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Zoo Animal Welfare

Wild animals are kept in zoological gardens (zoos), for reasons of education, conservation, research and public entertainment. It is difficult to estimate the total number of wild animals housed in zoos across the world since the definition of zoo varies between different countries. Additionally, there may or may not be a statutory system in place that requires zoos to record the type and number of wild animals housed. However, there are many non-governmental organisations that hold data on a subset of zoos e.g. World Zoo and Aquarium Association (WAZA), British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). Membership is usually voluntary, however, therefore these organisations only represent a small portion of the total number of zoos worldwide.  Species360 is the organisation with the most members (approximately 1100 members across 93 countries) and their member institutions house over 2.6 million animals - where animals include both individuals and groups. A group is considered to be a collection of animals that would not be managed individually, eg an ant colony, and would be given a count of one in the Species360 figures. 

In the United Kingdom (UK) a zoo is defined as an establishment which houses wild animals and allows the public access to view the animals seven or more days in a twelve-month period (not including pet shops or circuses). It is estimated that there are over 300 zoos in the UK (Animal and Plant Health Agency 2018, personal communication, February 22). Under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, zoos require a licence and must be managed in accordance with the Standards of Modern Zoo Practice, which include details of how to keep and care for animals. However, not all countries have legislation in place to protect the welfare of animals in zoos and across the world the standard of care that zoo animals receive varies considerably.

According to WAZA (who have over 330 member zoos and aquariums across more than 50 countries), ensuring good animal welfare is considered to be a ‘core activity’ for their member institutions. However, this is not always easy to achieve - ensuring good welfare of captive wild animals poses particular problems due to the diversity of species, taxa and classes kept and their attendant variety of needs. Additionally, the (relatively) small numbers of each type of animal kept in captivity and the range of husbandry practices and housing types can add further complications.

Within the European Union, Council Directive 1999/22/EC, adopted in 1999, sought to strengthen the conservation and biodiversity role of zoos within EU countries and increasingly zoos are being required to provide better justification regarding the choices of animals and individuals that they choose to keep for conservation, education and display reasons. These choices also need to take into account animal welfare. In order to address the complex challenges associated with keeping captive wild animals – and to ensure their welfare – it is important to continue to use science. It is through science that we can further understand the biology of a species and what matters to individual animals, and then use this information to inform good practice in zoos around the world.

Through its programme of grants and awards, and by highlighting and disseminating findings and best practice, UFAW has been active in advancing the welfare of zoo animals for many years. Further information about some of the complex challenges that occur when dealing with captive wild animals is given below, including examples of UFAW’s work in improving zoo animal welfare.

  1.  Identifying and understanding zoo animal needs
  2. Environmental enrichment in captive environments
  3. Education, guidance and legislation in the UK and overseas