Skip to content

Do Zoos Capture Animals?

Zoos have been around for many centuries in various forms. Wall carvings found in Egypt and Mesopotamia suggest that aristocrats created menageries as early as 2500 BCE, and retained records of expeditions to distant lands where exotic animals were captured. Thus, it appears that the first zoos were private collections of animals collected by wealthy individuals. There is also historical evidence that menageries also existed in ancient civilizations in China, Greece, Rome and Mexico.1

The modern public zoo such as we understand it today first came about during the 18th Century. This was during the Age of Enlightenment, when science began to be promoted as an ideal of society and government, and this included zoology. It was during this period when Charles Darwin’s work on natural selection was popularized, and researchers began to widely study animals for scientific reasons. In order to accomplish this, scientists and zookeepers had to establish environments that were local to them, but which resembled the animals’ natural habitats.

The first modern zoo opened in Paris, France in 1793.1 These unique establishments quickly became popular across Europe at a time when higher levels of entertainment and education were being more widely promoted to all classes of people. As the Industrial Revolution came about and spread to the Americas, zoos increased in popularity and spread across the developed world.

Modern Zoos: Education and Conservation

While today’s zoos are geared toward entertaining and educating the public, many have a strong focus on scientific research and conservation initiatives. Much of the latter has to do with breeding programs, which serve to maintain the populations of animals available for zoo attractions. Many zoos are also involved in the breeding and preservation of threatened and endangered species.

Zoos and their operation are typically regulated by the governments of the nations in which they operate. Since they typically have high overhead and need an abundance of visitors to maintain solvency, most large zoos are located in large cities. In recent years however, some of these have given way to larger zoological parks that are located in suburbs outside large cities. These are designed to provide more natural habitats and more territory for animals to roam.1 The largest of these are safari parks, in which visitors drive their own cars or are driven in facility vehicles through large, enclosed areas where wildlife resides. This allows animals far more space than the small enclosures of traditional zoos. In a few countries, large game reserves support free-ranging animals that are protected within their ecosystems. Animals in game reserves are protected from illegal hunting, which remains a threat to endangered species.2

Criteria for Obtaining Animals

In developed nations, large zoos typically maintain hundreds of species and thousands of individual animals. These zoos usually have curators that oversee taxonomic groups of animals (e.g., mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish, invertebrates) living in the zoo.3 Zoo collection plans (how zoos determine the animals they need and how to get them) are based on internal requirements as well as the categories of conservation, research and/or education. In many cases, zoos are required to justify the presence of species and individual animals in the zoo. These collection plans often cooperate with other zoos in the nation, as well as globally.

Very often, zoos acquire animals from other zoos; in most cases, these animals have been bred in the originating zoo. Since many zoos cooperate and coordinate with other zoos around the globe, this facilitates a large degree of availability for many species. Only in very special circumstances do zoos obtain animals from the wild, which is illegal in many nations.1,2 Thus, zoos are not in the practice of actively capturing animals in the wild from their natural habitats. Exceptions to this involve the optimization of breeding programs which seek to preserve or increase numbers of threatened or endangered species. Zoos around the world have had a substantial impact on preserving such species over the last several decades.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is a global organization with which zoos around the world cooperate. The AZA keeps track of what animals are in which zoos and what needs to be done to keep those populations healthy and ensure their long-term survival. The organization uses a model called the Species Survival Plan (SSP), which includes more than 450 endangered species. Zoos must be AZA-accredited in order to participate in an SSP. The goal of some SSPs is to release captive-bred animals back to the wild.4 The SSP looks at which animals can be matched with a zoo’s needs and which institutions can support them. Zoos submit their requirements to the SSP when they need to add to their collections.

How Zoos Obtain Animals

Zoos need to have animal populations that are viable over the long term. This means that they must be demographically stable, genetically healthy and well-maintained.2 Thus, most large zoos maintain their stock of animals—or attempt to do so—through breeding programs. For many species, breeding programs are not only useful, but they are the most ethical method of maintaining populations in captivity. Captive populations are used for educational purposes, the exhibition of rare species, research, and for conservation.4 Many zoos have used captive breeding as a way to prevent the extinction of species that have had difficulty in maintaining their populations in the wild.

In zoos, captive conservation programs attempt to preserve the diversity found in the genome of wild populations increase the number of individuals in the population.2 Maintaining genetic diversity is important, as diversity is lost at every generation due to random genetic drift as well as inbreeding.4 Additionally, captive populations become better adapted to the captive environment at every generation due to genetic and behavioral changes. While this may not be detrimental to captive animals, changes in behavior that are beneficial in captivity are not beneficial to wild animals. This must be considered when animals are bred in captivity to be released in the wild in order to repopulate species in their natural habitats.

Many zoo species are included in endangered species programs. Coordinators of these programs analyze the regional zoo populations for certain species and make recommendations for breeding as appropriate.3 These coordinators communicate with different zoos to move animals from one place to another to facilitate breeding matches.

In recent decades, zoos have put increasing importance on ethics, conservation and the humane treatment of animals. Today, zoos around the world play an important role in protecting endangered species. According to the AZA, zoos and aquariums are some of the best places for people to get connected to nature and become engaged in conservation action.

Interested in learning more about safe capture? 
The San Diego Zoo now offers courses in safe capture techniques and best practices. Learn reliable, safe, and effective techniques for the species you work with and the scenarios you encounter!