Kirsty Matthews examines society’s ambivalence towards zoos

Zoos have always been a bit of a sore spot for me. On the one hand I am fascinated by the animals, and love being able to see such beautiful creatures up close. On the other, I am very aware of how small their enclosures can be and how unlike their natural habitat it is (particularly when you are watching tigers in Edinburgh in the middle of winter). Ultimately I found myself wondering is it really worth having all these animals locked up simply so we can have a nosy at them for a few hours? I think the answer is both yes and no.

Last summer I spent several weeks at Edinburgh Zoo, helping with research at the Living Links Research Centre, which is a field station for the University of St Andrews in partnership with the zoo. It houses two groups of brown capuchin monkeys and squirrel monkeys, who were the subjects of the many experiments that run there throughout the year. The monkeys willingly took part in the experiments, and appeared to find them interesting, and even enjoyable. Similar research is also taking place at the Budongo trail, where the chimpanzees are housed. Both sets of enclosures are relatively large and set up to provide as natural a setting as possible, as obviously this is important for both the animals and the research. The public have the opportunity to watch the research being carried out as well as being given an explanation as to what is going on and its importance. It is arrangements like this that are so important for science-public relations: providing the public with opportunity to see firsthand how the research is carried out, giving scientists a chance to educate the public on why the research is significant as well as the importance of looking after the animals. In fact, the Budongo trail is arranged to educate people about the work occurring at the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda.

Researchers, the public and both the monkeys and chimpanzees do seem to benefit in some way from the arrangement. While the animals are enclosed, they are provided with plenty of stimulation and have great care taken of them and we humans are able to benefit from the study of their behaviour.

My concern extends to the other animals; as they are not involved in research, they do not have the same funding put into their welfare. The keepers clearly care for the animals, but the housing for many of them is fairly basic, and most definitely nothing like their natural habitat.

There is a ray of hope in panda form however. While there has been the suggestion that the cost of the pandas will be a ‘giant’ waste of money that could have been better spent on conservation, I disagree. I believe that there is still much to be gained from their stay. To begin with, visitor numbers have apparently risen 200% since their arrival in December, which means more money for the zoo and therefore more money which should be used improving the upkeep of the rest of the animal housing. More public interest also means more opportunities to educate the community on the importance of conservation, increasing the chances of donations and sponsorships.  As such, I believe there is still profit to be gained, despite the hefty panda price-tag.

Ultimately, zoos are always going to be controversial places, and many may never meet the standards that they should regarding animal welfare. But for those that do, I think they play an important part in educating the public about the importance of research and conservation.


Kirsty Matthews

Image – Kirsty Matthews