Can animal interactions and wildlife conservation ever be compatible?


Recent controversies including the death of Harambe the gorilla at Cincinnati Zoo in May last year have caused an outpour of anger towards zoos, wildlife parks, ranches etc (henceforth referred to collectively as ‘zoos’) where ‘wild’ animals are kept behind bars. In addition, with the ‘animal tourism’ boom many people, particularly tourists visiting Africa or Asia, are eager for the opportunity to interact with wild animals. But is it ever possible to do so responsibly?


Take the recent revelations about Tiger Temple in Thailand, a “bucket list” experience where you could have your photo next to a real tiger. Tragically, what many unsuspecting tourists did not realise is that these magnificent beasts are drugged purely for human entertainment. The recent controversy comes following a police raid on Tiger Temple, where many tigers were seized and rescued and the wildlife authorities made a disturbing discovery of 40+ dead tiger cubs kept in freezers. Another distressing example concerns the legal practice of ‘canned hunting’, a flourishing business in many countries including South Africa. Canned hunting is a trophy hunt where the animals are kept in a confined area to increase the likelihood of a hunter achieving the kill they paid for. Lions particularly fall victim to this practice, and are bred and raised to be sold into it. Alongside this, many places see an additional opportunity of using the lions to get money from tourists wanting to cuddle a cute lion cub. The chances are that if a zoo has cubs all year round then animal conservation is not their highest priority and they are likely being bred purely for profit. The real question that you have to ask yourself is once these cubs get too old or too big to be safely handled by people, what then happens to them?


So is it ever possible to keep wild animals captive, or interact with wildlife, whilst still supporting conservation and the welfare of the animal in question?

Photo credit: Meghan Betts


The sad truth is that in our world, many species will not survive in the wild both because of and without human intervention. In an ideal world all animals would be free to roam and live without interference in their natural habitat. However, the actions of the human race, including deforestation, poaching, disease, and the expansion of the human settlements into natural habitats have left a scar on the landscape of endangered species leaving them without a safe place to call home. Nonetheless, we’ve now reached a point where without human intervention to redress the devastation we have caused, and are still causing, many species will become extinct. Future generations may never see a real rhino, as they slip away from memory to join the dodo in textbooks. This is why the responsible use of zoos is essential for the conservation of endangered animals.


Modern zoos promote animal conservation, breeding programmes and support wildlife research. It is not human entertainment that is the first priority here, but the welfare of the animal, and a great deal of work is required to provide the species-specific environment, diet and husbandry so that the captive lives of the animals replicates their natural environment as closely as possible. This is also reflected in the staffs attitude towards their work and the animals they care for. Along with the public, staff at Cincinnati zoo were devastated over the death of Harambe, where the 17 year old gorilla was shot by a zoo worker after a 3 year old boy fell into his enclosure over fears he may harm or kill the child. A surge in criticism and abuse has been revitalised towards Cincinnati zoo following the development of memes featuring Harambe leading to the zoo releasing a statement begging the memes to stop to allow their zoo family to heal. Harambe was part of their family and the staff cared fondly for him, and the tragic events that led to his death were not, and should not, be taken lightly. Now, in memory of Harambe, Cincinnati zoo has redoubled its gorilla conservation efforts and urges other zoos to do the same, with the hope that some good can come from this terrible tragedy. In many instances some of the captive animals have been rescued, and if they are injured they may need to be nursed back to health. This may involve a large amount of human interaction and mean the animals cannot be released back into the wild.

Photo credit: Meghan Betts


Captive breeding has also been essential for the survival of some animal species. For example, Mongolian Przewalski’s horses, the last species of truly wild horse on the planet, were previously classified as extinct in the wild, with only a handful of the horses surviving in captivity in the middle of the 20th Century. Following an international breeding programme there were over 1500 horses in captivity by the 1990’s and consequently a highly successful reintroduction programme began. Nowadays, all wild Przewalski’s horses descend from 9 of the captive horses.


Another method zoos use to support wildlife conservation is the use of ‘flagship animals’. Zoos draw in the crowds (and hence the funds) through the ‘big’ animals that everyone wants to see – elephants, lions, tigers, monkeys etc. These flagship animals are popular with the public and are able to raise money and awareness fairly easily. But what about the lesser known animals? How many people are genuinely passionate about protecting the many species of small amphibians, lizards and birds that are threatened to extinction? Without zoos using the popularity of their flagship species to help support the ‘little guys’, how many more species would we have already lost?


