharing the world with you? If you live close to a zoo, then for you it is probably still
'The Zoo'. It may still have affectionate memories for you, memories of strange exotic
creatures, and curious smells; a place full of beasts with a power to fascinate,
intimidate, or amuse.
But perhaps your memories of the zoo are not so pleasant.
Perhaps your last impression of the zoo was not of an astonishing place full of playful
monkeys and towering giraffes, but of the sad and listless eyes of a poor wild animal
imprisoned in a hopelessly unsuitable cage. For zoos are not always exotic and exciting
places. They may be cruel, dank, and depressing. And however startling our first
impressions of the zoo might have been, we soon begin to look at the world with clearer,
more critical eyes. We no longer visit the zoo to marvel at the sheer size of the
elephants or to gasp at the jaws of the lions, and we start to question the ethics of it
Most countries have at least one national zoo. Britain, for
example, has over eighty mammal collections that might properly be called zoos, the United
Sates has over two hundred, and there is a huge variation in their quality. Most of us can
intuitively recognise a bad zoo when we have the misfortune to visit one. Yet there seem
to be very few rules to help us determine which zoos, if any, deserve to be called 'good
To begin with, is there really such a thing as a good zoo at all
in the new 'green' millennium'Green Decade' of the nineties? Can zoos really justify their
existence in the light of the new environmental realism that we all have to face, or do
they simply exist to satisfy a rather old fashioned appetite for the curious and the
macabre? Is there really a case for caging animals any more, especially now that we have
television wildlife programmes to satisfy our thirst for knowledge of the wild world, and
we have theme parks to take the family to on a Sunday afternoon? Today we are all becoming
'green consumers'. We have green supermarkets, and green products from washing powder to
petrol. How green are our zoos?
If you begin to ask zoo directors these questions, you will soon
come across a fairly standard reply. Modem zoos, they will explain, are no longer the
consumers of wild animals and the fairground attractions that they once were. Today's zoos
are sanctuaries for rare and endangered animals, they are educators of our children,
teaching us all to love and appreciate the wildlife of our planet, and they are centres of
academic research. Well they would say that, wouldn't they.
The Good Zoo Guide Online aims to discover whether there is any
truth in these claims. Zoos stake a claim to four fundamental objectives - conservation,
education, research, and recreation. But just how these objectives are perceived, and what
emphasis is accorded to each one, varies considerably from zoo to zoo. These days
recreation tends to be considered insufficient justification for depriving animals of
their freedom. Half a century ago it may have been quite acceptable to keep a solitary
animal in close confinement just for our amusement, but perceptions have changed. Today we
expect more of our zoos. We hear of 'Animal Rights'. We think of animals as being
'exploited' - a concept unknown during the formative years of zoos. So we must look
towards conservation, education, and research if we are to justify our modem zoos. But are
these really just a smokescreen, a fiction behind which nothing has really changed?
The Good Zoo Guide Online takes each of these issues in turn,
and explores the way that Zoos are facing up to them. If we take zoos at their face value,
we should be able to judge, albeit subjectively, whether they pay more than lip service to
conservation, education, and research. If they do, then perhaps, just perhaps, they
deserve to be called 'good zoos'.
And surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, depending upon your
prejudices or your point of view, the evidence suggests that there are still plenty of
good zoos. Some of them undoubtedly deserve to be listed among the best zoos in the world.
Others at least deserve more local recognition. The best zoos are bold and innovative.
They are not shackled by the vestigial ideas of the post-war years. They do not believe
that the only way to attract visitors is to keep just the nursery-book species. They
understand that every animal has its own peculiar environmental, behavioural, and
emotional demands, and they design their enclosures accordingly. They understand too that
the human animals, as visitors to the zoo, must have their needs catered to as well. Most
of all they recognise that many of the world's animals are now in imminent danger of
extinction, and that zoos may represent the only way to escape the eternal condemnation of
every future generation of mankind for allowing these unique species to disappear forever.
In a very real sense these zoos are among the 'greenest' institutions in the world.
Many of these issues are complex and controversial. But there is
a growing consensus that there are good zoos. They deserve our patronage, and we in turn
can learn from them, and can gain a great deal of pleasure from visiting them. This guide
attempts to identify those good zoos. Please help by contributing your own zoo
reviews, by sending us zoo guides and zoo literature, and by advertising on our pages.