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A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post all about the biggest zoos in the UK. At the time I needed to come up with a quick way of separating out zoos and safari parks. I also realised that I don’t think of theme parks with Animals as zoos, I think of them as theme parks! This all got me thinking… what even is a zoo?

Why do definitions matter?

Before I try to answer the question I wanted to take a moment to talk through why definitions matter. The first answer that comes to mind is that clear definitions allow us to communicate with better understanding. If I include an aquarium in my big zoo map but I don’t include a local petting zoo I’d want people to know that I’m not just being fickle!

There is a lot of science performed in zoos which can be used to help populations in the wild (and vice versa). In this context it becomes very important to have a shared language about the different kinds of places animals are kept. For example, animals in a theme park will be subject to a lot more noise than those kept in a safari park. In this case just using the word zoo to describe both could be misleading if you are trying to study the effect of noise levels on animal behaviour.

Then there is the law. A zoo in the UK needs a licence to operate which means lawyers and zoo owners need to know if an animal collection counts as a zoo. If a farm offers tours is it now a zoo and does it need a licence? What if that farm includes an ostrich? Without clear legal definitions of zoos, it would be difficult for local authorities to apply fair and consistent regulations.

What do we usually mean when we say “zoo”?

I actually asked this question to my in-laws recently and got a variety of answers. Maybe somewhere that charges an entrance fee to see a collection of animals? How about somewhere that has animals from different geographic regions? Does it have to be a place which educates people?

When someone says zoo to me I think of a large park with lots of exotic animals in enclosures. Typically I imagine it as a mainly outdoor experience which I walk around.

This all describes the ‘standard’ zoos which we were taken to as a child. These are places where there would be no ambiguity about whether or not a place needs a zoo licence. It even likely has the word zoo in the title like Blackpool Zoo or London Zoo.

This general idea of a conventional zoo is a bit vague when it comes to things like safari parks or aquariums. It’s in this grey area that clear definitions come in really helpful.

What isn’t a zoo?

When trying to come up with a definition a good starting point is to look at what you want to exclude. I can think of five different types of animal collections which we could all agree wouldn’t come under the category of zoo…

Animal Rehabilitation Centres vs Zoos

Around the UK there are a number of animal rehabilitation centres. These are places which take in injured or orphaned wild animals and try to get them well enough to be released back into the wild. Even though it is a collection of animals in captivity (albeit temporarily) there is one main reason why it doesn’t count as a zoo… you can’t go and see the animals. I think one of the main requirements of a zoo should be that the public can go and see the animals. In an animal rehabilitation centre you have a number of already stressed animals which won’t take kindly to having visitors walking past and chatting loudly whilst peering into their enclosures.

Private Animal Collections vs Zoos

No one would suggest you need a zoo licence if you have a pet dog. It makes no sense. Then what about if you had a pet parrot? We’d still say this was 100% not a zoo.

Let’s make the question a bit harder. Now what about if you had a collection of 20 different exotic birds in a large aviary you had built in your back garden (this is actually more common than you think for falconry hobbyists in the UK). We already have an answer that if the public can’t see it then it isn’t a zoo. Its just an animal collection.

Now lets make it a bit harder again. What if you own a large private stately home in the UK and have a collection of falcons on your grounds. On the first weekend in June you have an open weekend and people can come in for a small fee and look around your gardens and your bird collection. Now you have the public looking round your exotic animal collection. Surely now you are a running a zoo?

One of the things we need to allow for is that it would be a huge amount of effort to get an animal collection licensed if it was for only one day a year. Along these lines I think the definition has to include some element of open for the public for more than a minimum number of days. In this case it clearly isn’t the main business of the house to show exotic animals.

Open Farms vs Zoos

There are a number of farms which allow people to go on a farm tour. Here we have the public paying to go and look at a collection of animals through the year so maybe this is a zoo?

At this point we have to get a little more nuanced with our definition… When we hear the word “zoo” we don’t think of cows and sheep. We think of lions and tigers. I think we should take this into account in our definition and make sure that it references a collection of exotic animals as opposed to just any animals.

This means that a normal farm which decides to let the public in wouldn’t be counted as a zoo. On the other hand, if the farm was focussed on emu, ostrich and alligator meat then it might fall in the definition of a zoo but it is a much more difficult question. I think it would come down to whether the main income of the farm came from its farming practice or its visitor numbers.

