What does an ethical zoo look like?

It’s been a while since the first time I was asked what an ethical zoo looks like, and I’m still being asked the same question today, so here’s what happened, my answer hasn’t changed. I was at a dinner party surrounded by sharp soon to be graduated MA design students, who were all seemingly on the edge of creating something big. As a biologist I was a foreign body in the room and spent most of the night answering the question ‘what do you do?’ This was great for me as like most scientists I really enjoy explaining my research, in this case the controversial phenomenon within evolutionary biology known as sexual antagonistic coevolution. A world away from what the design students had experienced. Needless to say I had an eager audience for most of the night. Then it occurred to me, ‘pitch TESS’, these are the next James Dysons and Steve Jobs’ – or at least they want to be. With the table full of keen switched on design thinking students I began.

Once I’d laid the ground work of highlighting the inept education system the UK has, and the short falling of the majority of zoos. My ideas of re-designing and combining them both in a complimentary fashion based on empathy had impact, TESS was a hit. “You’re going to change the world”, “this is so big” were a few of the comments… Then the critique came.

A particularly sharp member of the group raised her hand to gain the tables attention and quietly asked a question that sits at the heart of TESS; “what does an ethical zoo look like?”

I was struck, not by the question, but how the question was asked. There was a genuine inquiry in her voice, as if she had never seen one before. What is this mythical beast? This is what struck me; the student felt as I did, she hadn’t seen one, nor have I, they don’t exist. This is why I’m building one.

There’s a necessity for zoos due to a few solid reasons, and there are many articles about this, if you give it a quick google, here’s a decent one written in response to the death of Harambe the Gorilla at Cincinnati zoo this year. I don’t want to focus on this; instead I want to answer the question what does an ethical zoo look like? - Or indeed a description of TESS. This is possibly best done with a list of justifiable reasons given for any animal living in captivity, and a list of responsibilities the organisation then has to adhere to for the whole picture to be an ethical one. Our ground rules are as follows:

Justifiable reasons for animals kept in captivity:

1.       Human caused loss of habitat, epidemics, invasive species          introduction, and similar disruptions

2.       Unsustainable pressures from hunting, poaching and human        – animal conflicts

3.       Injured endangered species with known inability to survive        in the wild 

Responsibilities of the organisation:

1.       All animals to be given basic rights (set out here and based       on The Great Ape project)

2.   For all animals to have a plan of re-introduction to the wild       were possible

3.   For all experiences (enclosures too) to be as close to a wild         experience as possible, including keeper interactions and           visitor presence (see ‘SWALE’ half way down the page here        for an example of this)

This is the description I gave to the inquisitive student, and this is the understanding I will hold the development of TESS to. It’s also the level I hold all other zoological institutions to, none of which currently meet the grade. There is no reason other than human entertainment and financial gain for a lot of animals in captivity. For none endangered, none persecuted healthy animals to be in captivity is an inexcusable failure on our part. This is a huge reason TESS should exist. Lastly we want TESS to be collaborative so if you disagree with our ethics, with our reasoning and plans, then please let us know.

How would you improve TESS?

The development of TESS is not only to provide better animal care, better education and to instill empathy in the next generation; it is to disrupt the widespread practice of zoos, to raise the bar, to force change in the worlds captive animals and our children live in, as they are the two most precious aspects of our society, yet often the most neglected.

We do realise it’s much easier to imagine our vision when you can see it so right now we’re looking for an artist or architect who could sketch some drawings. Get in touch if you’re that person.   


Christopher Watson, founder of TESS