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Zoos: does the legal framework protect animals?

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Zoos are a key tourist magnet; in 2019 according to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), BIAZA member zoos alone contributed £658 million to the UK economy.

Whilst benefiting from this economic boost, the UK prides itself on prioritising animal welfare, but how are animals within zoos protected from harm? And can zoos provide benefits to the animals they keep in captivity? Guest writer Lucy Brundish aims to answer these questions.


Excluding circuses and pet shops, a zoo is defined as any public exhibit of animals for any week within a year. Although the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 apply to the treatment of all animals under the control of humans, running a zoo requires a specific licence. Obtaining and keeping a zoo licence requires meeting the conditions outlined in the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, in conjunction with the subsequent 2012 Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

Under the conditions there now must be an external inspection twice yearly to ensure compliance; breaching regulations can result in the closure of a zoo, as a result of the revocation of its licence.

Main Protections

The ZLA and the Modern Zoo Standards set out the basic necessities which zoos must provide to their animals, including considerations regarding:

  • Fresh, accessible and appropriate food and water for each animal.

  • Hygienic, suitable indoor/outdoor environments, with special consideration for vulnerable (especially pregnant/newborn) animals.

Included in the necessary care of animals is medical treatment, which should be available by a trained veterinarian. Additionally, in case of health issues, zoos must have a delegated member of staff qualified to make decisions surrounding euthanasia. Animals must also be routinely (at least twice daily) observed to ensure welfare. Importantly, these necessities posit the safety of animals, staff and visitors as a top priority.

Alongside these basic physical needs, the requirements cover the “psychological needs” of the animals in captivity. The standards address the issues which zoos may cause to animals’ mental well-being and try to restrict harmful behaviours. For example,

“[direct contact between visitors and animals] must only be for restricted periods of time and under conditions consistent with animal welfare, and not likely to lead to their discomfort.”

Other considerations

Zoos holding a licence must take part in one of several opportunities to further our knowledge of animals or benefit a species. For example: “participating in research from which conservation benefits accrue to the species” or “training in relevant conservation skills”. There is an overlapping requirement both to keep records of animals for safety and for education of the general public. However, zoos only have to meet a minimum requirement (e.g. education through listing the names and genus of animals). Thus the overall benefit which this research provides to the wider animal kingdom is questionable. The need to aid research, however, does change with the “scope of any collection”, meaning that larger zoos with more developed facilities should undertake more comprehensive research.

The requirements also set out that there must be “some form of ethical review process” independent from the zoo itself. Although the extent to which “some form” of this process would drive change is questionable, there is a clear awareness of the ethicality behind keeping animals captive.

Do these requirements sufficiently cover animal welfare?

Although the framework addresses the fundamental issue of animals “confined for long periods in indoor areas”, the steps taken towards reducing the harm caused by this confinement will be limited. Evidently, even surpassing minimum requirements (food, water and enclosures),will not reflect the quality of life felt within a natural habitat. Instead, the requirements are limited to an attempt to help animals “express most normal behaviour.”

The requirements aim to prevent animal maltreatment within zoos and present the idea of benefits through conservation and research. However, there can be no debate that confinement will create a reduction in the quality of life for the animals in captivity. Notably, the current law does not encompass emerging issues. For example, Toronto Zoo has recently asked visitors not to show their phones to animals, as one adolescent gorilla became antisocial due to regularly being exposed to social media/videos. Legislation needs to anticipate what animal welfare and protection will look like in the twenty-first century and update accordingly.

Getting Advice

This blog post is not legal advice. For more information on the services Advocates for Animals offers please contact

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