In addition, in many instances some of the captive animals have been rescued, and if they are injured they may need to be nursed back to health. This may involve a large amount of human interaction and mean the animals cannot be released back into the wild. In some cases these animals become ‘Ambassador Animals’ or ‘Species Representatives’ and are vital for education, raising awareness and of course funding. This is where an animal of a particular species is human-raised or trained to be able to interact up close with the public. This may be as part of an educational show, for photos or unique close-up experiences you wouldn’t have the opportunity to do in the wild. For example in South Africa birds of prey, particularly vultures, too regularly fall victim to poisoning, becoming collateral damage after eating the carcass of another animal poisoned by farmers. Without human intervention rescuing these birds and, if they can’t be released, using them to educate and inform the public, traditional practices and methods of pest control won’t change and we could lose these essential birds forever.

Photo credit: Meghan Betts


Other examples I personally have encountered whilst travelling South Africa earlier this year include ‘Emily’ the Ring-tailed lemur. Ring-tailed lemurs are native only to Madagascar however through hunting, loss of habitat and more recently species exploitation – where wild lemurs are caught and sold into the illegal pet trade – they are becoming increasingly threatened. The only real way to combat this growing problem is to educate and help the local people of Madagascar – increasing environmental awareness and tackling poverty. Zoos around the world who hold captive ring-tailed lemurs often have research projects linked with Madagascar that aim to provide funds and assistance to tackle this problem.


Then there is Quin the Cheetah, a gentle cat who is also the cheetah wheelchair ambassador for Cango Wildlife Ranch, South Africa. Interacting with Quin on one of his enrichment walks contributes to the Cheetah Breeding Project, which hopes to eventually be able to release future generations into the wild. All interactions like this are controlled with the welfare of the animal in mind – only a couple of people at a time and not on a daily basis.


Likewise, Elephant Whispers can pride themselves on their 6 African elephant ambassadors – Tembo, Shamwari, Ziziphus, Medwa, Andile and Lindiwe – who were all rescued from culling by the team and now live a happy life in Hazyview, South Africa. However caring for 6 large elephants isn’t easy, let alone cheap (believe me, I’ve seen how much they can eat in one day!) and so as well as acting as important educational ambassadors for their species, they also help raise the funds to support the team in continuing to provide a safe home for them. The elephant interactions are fascinating to watch and truly show you the intelligence of these beautiful animals and importantly I can say with confidence that there is a high level of love and respect between the elephants and the grooms, with only positive reinforcement used for the interactions.

Photo credit: Meghan Betts


So back to the question of whether it is ever possible to keep wild animals captive, or interact with wildlife, whilst still supporting conservation and the welfare of the animal. The answer is yes, it is, but it is essential that you do your research. If a zoo is truly focused on the welfare of its animals there will be a real focus on research and education, with this information being clearly available for the public. The plight of endangered species will be explained as well as the work the zoo does with the money it raises.


It’s also a really great idea to talk to the zoo staff. Where animal welfare is the priority the staff will be passionate about the work they do and eager to explain how their work benefits conservation. Less welfare-considerate zoos are more likely to be focused on bringing in tourists and may offer animal interactions, including cubs, consistently. After talking to the team at Cango Wildlife Ranch, South Africa, I was convinced that they were passionate about the welfare and conservation of their animals and impressed with their knowledge and explanation of their research and education programmes. They also informed me that they are occasionally criticised by visitors for not having cheetah cubs available to cuddle all year round and if this ‘money maker’ brings in money for the zoo then they should cater for the tourists needs. Cango’s answer? – yes, their policy means they may lose out on extra profits, but they are more concerned about the welfare of their cheetahs, and with their overall goal being to reintroduce them back into the wild. It is a sacrifice they are willing to make. This demonstrates the integrity that some zoos do have, highlighting that animal interactions and animal welfare can be compatible, you just have to find the right place.


In a perfect world humans and animals would live peacefully side by side but whilst we wait for that day it is comforting to know that some benefits can come from the necessity of keeping animals in captivity.



Words by Meghan Betts

Images by Meghan Betts

Acknowledgements: I’d sincerely like to thank the teams at Cango Wildlife Ranch (, Elephant Whispers ( and Radical Raptors ( ) for their knowledge and passion in caring for the animals and educating the public.

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