Circus vs Zoos

With a circus the public are paying to see exotic animals on a large number of days in the year. The main difference is that the animals are performing tricks rather than being left in their own enclosures.

Most zoos have animal talks and a lot of bird parks have flight displays. The act of animals performing for humans is something we have in our conventional zoo so we can’t rule it out straight away.

I think a key element of this has to be that in a circus you never see the animal in its enclosure, you only see during the show. For me that is a crucial difference which rules out the circus with animals from being called a zoo.

Pet Shops vs Zoos

A pet shop is probably the most difficult place in this list to clearly articulate why it isn’t a zoo. It allows the public to see a number of exotic animals. The public can visit on most days in the year. The animals are in the same kind of enclosures they would be in the zoo (especially in fish shops). It is starting to sound very much like a zoo!

We could try and say that a zoo has to charge entry but it could be feasible for a zoo to make money by selling concessions and allowing free access. Up until 10 years ago Lotherton Hall was a fantastic exotic bird park which is definitely a zoo but was subsidised by the council so admission was free.

There are also pet shops with incredible displays of animals not for sale. I know that my local fish shop has a huge display aquarium that is much larger some of the ones in the local Askham Bryan wildlife park.

I think we could safely say that if an establishment sells any live animals it is a pet shop and not a zoo. I don’t think we can be any more clever than this.

What is the government’s definition of a zoo?

We already have a licensing system in the UK and so the government has already had to create a definition. I think it’s actually pretty good and covers a lot of the points I’ve already talked about.

According to the Zoo Licensing Act of 1981 as zoo is “an establishment where wild animals are kept for exhibition to the public otherwise than for purposes of a circus and otherwise than in a pet shop”. It also states that the condition that the “public have access, with or without charge for admission, on seven days or more in any period of twelve consecutive months”.

Here they just specifically exclude circuses and pet shops rather than actually trying to change the definition. They also define “wild” later in the act as “animals not normally domesticated in Great Britain”.

What is my definition of a zoo?

I think the government definition is good but I would add a few extra bits to the end so you don’t need to single out circuses and pet shops.

  • A zoo is a place where exotic animals are kept for people to look at.
  • A zoo must be open to the public for more than seven days a year.
  • A zoo must show animals behaving naturally i.e. without human stimuli.
  • A zoo must not regularly sell any of the animals in its collection nor should they regularly sell the produce from those animals.

My first two points are in line with the government’s definition. For me a zoo has to contain exotic animals and it has to be open to the public.

I think the idea that animals can be seen behaving naturally is really important. A zoo is very different to a circus. The best way to make this distinction is to say you must be able to see the animals going about their day without a human manipulating their behaviour. In captivity animals may have fewer choices but the key point is that they are free to choose any of those choices (eat, sleep, play, roar) at any time.

The final bullet point has an element of judgement. I’m not saying a zoo can never sell animals. If a zoo had a deer park and the deer were culled, it would be perfectly reasonable to sell venison burgers. Also, if a zoo had a surplus of giraffe and rich billionaire was willing to create a giraffe reserve and give them a great life, why shouldn’t a zoo sell of surplus giraffe? The issue is one of scale. As soon as a zoo starts to make a business of selling live animals, or farming the dead ones, then I think they have moved away from what a zoo should be.

Is a definition enough?

The title of this post is “What is a zoo?”. I’ve read a lot of material for this post and I’ve written two thousand words so far.

The thing is, whilst I’ve been writing and researching, I’ve had a niggling feeling that this kind of legal definition isn’t enough. It’s useful and interesting to think about, but it feels too much like a cold instrument used for chopping the world into different categories. I think there is a better way to define a zoo.

A zoo is a place where animals and humans can meet face to face. Where a child can look into the eyes of an elephant which is 250 times heavier than she is. Where a spark of inspiration can be struck that can lead to a lifetime of caring for nature.

A zoo is a place where experts can come together to help protect the future of a species. A place where we can study animals and better understand how to help them in the wild. Where we can conserve the last remaining members of a species in the hope that one day they can go back into the wild.

A zoo is a place where we can teach people about the creatures that share their world. Somewhere that shows people why we should be saving the planet. Somewhere that shows them what we stand to lose lose if we don’t.

Any one of these definitions is more true to what a zoo is than anything written above. They may not be black and white but maybe zoos are just too colourful for that!

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