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Don't humanise zoo animals

published 13 November 2015 | modified 18 December 2016

selection of publications of births at zoosA couple of days ago an interesting interview was published in a Dutch newspaper with the director of Amsterdam Zoo (Natura Artis Magistra), Haig Balian. Being a Dutchman with Armenian roots and a background as a successful film producer he is an atypical zoo director, though he has studied biology in his early days. Being the odd one out compared to other zoo directors doesn't mean his opinions are odd as well. In fact his down-to-earth policy regarding the anthropomorphism in public expressions about Amsterdam Zoo animals is something that probably many a zoo director is thinking but isn't saying out loud.

We better tell something about the species than promoting its given name
Haig Balian, director Amsterdam Zoo >>

Because humanizing animals is progressing, and it should be only about species,” added Balian. It's not just the 'human' name of zoo animals - as if they are pets - but the language that is being used when describing incidents with zoo animals too. In other words, Amsterdam Zoo will not have a baby giraffe being born but a calf, a newborn zebra will be called a foal, etcetera. 'Mother and child are doing fine' will be avoided when informing the public about successful reproduction of yet another endangered big cat. And when in public zoo staff will not be using 'human' names to call the animals, and animal names will not be mentioned in publications. This is common policy since 2014 in Amsterdam Zoo.

This policy at the Zoo of the Dutch capital reminded me of something related to this. People have lost touch with nature, because so many of us have been born and raised in urban areas. The great outdoors is an exciting but strange environment which we only see on television in BBC nature documentaries with explanatory narratives by Sir David Attenborough. Even a farm is a place very unfamiliar to us nowadays.

So, we have never seen or experienced at close range the struggle to survive during everyday life in real nature or on a farm. Food can be scarce in certain periods for wild animals and survival success in predator-prey relationships are based on hunting and escape skills. While in the protected environment of a farm a calculating predator called 'man' slaughters animals when they've reached their slaughter weight or when they don't meet up with the expected growth or reproduction. And because we lack this knowledge and experience the life of wild animals and farm animals is romanticized.

So, captive wild animals become pets with names and friends. But hey, they are neither pets nor people. They are kept in captivity for a purpose, they reproduce for a purpose, and they are used for educating the people for a purpose. And that purpose is called conservation of endangered species. The sooner people understand that zoo animals are kept for that purpose the better.

Zoo animals are captive wild animals and not cuddly pets kept for entertainment purposes, although the latter might enhance the turnstile numbers and the annual revenues.

Lion dissection Odense ZooIn my opinion zoo animals should not be provided a 'human' name but instead additional space and an environment to express their natural behaviour, so they can be ambassadors for the related species in the wild. When provided the best possible means these animals serve in the best possible way the educational purpose of a zoo. Explaining about biodiversity and ecosystems, and the need conservation programmes. But this should also include explaining why there are surplus animals as part of dedicated breeding programmes, and why the surplus animals sometimes are killed. When they are killed they have still got educational value, as shown transparently by two Danish zoos last year. Although it created an uproar amongst many tender-hearted zoo lovers and zoo haters as well, the down-to-earth Danish people appreciated the public anatomy lessons at the zoo premises when a surplus giraffe (Copenhagen Zoo) and a surplus lion (Odense Zoo) were dissected before a live audience. Apart from the reason why those surplus animals came about - some questions come to mind - I think it's excellent study material and used in the right way. Another value of the surplus kills is of course that they serve as food to the zoos' predators.

Interview with Bengt Holst, Copenhagen Zoo scientific director, about Marius the giraffe killed at Copenhagen Zoo and publicly fed to the lions:

(Source: ignoredvoices YouTube channel)


Hopefully, more zoo visitors become more down-to-earth regarding the animals in zoological facilities - like for instance the Danish people - when they don't know the names of the animals. When they don't anthropomorphise the animals and don't over-dramatise surplus animal killings they may be more susceptible to and appreciate the educational efforts of the zoos they visit.

In my view the only real value of a zoo is when they contribute substantially to nature conservation programmes and prevent endangered species from going extinct, such as the Przewalski horse, California condor and Arabian oryx.


(Source: NRC Handelsblad, 06.11.2015; Odense Zoo news dissection debate, 10.10.2015; Wikipedia - Marius (giraffe))

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map


"Tiger map" (CC BY 2.5) by Sanderson et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mission regarding breeding endangered species, nature conservation, biodiversity and education, while at the same time relates to the evolution of species.