Zoos and wildlife parks

Our work Animals in Aotearoa Zoos and wildlife parks
Animals in need


Animals in their natural habitats have the opportunity to form family or social groups,  freely roam their territory, choose a mate and decide what and when to eat. Elephants, for example, may roam as far as 48 kilometres in a day, playing, bathing in rivers and foraging for fresh vegetation. They live in matriarchal herds with lives full of interest and variety. While the wild has its challenges, it provides a life worth living for animals.

Advocates for zoos argue that zoos do important conservation work, educate the public and provide animals with enriched habitats. In reality, the business model of zoos involves many things that have nothing to do with conservation or education, and are more about keeping animals for the entertainment of visitors.

Animals in zoos are prevented from expressing much of their natural behaviour. Lacking stimulation and appropriate social interaction, many animals in zoos show signs of severe stress and boredom.

Kiwis are increasingly questioning the use of animals in all forms of entertainment, including zoos.

Take action

  • Support genuine efforts to protect animals in the wild, such as habitat preservation, tree planting or beach clean ups.
  • Learn about wildlife in your local area or through nature documentaries and online.
  • Visit a sanctuary or wildlife refuge in New Zealand or overseas. Make sure that any facility advertised as a sanctuary exists for the benefit of the animals and not as a money-making venture.
  • Do not go to zoos, wildlife or safari parks, dolphinariums or aquariums here or overseas, and talk to your family and friends about why you oppose them.

Conservation benefits overstated

Kiwis care about protecting endangered species. Zoos exploit this concern by promoting the idea that their main priority is the conservation and protection of endangered species. However, most animals in zoos are not endangered, and even if they are, few are ever able to be returned to the wild.

Although people who work in zoos may have the best intentions, the majority of their work revolves around creating a spectacle to maximise visitor numbers, either for profit or to provide a tourist drawcard for their local area.


The zoo environment can have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of zoo animals. Captive elephants, for example, cannot exercise in the same way they would in the wild and typically endure long hours standing on hard artificial surfaces. These living conditions are major contributors to foot infections and arthritis, one of the leading causes of death and euthanasia among captive elephants.

A survey of the records of 4,500 elephants both in the wild and in captivity found that the average life span of an African elephant in a zoo was 16.9 years, whereas for African elephants living in Amboseli National Park the median life span was 56 years (although elephants have been known to live for up to 70 years).

Captive animals can suffer from ‘zoochosis’– extreme physical and mental frustration – which leads to abnormal behaviour such as pacing, rocking and self mutilation. These same activities are also seen in humans who have a mental illness. In zoos, it is not uncommon to see primates throw faeces and birds who have plucked out their feathers. Elephants may sway to and fro, while lions and tigers may pace endlessly.

As Dr Keith Lindsay, a biologist with more than 30 years of experience in elephant research and conservation has said, these are symptoms of “pathological, stereotypical behaviour that is common with disturbed animals in captivity, but which is never seen in the wild.” There are also cases of animals being given antidepressants to hide their unhappiness from visitors. In 2015 Auckland Zoo euthanised a gibbon, Iwani, because he was ‘severely depressed’ and the zoo admitted they could not meet his welfare needs.

A journalist who has investigated zoos in New Zealand, Selwyn Manning, wrote:

Few people realise the monotony of zoos. When the public visits a zoo they see the animals pace or sway behind their walls for three, maybe four, hours. But for these animals, every day is the same and during visiting time they stare at the stream of faces in the crowds. Everyone is the same. Everyone just stares back. Meal time is always the same food, every night. They sit captive, thousands of miles from the climate for which evolution has adapted them. It’s the monotony which crushes their spirit, the endless hours which numb their brains.

Caring people may think that all animals in zoos are kept for the whole of their natural lives, but that is sadly not the case. When no longer needed, animals may be sold or loaned with complete disregard for those species for whom forming strong bonds is important to their wellbeing. Being moved to unfamiliar surroundings and adjusting to new social groups and new keepers can all be traumatic for the animals, as in the wild many species remain in their groups or families for life.

