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There are over 100 zoos and wildlife collections and about two dozen major zoos across Canada. Some of these zoos provide quality care for their animals and place a high priority on animal welfare. Such zoos make important contributions towards education and conservation. Unfortunately, many other zoos do not adequately provide for the animals in their care, do little to promote animal welfare, and even less to further education or conservation, although they will list these as justifications for keeping the zoo open.

Although most zoos claim an educational component to their facilities, just seeing an animal in a zoo does little to educate people, if the animals are not in their natural habitats, nor performing natural behaviours. Keeping animals in confined areas, without the ability to pursue natural behaviours, does little to educate except to to show their shape and colour. However, there are some zoos that strive to provide a habitat similar to the animal’s natural habitat, and provide for its behavioural and psychological needs. These zoos will also have quality information signs that educate visitors.

Certain behavioural patterns can be observed among captive wild animals that indicate their needs are not being met. These include pacing, bar-biting, circling, repetitive head-swaying, aggression, and self-mutilation.

Wild animals must be kept in enclosures that are suitably large and be provided with stimulation appropriate for their species. Increasing scientific knowledge about zoo animal husbandry means increased evidence about how to offer environments and stimulation that can help the animals express their natural behaviours. For example, elephants in the wild spend a great deal of time foraging for their food and zoos must provide obstacles that enable elephants to forage for food in a manner similar to the way they would in the wild.

The CFHS’ policy statement on zoos states that the CFHS “supports only those zoos or wildlife enclosures which adhere to the principle that the needs and welfare of the animals are of primary importance, must take precedence over consideration for human visitors, and should not be compromised by economic factors.”

Barren enclosures or enclosures with a shortage of materials for stimulation, a lack of educational materials, and where animals demonstrate repetitive behaviours such as pacing, are all indications that a zoo is not meeting animal welfare standards. If visiting a zoo, be sure to do your research and ensure it has animal welfare as its priority, and ask questions if you have any concerns about the way animals are kept.

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