Do zoos have a place in today's society?

The Talk Science event at Gailes Hotel last night didn’t so much answer the question as explore why people ask it and what is important about the debate.

An enthusiastic audience attended this most recent public talk in the Talk Science series which is run by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in Partnership with Irvine Bay. Prof Mary Bownes, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Vice Principal of the University of Edinburgh, explored the history of zoos and some of the arguments for and against zoos today.



Mary introduced herself as a developmental biologist who, having run a successful lab, had more recently chosen to focus on making universities as accessible as possible to the widest possible range of people. She has worked closely with schools, preparing materials on subjects such as evolution and the ethics surrounding stem cell research. Her role as Vice Principal included helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds get to university.

What did she have to say?  Here are a few of the points that Mary made in her presentation that grabbed our attention:

Zoos were made popular by the Victorians

When many of our zoos were set up they were regarded as a place to observe exotic animals in much the same way plants were kept in botanical gardens. At one point she asked us to consider how disconcerting and distressing it would be to keep a lion in a cage opposite a zebra. Both, for their different reasons, would be constantly stressed by the presence of the other. Today, far more is understood about how animals live in the wild and therefore they can be looked after better in zoos.

Talkscience Marybowes

It’s a balancing act!

While zoos usually see their main aims as conservation, research and education, they are also commercial organisations that need to attract visitors in order to be profitable. Keeping animals is exceedingly expensive with over £130,000 spent just on fruit at Edinburgh zoo in 2015!

An example of the balancing act is weighing up visitors expectations with what is best for the animals.  Providing animals with a place to hide and sleep conflicts with the visitors' desire to see them.

People benefit from interaction with animals

There is research that shows that people benefit from interaction with animals. We simply feel better for spending time with them in the outdoors.

Should zoos only keep endangered species?

Over 50% of the species kept at Edinburgh zoo are species that are threatened and the work that zoos are doing contributes very significantly to conservation so that sometimes animals can be reintroduced to the wild. Other questions about which species to keep  are important too – with increasing understanding of primate’s behaviour the ethics of keeping animals that share so much in common with humans is an important part of the debate.

Zoos are involved in conservation projects across the globe… including Scotland.

As well as the activities that take place at the zoos themselves, research is carried out around the world. Mary used a project in Budongo, Uganda as an example, where chimps are being threatened by local farmers who are trying to make a living from the land. She also spoke about a project at the Highland Wildlife Park, part of RZSS, to conserve Scotland’s wild cat.

We should look after animals well

As we learn more about animals’ natural social groups and how they live in the wild we can care for them better in zoos. Research projects such as the chimps project in Uganda continually helps zoos to refine how they treat animals

There’s lots we still don’t know!

Mary showed an image of a monkey caring for a small dog that she had adopted. What was the motivation?  To protect the vulnerable animal from harm? To have it as a pet? To have it as a surrogate child? She pointed out that we still did not know enough about what motivated primates to answer that question.

While she stopped short of expressing a definitive answer to the question “Do zoos have a place in today’s society”, she explained how she had set up a strategic partnership between the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who run Edinburgh zoo and talked about the many benefits of the two organisations working together on research, conservation and education. Now in semi-retirement she sits on the board of the RZSS, so we will draw our own conclusions. Leaving the question hanging enabled the audience to ask their own questions and there was interesting debate about keeping exotic animals as pets and animals performing “tricks”. A parting question, thrown in by Mary was, “If we close down zoos, where would the animals go?”  The majority of animals in zoos today were bred in zoos and would be unable to survive in the wild.

Chairing the event, Patrick Wiggins commented that the question had attracted plenty of interest on the Irvine Bay facebook page. Amongst the conversations about the ethics of keeping animals in cages were questions about the relevance of the question to regeneration at Irvine Bay.  The talk is one of series of the Talk Science public lectures and part of a wider education programme which aims to help local young people recognise the opportunities for careers in the science sector.