Zoos deliberately breed animals, even sometimes those that are not endangered, since babies attract the public, push up ticket sales and increase gift shop profits from the sale of cute toys. However, what happens when the babies grow up? Zoos are known to kill animals they no longer deem profitable or ‘useful,’ or simply because they do not have the facilities to house them.

The New Zealand Zoos Code of Welfare states that animals may be euthanised for a small number of reasons only, including when there is an over-representation of a particular sex or genetic line, when there are unwanted pregnancies and when there is a lack of accommodation.

There are no figures publically available for how many animals are killed annually in New Zealand zoos, but in Europe alone between 3,000 and 5,000 healthy animals are killed in zoos each year. By visiting zoos, people are unwittingly contributing to this practice.

Animals in zoos generally do not suffer from outright abuse, but instead from deprivation caused by their restricted environments. Even Auckland Zoo director Kevin Buley has said, “Of the thousands of entities calling themselves zoos, the vast majority should be shut down.” No zoo can ever adequately provide for animals adapted to live in the wild.

Animals in their natural habitats can roam hundreds of kilometres, raise their offspring and enjoy complex social relationships. British zoologists have found that tigers enjoy a roaming range 18,000 times larger than the average zoo enclosure and for polar bears, it is one million times larger. It is simply not feasible in a zoo environment to provide sufficient space for most animals, and the animals become little more than living museum exhibits.

In the wild, animals are stimulated by their changing surroundings, forage for food, and seek and find a mate. In the artificial environment of zoos, boredom is rife. Animals may be housed inappropriately: species that naturally live a solitary existence may be put in groups, or group animals may be housed on their own, unable to behave or interact naturally. A prey animal may become stressed if housed close to its natural predators, and animals who would naturally avoid contact with humans have no escape from daily contact.

Misspent funds

Zoos are simply not a cost-effective model for conservation. However, they are a cost-effective model for entertaining the public.

Precious funds that could be used to protect animals in the wild are often spent on cosmetic improvements to the zoo, such as landscaping, cafes and gift shops, to draw in more visitors.

Some zoos do successfully contribute to conservation projects, but usually, only a tiny part of this is ‘breed and release,’ and these often only involve a small number of species. In Auckland Zoo and Wellington Zoo these species include native kiwi and weta, but these zoos devote far more money and resources to keeping animals captive for entertainment. For example, in the year to March 2019, Wellington Zoo spent only seven and a half per cent of its operating expenditure on field conservation. Even such a low figure could be considered high when compared to its ‘good’ zoo peers.

Elephants at Auckland Zoo

People who have had personal contact with individual elephants often express awe at the experience. This might be part of the reason zoos continue to confine elephants for visitors to stare at, despite having inadequate facilities for these huge animals.

In 2015 Auckland Zoo acquired (at the cost of $3.2 million) a new elephant, Anjalee, from Sri Lanka. She was to be a companion for the zoo’s lone surviving elephant, Burma. More recently the zoo has been trying to bring in another elephant, Nandi, but her export was blocked by Sri Lankan animal protection groups. Since any calves born will never be reintroduced to the wild, the acquisition of these elephants has no conservation benefit whatsoever. It only results in there being more animals in captivity solely for people’s entertainment.

White tigers

Most people do not realise that there is no such species as a white tiger. The myth of the rare white tiger was an illusion created to deceive the public into thinking these cats were endangered and needed to be preserved for future generations. The truth however is that they are the result of a genetic anomaly caused by inbreeding.

At the Kamo Wildlife Sanctuary, a privately owned zoo in Northland, there are white tigers that are the result of deliberate family inbreeding. Such inbreeding not only carries health risks for the animals, but it also means they have no conservation value and can only ever be kept in captivity.

