European zoos are failing animals and conservation says EU report

Posted: 24 April 2012

Across Europe, zoos are doing little to guarantee the biological and conservation needs of animals,  a comprehensive EU enquiry has found.

Lovech Zoo, Bulgaria
Example of an enclosure in Lovech Zoo, Bulgaria, which does not meet the basic biological and behavioural needs of the Jaguar (Panthera onca). Photo credit: Born Free

A new exhibition, opening today at the European Parliament, highlights the findings of The EU Zoo Inquiry, which confirms that across the European Union there has been a systemic failure by governments and enforcement agencies to ensure that Europe’s zoos are meeting their legal obligations, as required by the EC Zoos Directive. The Inquiry says most European zoos are failing in their legal obligations to species conservation, public education and animal welfare, as required by national and international legislation.

As a result, thousands of animals in hundreds of zoos are being kept in poor to appalling living conditions that fail to meet their welfare needs. The findings indicate that none of the 20 countries surveyed are without fault.

Virginia McKenna
Virginia McKenna, founder of Born Free.

The actress and animal advocate, Virginia McKenna, speaking at today’s launch said “To date, and despite the European Zoos Directive, wild animals in captivity have been largely marginalised. However, I hope this exhibition and the findings of The EU Zoo Inquiry will ensure animals in European zoos are no longer forgotten.”

Ambiguous directive

Daniel Turner, spokesperson for the enquiry, said that it had taken 3 years, evidence from an assessment of 200 zoos in 20 EU countries, “to come to the incontrovertible conclusion that the zoos across Europe are neither meeting expectations nor the legal standards required of them, and that the EC Zoos Directive is not being adequately applied.”

Onesti Zoo, Romania
Onesti Zoo, Romania. Bar-biting is an abnormal behaviour often arising as a consequence of an impoverished environment. Photo © Born Free/John Knight

Since 2005, all zoos in EU Member States have been required to meet the basic requirements of EC Directive 1999/22 and, through a licensing and inspection process, implement a series of measures to conserve biodiversity, educate the public and maintain their animals in conditions that meet their species-specific needs.

Although the Directive has been transposed into law in each Member State, these national laws often lack detailed provisions to sufficiently protect individual animals, conserve species and encourage meaningful public education, the review found. The 20 separate investigations (published on, confirm that the majority of European countries rely almost exclusively on the relatively ambiguous requirements of the Directive, leading to widespread non-compliance and continued sub-standard levels of animal care.

Since the investigations, the EU says that many Member States are already making necessary changes to their zoo laws and planning. And the European Commission has decided to develop a Preferred Code of Practice relating to zoo regulation. Animal welfare training for veterinarians is also being delivered with Commission support. It regards these is important first steps to improve matters.

Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation, the NGO which fully-funded and initiated The EU Zoo Inquiry, welcomed the news, but expressed the need for caution, “We have worked to improve the provisions for animals in zoos for over 20 years, including undertaking the first review of European zoos in the late 1980s. Although there have been some improvements, overall, the widespread neglect, deprivation and suffering I saw then still endure today.

Polish zoo sign
Example of signage in Poland, which meets the best practice criteria. Photo credit Born Free

“The EU Zoo Inquiry provides incontrovertible evidence that the impoverished quality of public education that was so prevalent all those years ago is still widespread. This report also reveals that the promises of a commitment to conservation made by Europe’s many thousands of zoos remains, in far too many cases, just that – a dream.”

Born Free is calling for the European Parliament to support a requirement for EU countries to greatly improve standards.