Opinion: Why we need to communicate differently about zoos

Many people are unaware of the damage caused by keeping wild animals caged up. Vicki Brown of Responsible Travel explains how it educated itself to educate the public

In 2017, Responsible Travel developed a new policy on zoos, as we wanted to support only captive wildlife facilities which existed for the genuine benefit of the animals, rather than being first and foremost tourist attractions.

We have removed all zoos from our site, and now only feature sanctuaries and rescue and rehabilitation centres. We only support captive breeding programmes if the species is classified as endangered by the IUCN.

Creating this policy involved educating ourselves on this complex subject, and understanding the challenges of keeping wildlife in captivity – whether because it had been rescued, injured, bred in captivity or otherwise.

We spoke to NGOs, read reports and carried out an audit of most of the 5,000+ holidays on our website to ensure that all attractions featured in our itineraries complied with our new guidelines.

This was a huge task, but perhaps the most difficult part is ongoing: communicating to our member tour operators and – more importantly – to our customers about how we reached this conclusion, and why it is so important.

We feature trips to almost every country in the world, including many that have popular captive wildlife attractions, but we are still a relatively small voice; for real change to occur, public opinion needs to shift.

Many people are unaware of the damage caused by zoos, or at the very least of the lack of benefits created by them.

And others still have heard the messages, but have ignored them, for reasons explored below.

Here are three of the biggest issues we have come up against while campaigning for an end to unethical captive wildlife facilities.

First, the majority of zoos and other captive wildlife attractions are extremely clever in their marketing.

They lead the public to believe that they contribute to conservation, and that many of the species they house are endangered.

They present themselves as education centres, where school children can come and learn about a variety of wildlife, and develop a love of the natural world.

Many breed animals, and claim that this is necessary to ensure the future of the species.

It is a compelling message, and it also plays on the fact that most people who visit zoos would definitely describe themselves as “animal lovers”.

The visitors want – and need – to believe that these claims are true, in order to justify seeing animals in captivity.

Second, almost everyone has visited a captive animal attraction, at home or abroad.

Even most Responsible Travel staff have visited a zoo, a safari park, or an aquarium at some point in their lives.

Some have ridden elephants in Nepal; others watched dolphins performing tricks at the Brighton Dolphinarium that used to exist just a few minutes away from our office.

This widespread popularity means that when we discuss the cruel nature of these facilities, our customers – the animal lovers – are made to feel guilty, and can get defensive. This is no way to open a conversation.

Finally, there is the very real issue of what to do with the animals if zoos and aquariums close.

The vast majority of captive wildlife can never be released into the wild; they have lost (or never developed) their natural instincts enabling them to hunt for food or watch out for predators.

Equally as concerning, their habituation to humans can mean they may stray dangerously close to towns, roads and poachers.

This is the “last resort” argument that has been used by many zoos: there is nowhere else for the animals to go.

At Responsible Travel, we first aimed to debunk the myths about conservation.

We ensured we were well informed by referring to firsthand documents such as the report from the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as well as the Born Free Foundation’s EU Zoo Inquiry.

These revealed that zoos rarely commit more three percent of their expenditure on field conservation, and that just 10 percent of animals in zoos are actually endangered.

Caged animals do not display natural behaviours; can viewing them ever be said to be educational?

We commissioned an independent survey which demonstrated that mist zoo visitors were not aware of the lack of conservation activities carried out by zoos. This clearly needed to be spelled out, publicly.

When it came to conveying this information, we were not interested in stirring up feelings of guilt or apportioning blame.

What’s the point of feeling remorse about our ten-year-old selves enjoying a day at the zoo? And an adult who genuinely believes the myths about conservation and saving species can also not be blamed.

Additionally, it would have been highly hypocritical of Responsible Travel to do this, as we had previously featured a small number of zoos and other captive animal facilities on our site.

So – we approached the subject sensitively, humbly, without pointing fingers, and being honest about our own change of heart, too. It is the zoo owners that need to be held to account, not the general public.

As the information spreads, however, with newspapers running stories on mass animal deaths in zoos, TripAdvisor no longer selling tickets to certain attractions, the “but I didn’t know!” excuse will soon wear thin.

Just as tiger selfies and elephant rides are becoming more taboo on Facebook, we believe the tide will soon turn against zoos, too, and people will need to take responsibility for their own actions.

There is an attitude amongst some travellers – often displayed in TripAdvisor reviews, for example – that “I know it’s not right, but it’s what you do when you’re on holiday, isn’t it?”

Here, social media is proving to be a double edged sword. On one hand, it encourages people to go after ever more thrilling shots of themselves petting tigers and feeding monkeys.

But on the other, it means that what happens in Thailand no longer stays in Thailand.

“What you do when you’re on holiday” is now also being judged by those back home.

It may have been fun to be “kissed” by a caged giraffe, but we now have to consider whether or not this photo will look quite so amusing when held up to the scrutiny of Instagram and Twitter.

Regarding the issue of where the animals will go, there is a variety of options. Some species can be transferred to reserves, where they live in semi wild conditions but are still fed daily and treated by vets.

There are also examples of former zoos which have now been turned into sanctuaries; no breeding takes place and no new animals are brought in.

Responsible Travel completely accepts that this is not a short term issue; it will take years, maybe decades, for zoos to finally close their gates for good.

But unless we take that important first step in trying to educate people, gently yet truthfully, they may never close at all.

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