Focus on zoos

David Spratt, ex-London Zoo employee, explains the truth behind the zoo facade and why he crossed the barrier...

So what has driven me to a life of campaigning for captive animals? A career path that started at London Zoo and led to a position with Britain’s and probably the world’s foremost anti-captivity organisation, Born Free. Four factors played a role: a degree in zoology, a background in biomedical science, a respect for our planet and its wildlife, and a quest for the truth.

I had worked in the Veterinary Science Department of London Zoo for eight years when the veil of illusion lifted. Until then I was satisfying a lifelong desire to ‘work with animals’… a phrase so often used by young people who believe their ‘love’ of animals can be satisfied working in an environment where animals are controlled by their captors. For years I believed any criticism of the zoo ethos was based on ignorance. Those who criticised zoos were criticising me and the good I was trying to do. How dare they! But at the back of my mind were doubts. Why were so many animals dying in London Zoo? Why were healthy animals being destroyed? Why were the zoo’s records so closely guarded? And why did the staff complain about lack of resources to care for their animals, when the senior management were so well paid?

One day, heading for lunch in the staff canteen, I passed the orangutans and chimpanzees. As was so common, the orangutan was sitting with a box over its head, back against the viewing window of its cage, trying to ignore the gazes and silly antics of the visitors. A chimp was rushing up and down the length of its cage, apparently annoyed by the crowds. On seeing me it ‘rolled’ saliva in its mouth and, swinging across the cage to build up speed, hit the wire of the cage and spat straight at me. The visitors thought it was hilarious as I ducked to avoid the ball of mucus.

These events, common as they were, suddenly hit me as highly significant. What were we doing to these intelligent creatures to make them behave in such ways? My mind was suddenly opened and I looked with new eyes at the place I worked. To me all the animals became prisoners, devoid of real life and freedom, mere shadows of their true selves confined as living trophies for our benefit. From the smallest creatures in the Invertebrate House to the lumbering giants subjugated in the cramped listed-building that is the Elephant House.


Why am I telling you this? It illustrates a feature of the zoo industry that occupies much of Zoo Check’s time. The issue is secrecy.

Zoos claim to be the saviours of wildlife. That the only hope for our endangered wildlife is to take them into captivity until their wild habitat is re-established and they can be returned to the wild. Zoos claim they protect animals under conditions that will ensure they will be able to survive when one day reintroduced to the wild. But there is growing evidence that animals bred in zoos are genetically altering. They are in fact forced to become best suited to life in a zoo. This is known as ‘speciation’, adapting to a new environment over time. So what hope will there be for these ‘protected’ animals surviving in the wild one day? I would suggest none.


And what about the secrecy? Real conservation means more than breeding animals in captivity, but when did you last see evidence of the reintroduction to the wild of zoo animals? The Golden Lion Tamarin? Most of those monkeys reintroduced soon died. Those animals already there were able to breed and survive, because the forest was protected, supporting our assertion that animals can flourish when protected in the wild.

The Arabian Oryx? Another claimed success by the zoo industry. But a recent Abu Dhabi symposium stated the population has been severely reduced by poaching. The 11 remaining females have been taken back into captivity. It is obvious to anyone (except the advocates of the zoo philosophy) that without protecting animals and their natural habitats there is no hope for species conservation.

The animal welfare and conservation information coming out of the zoo publicity machine is flawed, and designed to keep the industry in business. So what of the other claimed role of zoos? What about education? To many, education is not about learning facts. It is about being given the mental ‘tools’ to investigate our world and draw conclusions. To recognise that wild animals are adapted to live in their natural environments, not in zoo cages. To look at the way we treat other emotional, social and sensitive creatures and ask if this is acceptable in a civilised society.

If we are prepared to tell our children it is OK to keep a ‘free spirit’ in a cage for our benefit then we are doing them a disservice. It is a hollow justification to suggest ‘this is the only way my child will be able to see these animals’. If we tried to bring the Taj Mahal to Regents Park in London, because some of us could not afford to visit India, there would be an outcry. Why do we therefore impose our wishes on animals? They are much more than blocks of stone, however beautifully carved.