Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Our Zoo: Animal Cruelty?

Was the BBC's "Our Zoo" Guilty of Animal Cruelty?

So the BBC produces a series based on the life of George Mottershead and his family’s creation of Chester Zoo, and surprise, surprise out of the woodwork come the usual self-promoting members of the animal-right lobby.

Chester Zoo is one of the biggest zoos in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1931 by George Mottershead and his family it later became the North of England Zoological Society in 1934.  I have known friends and colleagues who actually worked at the zoo during Mottershead's reign.  I further remember visiting the zoo on a number of occasions when I live in the North of England and also reading June Johns book "Zoo without Bars".

In 2014, the BBC's announced a six part drama/documentary series based on the life and work of Mottershead called 'Our Zoo'.   The first episode broadcast in the UK in September 2014.   Of course, to make a drama of the development of any zoo requires not only human but also animal actors; in this case the production company engaged the specialist animal training company Amazing Animals.

Predictably, this came to the attention of animal-rights lobby groups: Wild Futures and Born Free Foundation and The Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS).  These animal rights groups accused the BBC of cruelty for using wild animals in a drama in a press release and an article in The Daily Mail newspaper. 

Wild Futures maintained that seeing monkeys in the series would encourage people to obtain them as pets.  Perhaps a valid point, but then the same could be said about seeing primates in a zoo or on a wildlife programme.  NB: Most primates in the UK are listed on the Dangerous Wild Animals Act which requires the inspection and license of private individuals wishing to hold these these animals which is not automatically given.

Further, and somewhat ironically, the UK government has also recently debated the future position of primates as pets much to the angst of groups such as Wild Futures who seek an out-right ban.

The Born Free Foundation and Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS) true to form trotted out the usual mantra of the committed animal-rights ideolog with CAPS's Liz Tyson maintaining:

"The use of wild animals in entertainment is both cruel and unnecessary"... "Domesticated animals like cats and dogs have gone through genetic changes via the process of domestication over thousands of years. Wild animals have not."
Unfortunately, Ms Tyson (a law graduate with no qualification in biology or animal behaviour) does not present any evidence to support that the use of these wild animals was cruel. 

Further, as a member of  an organisation that started by protesting against animals in circuses she seems unaware that the UK government made it very clear that research did not support banning wild animals in circus on welfare grounds.

“A ban on using wild animals in travelling circuses because of welfare concerns is not supported by the scientific evidence”

The Report Of The Chairman Of The Circus Working Group. Wild Animals In Travelling Circuses (2007).

"...The 2007 Radford Report on circus animals concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence to demonstrate that travelling circuses are unable to  meet the welfare needs of wild animals presently being used in the United Kingdom. That position has not changed..."

Written Ministerial Statement. Minister of State for Agriculture and Food (James Paice) 1 March 2012.

Moreover, it is now a common practise that zoo and wildlife parks train their wild animals both for public display and husbandry (handling) as witnessed in the recent documentary series The Zoo.

Further, the argument regarding 'domestication' does not hold up to scientific examination.   In fact, it is scientifically more appropriate to state that domestic animals have much the same genetic make-up as their wild counterparts.  Further animals entered human domestication for many and varied reasons but they still fundamentally retain many if not most of their wild genetic make-up. 

In her research on circus animals, Kiley-Worthington (1990) devoted a chapter to this issue of the erroneous assumption that wild animals are fundamentally genetically different to their domestic counterparts.   My direct experience with training wild animals is that there is no fundamental problems that differ with them from domestic animals.  Clearly, some animals may be possibly dangerous due to their size and strength but the same could be said for domestic animals such as large dogs and farm animals such as bulls. 

The animals used by companies such as Amazing Animals were born within a captive environment and have had direct contact with human handlers from a very early age.  

This environment is an important component in the taming and training process.  In addition, animals such as camels, which are featured in "Our Zoo", are domestic animals in other countries were they are used for food, transport and sport; the domestication of camels has been dated from 3000 BC (Zeder, 2008).  In fact, the majority of camels surviving today are domesticated aside from a small population of Bactrian camels of the Gobi Desert.