Zoos’ misleading education claims

Animals in zoos are not representative of their species. Their behaviour is often far removed from that of their wild counterparts.
In zoos, animals can suffer from boredom, frustration and depression, and can develop unnatural behaviours. Lions in the wild do not spend half their time pacing, bears do not have their food handed to them, and in the wild elephants live in matriarchal herds, not with just one or two others. So staring at these animals in zoos teaches people little about natural animal behaviour.

Children naturally care about animals, but if zoos are teaching children anything, it is that capturing and imprisoning animals for our entertainment is acceptable. With the wide availability of nature documentaries and easy access to a wealth of online resources, learning about or viewing animals in their natural habitats can be as simple as a click of a button – or going for a walk. Here in New Zealand, we are fortunate to have incredible, unique wildlife practically on our doorsteps. Children will learn far more from getting outside and exploring and learning to be respectful of the animals they encounter than they ever could from seeing animals in zoos.

Aquatic zoos – aquariums and dolphinariums

Aotearoa is a mecca for tourists wanting to see whales, seals and dolphins in the waters around our coast. This experience, and the information given to them by tour-guides, can provide people with an appreciation of how important the preservation of these threatened species is.

Unfortunately, the joy that people feel at seeing marine mammals, and their curiosity about the inhabitants of underwater environments, has led to some of these animals being confined in aquariums and marine parks.

It is not just land animals who should not be in confinement. Aquatic species, from dolphins and sharks to octopuses and fish, are sentient – able to feel a range of emotions – and suffer distress in inadequate surroundings. The more we learn about these animals, the more we understand that they value a life worth living.


Marineland in Napier, before its closure in 2008, confined marine mammals including dolphins, penguins and seals in small concrete pools. In the 40 years it was open, the facility kept more than 70 dolphins in captivity. Each of these dolphins had an average life expectancy of only six years, compared to 16 years in the wild – although they can live to 40 years old. These animals were forced to do circus tricks and put through the stress of having visitors ‘swim with the dolphins’ in their pool. In September 2008, after a long-running campaign by SAFE, Marineland closed to the public after the last-remaining dolphin Kelly died and the facility was prohibited from catching any more dolphins from the wild. There are now no dolphins in captivity in New Zealand.

As knowledge of the complex behaviour of marine mammals has developed, so too has global opposition to keeping whales and dolphins in captivity. ‘Blackfish’ is an award-winning documentary about captive orcas in marine parks, including SeaWorld in the United States. The documentary focuses on the story of Tilikum, who was caught in the wild, kept in a tiny tank and forced to perform tricks.

The film’s exposure of this exploitative industry has significantly decreased the profits of many marine parks.

However, many dolphins and other marine mammals remain confined in aquariums around the world. It is the appetite for facilities like these to replace those animals that die that fuels the barbaric annual Taiji dolphin hunt in Japan.

We know that fish feel pain, but there are also concerns around the welfare and behavioural needs of fish and other aquatic animals confined in facilities such as Kelly Tarlton’s in Auckland and the National Aquarium in Napier.

Many of the fish, crabs, sharks, octopuses and other animals exhibited in aquariums will have been caught in the wild. Some species do not breed in captivity, so as soon as one dies, another must be taken from the wild to replace it. A life of deprivation in a tank, especially a small one, can lead to the animals exhibiting zoochotic behaviour such as repetitive circling, head bobbing and rubbing their body on a surface of the tank.

Fish and other aquatic animals have physical, social, behavioural and environmental needs which must be met for them to have a good quality of life

We need to work towards a future where all animals are treated as sentient beings, and to widen our circle of compassion to include fish, rather than just making them exhibits in living museums.

Donate today

Help us continue helping animals in need

As a charity, SAFE is reliant on the support of caring people like you to carry out our valuable work. Every gift goes towards providing education, undertaking research and campaigning for the benefit of all animals. SAFE is a registered charity in New Zealand (CC 40428). Contributions of $5 or more are tax-deductible.