Maintaining Biodiversity Through Zoos

Cute monkey in a Zoo.

[photo: Volker Gutgessell]

The idea of zoos is not new, the oldest one known is from about 3500 B.C. They were not called zoos but menageries and their purpose was most likely to display how powerful the menagerie owner was and to supply animals for fighting in arenas for entertainment. The zoo as we know it essentially started in the 18th century, again it appears to have been a status symbol. Zoos then became businesses as people were allowed to pay to enter to see exotic animals that they had probably neither seen nor heard of before.

They were known as zoological gardens to begin with and the ‘golden age’ was during the 19th century as explorers returned to England with animals that they had captured from the wild. The word zoo seems to have taken hold in the English language by about the middle of the 1800’s.

Animal welfare in the early zoos was not very good since the animals were held in captivity with the sole purpose of making money for the zoo owners. In the second half of the 20th century, when people began to realise how badly the human race was damaging the natural world, that began to change. London zoo was the first in the world to use moats rather than cages and the first ‘safari park’ style of zoo appeared. The animals were allowed to roam much more freely which was a lot better for them.

Animal welfare in modern zoos is considerably better and is backed up by the power of the law. The nature of zoos is also changing, as well as being in business, they are an important part of world nature conservation programmes. Endangered species are often in danger because of illegal hunting and habitat destruction but breeding animals can be kept safe in zoos and their offspring eventually released back into the wild to boost numbers. Breeding in captivity also keeps the young animals safe from predators, fatal injuries and diseases, increasing their chances of reaching adulthood. Whatever your own views of keeping animals in zoos, they do have an important role in helping to maintain the biodiversity of our planet.

Taught science for 16 years at a secondary school in the East Midlands.