One final point that should be noted is that an animal's behaviour is not exclusively ruled by its genetic make-up although an awareness of the limitations this may bring on the behaviours that they can be asked to do has to be acknowledged.  Scientists such as Breland and Breland (1961) have pointed this out and professional trainers have been aware of this situation for many years.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the above cited animal-rights groups could actually not produce a shred of evidence to support such claims that Amazing Animals had undertaken anything cruel or illegal in the operation of its handling of animals used within the drama 'Our Zoo' or, indeed, any other aspects of the companies various projects.  It should be noted that specialist wildlife vets including members of the International Zoo Veterinary Group were on set whenever animals were used to ensure a objective judgement of any welfare issues that could arise. 

This was once again yet more vexatious claims from groups that really should put up or shut up in their claims of cruelty particularity where there are sufficient laws in the UK to bring prosecutions for cruelty such as the 2006 Animal Welfare Act. 

Nevertheless, they know that any such actions would fail as they cannot bring the burden of proof to such litigation as it only exist in the minds of their animal-rights ideology. Moreover, in any case, it is much easier to send a press release to The Daily Mail where they can claim anything they more or less like without the burden of any responsibility to justify it.


Just as predictable as the criticism targeted at the show by the animal rights lobby is the fact that the show has been a hit with the general public. The show opened to a 5.2 million live viewership with an additional one million after catch-ups and downloads of the show over the following weekend. The series finished on a very healthy 4.9 million live viewership. It won its TV slot on every first showing. 

Most mainstream critics were united in their praise of the show with a lot of that praise going towards the presentation of the animals. This was all despite the show’s problematic time-slot, 9pm on a Wednesday night. This is rather awkward for a show that is clearly aimed at a family audience. 

Chester Zoo has enjoyed increased business since the show began, including several visitors coming from as far as London, thus showing the healthy interdependent relationship that can be enjoyed between animals in entertainment and the zoo fraternity.

Sadly, the writers did feel a need to take a swipe at animal circuses in many of the shows, which seemed a little unfair given the background of the providers of the animals and the fact that animal circus acts were featured in the first episode. This is representative of Jamie Foster’s point about an accepted prejudiced attitude tolerated towards animal circuses in his Western Morning News article:
“In many ways the prejudices that they suffer are amongst the last socially acceptable, thoughtless bigotries it is possible to openly express.” 

It is also worth mentioning that George Mottershead enjoyed a good relationship with several circuses. He was also one of the very few zoo owners who supported the circus man, Jimmy Chipperfield, in his pioneering creation of the UK’s first safari parks. Mottershead could clearly see Chipperfield was trying to achieve something similar to what he had in mind with Chester Zoo. 

However, for the most part “Our Zoo” has brought favourable interest back to trained animals for the media and the motivations behind great zoo institutions. The fact that, despite its odd time slot at 9pm, it is a family show is very apt. Traditional circus and zoos were places created for families. We seem to be in an age where entertainment is promoting the generation gap more than ever with shows being polarized for different age groups. The success of “Our Zoo” is testament to the unique way unashamed animal entertainment can be the domain for several generations and, best of all, bringing them together.


Breland, K. and Breland, M. (1961). The misbehaviour of organisms. American Psychologist. 16. 681-684.

Kiley-Worthington, M. (1990). Animals in circuses and zoos: Chiron's world? Pitsea: Little Eco Farms Publishing.

The Report Of The Chairman Of The Circus Working Group. Wild Animals In Travelling Circuses (2007).

Zeder MA. (2008). Domestication and early agriculture in the Mediterranean Basin: Origins, diffusion, and impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(33)


Wild Futures is wildlife charity and zoo in Looe, Cornwall specialising in rescued primates originally called the Monkey Sanctuary and among their campaigns is to end the primate pet trade. 

The Born Free Foundation founded in 1984 as Zoo Check by actors Virginia McKenna and the late Bill Travers with their wish to see zoos closed (phased out). 

The Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS) proclaim themselves as a "vegan animal-rights group", they are a small group of activists working for Manchester.  Originally, CAPS was set-up by Irene Heaton in 1957 lobbying against animal used in predominately in the circuses.  As the large animal circuses declined (and with a need to ensure a continued revenue stream) they moved their attentions to other forms of animal use.  Their current campaigns aim to stop the use of animals in 'entertainment' which includes not just circuses but also zoos, the film and television industry, leisure events and the exotic pet trade. 


ADI up to their usual "Monkey Business"

The "Bear" Facts: ADI and CAPS Defeated by Locals