Animals in Zoos: Welfare Standards and Legal Protection

December 17, 2020Zihao Yu


In the present time, people in cities usually get knowledge about animals from zoos. Parents and teachers take their children or students to the zoo to learn and enjoy their time. The zoo is always described as a sort of fairyland for animals with water, food, shelter, and veterinary care, and without the potential harm from predators and natural disasters. However, animals in zoos are not as happy as the description states because of the limitation of capacity, lack of animal care, or overworking for entertainment. This article will analyze the issues in zoos, animal welfare standards, and regulations in Asian countries.

What is the Zoo?

"A zoo is a place where animals live in captivity and are put on display for people to view. The word “zoo” is short for “zoological park.” Zoos contain wide varieties of animals that are native to all parts of the Earth."

In history, zoos are used as private collections of animals to show wealth and power, which are as known as menageries, for example, the Tower of London hosted a menagerie of exotic creatures from lions to camels. 

"The model of the modern, public zoo became popular in the 18th century, during the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment was a period in European history when science, reason, and logic were promoted as ideals of society and government. The scientific focus of the Age of Enlightenment extended to zoology."

Modern zoos have changed a lot. Some zoos remove bars and cages and let animals live within a larger enclosure, and create the surrounding environment according to the animals’ needs. The purpose of zoos has been changed from “collection" to conservation by saving the animals from extinction and providing special animal care. 

Comments on zoos

There are arguments about whether zoos are good or bad for animals. Zoos are used for multiple goals including conservation, research, exhibition, education, and entertainment, and some of the goals are good for animals and some are not. Compared to the animal sanctuary, zoos are not good for conservation or protection. Animals can live with more freedom and without disturbance from the tourists in the sanctuaries where all the conservation goals of zoos can be fulfilled. At the same time, zoos are not good for education or research, as animals kept in captivity are not in their natural environment and behaviors are not normal at all times. The human-animal interaction will make animals feel stressed and change their behavior pattern.

"Zoo Parc Beauval" by JoyTek is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Issues in zoos

Management issues

There are problems of management in some zoos, that animals in zoos may attack visitors or staff, and tourists may attack animals too. Some zoos are running poorly and experience financial issues. Once the operation is in a poor condition, the supply for the animal daily care will be limited, including food and veterinary care, and some animals might have to be transported to other places. Zoos lack a backup plan for emergencies such as natural disasters, fire, and the escapee of animals. Some zoos even breed animals for sale to other places. Tourists are not always well guided on what can be done and what cannot be done to the animals.

Animal welfare issues

Animal welfare is not equally protected in different zoos according to the culture, the capacity, and the regulation. Many places allow human-animal interaction or animal performances as part of the entertainment to earn money. Animals shall be healthy physically, mentally, and behaviorally.

Animals shall have enough space to live and express their normal behavior. Many zoos are still using chains, bars, or cages to prevent animals from escaping or hurting tourists. The space to meet an animal's needs is far more than people usually think. "A habitat is not just a place to live and prey in but also a place for tigers to congregate and to establish a sense of territory.” For example, a tigress will need a 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles) territory.

Many zoos are not aware that interaction affects animals. Putting some animals around the same place will make them stressed and extremely nervous. 

Animals shall be cared for physically, mentally, and behaviorally. Different species of animals have different needs. If a zoo lacks sources for staff, scientists, and veterinaries, many species would be treated equally which may cause health problems to the animals. Overweight and obesity are one of the common problems, as animals in the captivities exercise less and eat more than they are in the wild. The facilities are usually designed to prevent animals from escaping or hurting tourists, but they do not prevent the impact from the tourists to animals, for example, live music concerts in zoos may harm elephants’ hearing.

Animal performance is conducted in many zoos to attract tourists. Animals for the show have been trained. Training these animals to be able to make the show is against the nature of the animals and cruel. 

Animal rides are allowed in some countries. Besides animal rides, there are human-interaction activities such as photo-taking, touching feeding, and bathing animals. No matter what kind of activities with human beings, these animals have suffered from training and would get nervous with tourists.

Animals for entertainment activities work for a long time and overload, especially on weekends and holidays. The welfare of the animals shall be taken into consideration.

Zoos separate animals from their natural groups. Not all zoos have sources to maintain the population of the species. All species shall be carefully treated considering their genetic demands to fulfill the goal of conservation.

"Happiness at the Zoo" by *~Dawn~* is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Animal welfare standards of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA)

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is "the global alliance of regional associations, national federations, zoos and aquariums, dedicated to the care and conservation of animals and their habitats around the world.” According to WAZA, animal welfare of animals in zoo includes "an animal’s diet; environment; physical health and fitness (including injury and disease); social environment (including interactions with humans); and its ability to fulfill the species specific and individual animal’s behavioral motivations to have positive physical or social experiences.” 

To ensure animal welfare, WAZA calls on member organizations to:

Besides, the interaction with humans shall follow the Guidelines for Animal - Visitor Interactions of WAZA.

