When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Already a subscriber? Log in .

You've reached your limit of one free article.

Get unlimited access to Worldcrunch

You can cancel anytime .


Exclusive International news coverage

Ad-free experience NEW

Weekly digital Magazine NEW

9 daily & weekly Newsletters

Access to Worldcrunch archives

Free trial

30-days free access, then $2.90
per month.

Annual Access BEST VALUE

$19.90 per year, save $14.90 compared to monthly billing.save $14.90.

Subscribe to Worldcrunch

A Naturalist's Defense Of The Modern Zoo

Zoos are often associated with animal cruelty, or at the very least a general animal unhappiness. But on everything from research to education to biodiversity, there is a case to be made for the modern zoo.

Photograph of a brown monkey holding onto a wired fence

A brown monkey hangs off of mesh wire

Marina Chocobar/Pexels
Fran Sánchez Becerril


MADRID — Zoos — or at least something resembling the traditional idea of a zoo — date back to ancient Mesopotamia. It was around 3,500 BC when Babylonian kings housed wild animals such as lions and birds of prey in beautiful structures known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Ancient China also played a significant role in the history of zoos when the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) created several parks which hosted an assortment of animals.

In Europe, it wouldn't be until 1664 when Louis XIV inaugurated the royal menagerie at Versailles. All these spaces shared the mission of showcasing the wealth and power of the ruler, or simply served as decorations. Furthermore, none of them were open to the general public; only a few fortunate individuals, usually the upper classes, had access.

The first modern zoo, conceived for educational purposes in Vienna, opened in 1765. Over time, the educational mission has become more prominent, as the exhibition of exotic animals has been complemented with scientific studies, conservation and the protection of threatened species.

For decades, zoos have been places of leisure, wonder, and discovery for both the young and the old. Despite their past success, in recent years, society's view of zoos has been changing due to increased awareness of animal welfare, shifting sensibilities and the possibility of learning about wild animals through screens. So, many people wonder: What is the purpose of a zoo in the 21st century?

Legal responsibilities for zoos

First of all, it's important to remember that in Europe, it has been decades since wild animals have been captured for zoos. Today, most animals come through European breeding projects from other parks, with the intention of preserving the species. The other specimens are animals that had been on the brink of death, abandoned or had ended up in parks after being rescued from illegal trafficking.

But what does the law say? The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity includes zoological conservation: "The conservation of components of biological diversity outside their natural habitats."

Zoos also serve important roles in conservation, research, and education.

Each country has its own laws. For instance, in Spain, the Law on the Conservation of Wildlife in Zoos was born in 2003 in "a context of great social concern for the environment and animal welfare, [and] imposes new environmental requirements on zoos," as stated in a report by the country's Ministry of the Environment.

The document points out that the novelty in this law "lies in the contribution that zoos can make to the conservation of biodiversity by incorporating conservation measures into their activities. Referring to different aspects such as health and animal welfare, study and research, public education, and safety, all measures must be oriented towards a primary goal: the protection of wildlife and the conservation of biodiversity."

Photograph of a white tiger lying down on cement in its enclosure.

A white tiger lying down in its enclosure

Angel Luciano/Unsplash

Scientific value of zoos

And what do the zoos say? Dr. Javier Almunia, a biologist and director of the Loro Parque Foundation, argues in a conversation with El Español that modern zoos should follow very specific lines of action: rescuing animals in trouble, raising social awareness about environmental issues, conserving endangered species, and conducting scientific research to expand our knowledge of wildlife and their habitats.

Almunia also raises the following question: "Imagine that we were to listen to the most radical activists and effectively close down zoos. After that, wouldn't we need to create facilities where we could treat injured or displaced animals, rescue and preserve threatened species, provide shelter and veterinary care to illegally captured or abandoned animals, conduct studies, research, and expand our knowledge of wildlife, and raise awareness among the population about the need to protect the environment and the species that inhabit it? Where would you place all these animals?"

He concludes by saying that "in reality, we would need to create facilities like the ones that already exist that would again focus on the same objectives that a modern zoo already has."

In essence, Almunia is highlighting that while there are valid concerns about the treatment of animals in zoos, they also serve important roles in conservation, research, and education. Simply shutting down zoos without providing alternative solutions for these critical functions could have unintended negative consequences for wildlife and our understanding of it.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Gaza And BRICS: Arab Leaders' Visit To China Is Only The Beginning

Frustrated by the United States’ unwavering support for Israel’s war on Gaza, Arab governments have looked at other options to help establish a ceasefire before it becomes too late. First stop: Beijing. Moscow’s role may be more obscure, but no less essential, in building a global coalition that counters the West’s stance.

Group photo of ​Arab leaders' visit to Beijing, China, on Nov. 20

Arab leaders' visit to Beijing, China, on Nov. 20

Elias Kassem

CAIRO — Call it “the China option.”

The scene Monday in Beijing said a lot, both about the state of the war in Gaza, and the world at large: top diplomats of five Arab countries, all with close ties with the U.S., arrived in the Chinese capital to meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as part of Arab and Islamic diplomatic efforts to rally global support for a ceasefire.

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

Choosing Beijing as the first stop of a tour to the five permanent members of the United Nations’ Security Council shows China’s growing role in the Middle East amid global power competition. It also shows regional frustration from the West’s justification of Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians as “a self-defense,” according to Asharq, a United Arab Emirates-based news outlet.

“Motivating the major countries in the East to play a more effective and influential role may restore balance to the international scene,” wrote Gamal Raif, an Egyptian journalist and political writer, on X, formerly known as Twitter. “China in particular has been seeking for some time to find new workspaces within the international arena.”

The delegation included foreign ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Indonesia, the Palestinian Authority, and the chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Keep reading...Show less

The latest