…How should we feel about Zoos? (photo essay)

As a vegetarian, I feel weird about liking zoos. Should I? Should I be advocating for them or standing up against them?

All photos, unless stated, used here are by me on 35mm film, no edits and no filters – see @35mmbee on Instagram.


London, UK

Penguin blink

London Zoo, run by the charity ZSL (Zoological Society of London), is my most visited zoo. Living in London is obviously a big factor, but I’m also fully clued up on the work that ZSL do as a charity.

The money that’s made at the zoo, through visitors and other overpriced foods and gifts, goes towards conservation projects such as the “back from the brink” project, which supports projects like the Wildcats Conservation Alliance. The WCA is helping protect big cats like the Amur Lepoards. There are fewer than 80 Amur leopards left in the wild, which makes this the most endangered big cat in the world.

Lashes on point

But what about the animals that live at the zoo? It can’t be great for them, can it? Wouldn’t their natural environments be better for them? Some animals are, in fact, bred in the zoo and then reintroduced into the wild. But of course, this isn’t always appropriate. The “captive population” of some species (such as the aforementioned Amur Leopards) provide an opportunity for zoologists to study and research these animals who would otherwise go extinct.

I guess the part I wonder about is the animals that could easily survive in the wild and aren’t being studied or researched as a part of conservation. Can I reconcile this feeling?


Here, I turn to ZSL’s “priorities”. Two of their visions are to ‘inspire future generations’ and ‘inform the world’. And if you’ve ever been to London or Whipsnade Zoo, it’s hard to argue that they’re not fulfilling those. Children are everywhere and each and every one is looking at animals that they would have never seen or learnt about if they hadn’t been in captivity. Is that a good enough reason to keep animals that could otherwise have a life outside of the zoo? I’m afraid I’m undecided.

As an Kantian style empiricist I suppose I do only believe that real knowledge comes from experience, but is a generation of children’s knowledge worth more than the potential happiness of thousands of animals? And how do we know they’re not happy? If they’ve never known the outside, does it matter? I believe it does, but again, I’m unsure to what extent.

Even as someone with a bird phobia, I was pretty impressed by this pair

Budapest Zoo

Budapest, Hungary

A happy humper

Recently, my SO and I visited Budapest for my 30th birthday. On the last day of our trip (in super hot weather) we went to the zoo.

The Budapest Zoo website isn’t as flashy as ZSL and you have to dig a little deeper to find their aims and visions. However, they are also working towards conservation projects and 34 EEP species (European Endangered Species Programme) – and no, I don’t know why it’s not EESP – and they are connected with WWF Hungary and other zoos around Europe.

Guy in the middle showing everyone else up

Traditionally, Budapest Hungary has worked on rescuing sick, injured or orphaned birds. The Quarantine and Nature Conservation Rescue Centre was opened in 1996, the ‘House of Life and Death’ in 1997, the New Veterinary Clinic in 2005, all of them for increasing the quality of zoo-animal keeping and giving more possibility for the wild animals being repatriated. This is the kind of work that zoos should be proud of. They also take part in international rescue missions, which is how some of the penguins came to the zoo.

Bear kiss

As I mentioned, this particular trip was very hot – so when we went to visit the “arctic” part of the zoo, I was taken aback by the polar bears apparent chilled-out-ness. The two brothers, who were brought over from Moscow Zoo in 2017, were bred in the zoo as part of the EEP – so have never seen outside of a zoo environment. I suppose the starkness of how different their lives would be if they were in their natural environment is great because of how hot it was, but even so, the lack of snow and ice makes them stick out.


ZSL and Budapest Zoo aren’t where we should be worried. I’m not going to post any pictures of the zoos that you’ve probably seen before: depriving the animals of care, love and attention, not to mention food. Then there’s the abuse: using animals for “entertainment”. But does this mean we should completely get rid of zoos altogether? I think not – but please do your research. If you’re visiting a zoo you haven’t before, do a quick Google before you visit.

If you’re still unsure, and you’re in the USA, check with the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) to see if it is accredited; here’s a list of the currently accredited zoos you can consult. Unfortunately, there’s nothing worldwide to check, but at least this is a start.

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One thought on “…How should we feel about Zoos? (photo essay)

  1. a good write.

    zoos can be a double edged sword. they were first designed to show people animals from around the world that “explorers” captured so as to have others see what they may never have the chance to see.

    most zoos, those that became well known so to speak, turned into more of a place to rescue animals and their habitat and to keep as many alive in their natural area.

    you brought up some great points about animals. we as humans keep all sorts of animals as pets.

    i feel, that most of the well known and repeatable zoos collect money to help the wild animals stay wild. i guess the statement…sacrificing the few to save the many, maybe how one can see zoos and wild animals parks.

    i live near the san diego, ca zoo and wild animal park and they promote themselves as trying to conserve the wildlife. also, the los angeles zoo was instrumental in the saving of the california condor.

    i guess we have to take some of the bad for the good.


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