Regulation in Asian Countries

In the United States, the framework is based on the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on the federal level. Some state laws also have the anti-cruelty provision for the zoos. The AWA sets minimum standards for the animals exhibited in zoos, and the ESA applies to those animals listed as threatened or endangered. American Zoo Association (AZA) set higher standards of care for their members. (Read more here.)

In Asian countries, the welfare standards in zoos are not consistent according to the understanding and the law on animal welfare or general animal protection. 

In China, the main sources for the protection of animal welfare in zoos are the City Zoo Management Regulations (城市动物园管理规定) and Opinions on Further Strengthening Zoo Management (关于进一步加强动物园管理的意见). “The planning and design of the zoo shall adhere to the principles of a beautiful environment, suitable for animal habitat, growth and exhibition, ensuring safety, and convenience for visitors...”(Regulation Article 7.) "The zoo should supply feeds suitable for the animal’s diet in guaranteed quality and quantity; build cages suitable for animal’s living habits, safety and sanitation, and facilitate operation and management, and be equipped with necessary heatstroke prevention and cold protection facilities; strengthen the construction of veterinary hospitals and take necessary disease prevention and treatment measures for Animals are provided with necessary medical protection; the carcasses of dead animals are properly handled; animal performances are not allowed; and animals are not disturbed and stimulated.”(Opinion, Section 2, Article 4)

In Japan, according to the Act on Welfare and Management of Animals (1973), (revised in 2013) the anti-cruelty and duty of care provisions (Articles 2 and 7(1)) apply to animals in captivities, but exclude fish. A person or an organization must obtain a permit from the governor to open or operate a zoo. The Act sets forth requirements on the structure and size of zoos, and the method of caring for the animals held. (Article 10) The  Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) have requirements includes references to animal care for its members. Although there is no policy or legislation related specifically to zoos, the Ministry for the Environment is working with the JAZA to introduce standards and mandatory regulations. The animal welfare of the zoo is a new concept but the awareness is increasing.

In South Korea, zoos are governed by the Act on the Management of Zoos and Aquariums (2016). According to the Act, the actions are prohibited with penalties of abusing animals, inflicting injuries by tool, drug, etc, beating or inflicting injuries for advertisement or exhibition, and withholding food or water from animals or neglecting animals suffering a disease. (Article 7 and 16) 

In India, any animals kept in any zoological garden or by any society or association which has for its principal object the exhibition of animals for educational or scientific purposes are not covered by Chapter 5 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 (Article 27). Chapter IVA of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, set up the Central Zoo Authority (Article 38A) to "(a) specify the minimum standards for housing, un-keep and veterinary care of the animals kept in a zoo; (b) evaluate and assess the functioning of zoos with respect to the standards or the norms as may be prescribed; (c) recognize or de-recognize zoos;.... "(Article 38C) According to the Recognition of Zoo Rules 2009,  contains restrictions on the acquisition of zoo and circus animals and their treatment in captivity, requiring that all enclosures are designed in order to meet the full biological requirements of animals, to have space for free movement and exercise, and to ensure that groups are not unduly dominated by individuals. 

In Indonesia, the Instruction of the Minister of Home Affairs) on the Cultivation and Management of Flora and Fauna Gardens in Local Regions  (1997)  and Decision Letter of the Minister of Forestry and Estate Crops No. 479 (1998) concerning Conservation Bodies Plants and Wildlife (1998) are with regard to the establishment of zoos in Indonesia. The Decision Letter regulates the licensing procedures, criteria, requirements, rights and responsibilities of zoos. The recommendation letter of Indonesian Zoo and Aquarium Association (PKBSI) also works with the local governments and the Minister of Forestry.

In Thailand, the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act 1992 sets out provisions for wildlife sanctuaries and public zoos. The Act was most recently amended in 2014. Part V is on Public Zoo, and this document does not mention animal welfare.

In the Philippines, the Animal Welfare Act (1998) provides general provisions for animal welfare of animals in captivity. According to it, zoos must be designed with environmental enrichment facilities to minimize the risks of development of neurotic behavior in the animals (section The Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act (2001) provides animal welfare and anti-cruelty provisions for exotic species in captivity. In May 2019, the Philippine Zoos & Aquariums Association announced that, in partnership with the Bureau of Animal Industry, it would begin drafting a Philippine Zoo Welfare Standard and Guidelines.

In Malaysia, Section 10 of the Wildlife Conservation Act (2010) requires all zoos, commercial captive breeding facilities, circuses, and other wildlife exhibitions to have a license to operate. Wildlife Conservation (Operation of Zoo) Regulations (2012) regulates that all animals be provided with not only the natural diet of the species but also is required to contain all necessary nutrients and provided in sufficient quantities. 


Zoos may have a positive side with regard to educational purposes, but they have a negative impact on animals and using them for entertainment. The alternative ways, such as animal sanctuaries, are better solutions for conservating animals and educating children/students. For animal welfare in zoos, regulations and NGOs shall work together to ensure that zoos are within the right framework. Individuals and activists can educate the public to let them have an awareness of the welfare of the animals in captivity.

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