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Animal sanctuary or zoo! What’s the difference?


Previously called menageries, zoos have been around for much longer than sanctuaries. Three thousand five hundred years ago the ancient Egyptians were keeping hippos, hartebeest, elephants, baboons, wildcats and other wild African animals in menageries for public exhibition.

King John created a menagerie of exotic animals, including lions, at the Tower of London in 1204 and Henry the 3rd was recorded as receiving three leopards as a wedding gift from the Emperor of Rome.

The term zoo came into common use after the establishment of the London Zoological Gardens in Regents Park in 1928 and today over 1000 major zoos, and many more smaller ones, now exist worldwide. With their primary objective being to provide a public attraction it is no surprise to find that 80% of the World’s major zoos are in cities.

In the not so distant past Zoos have even displayed humans in cages. In 1906 the Bronx Zoo in the USA displayed a Congolese pigmy named Ota Benga in a cage with chimpanzees. They thought it would be interesting for people to see evolution at work.

Africans were also displayed in cages at the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition, and incredibly as late as 1958 Congolese natives were exhibited in a cage at the EXPO 58 exhibition in Brussels.

The history of zoos therefore paints a clear picture of their “raison d’ ètre”. They are private or public exhibits, almost exclusively with profit as their prime motivation. Over the past fifty years public concern and ethical opinion has changed the way zoos present themselves, and to a much smaller degree how they operate.

To distance themselves from the stigma that zoos justifiably acquired many have changed their names to become conservation parks, bioparks, or just parks and gardens. Rather cynically some now refer to themselves as sanctuaries, but continue to operate as zoos, hoping that the public will not recognise the difference.

In any event most now avoid any mention of the word “Zoo” and go to great lengths to emphasise their role in conservation. The sad truth is that zoos make a minuscule contribution to conservation. Associating themselves with conservation however makes for substantial contributions to the zoo.

Another popular justification for keeping animals in captivity is research. The most tangible product of this research over the past thirty years however has been the discovery of better ways to breed animals for use in zoos.

Around 25% of all the animals on display in a zoo will have typically been bred in the zoo and many of these will have displaced an equal number of older animals, which will then have become unwanted surplus and been disposed of. In other words around 25% of a zoo’s animals are replaced every year, because young animals bring in more visitors and are less likely to require costly veterinary attention.

Some zoos butcher their unwanted animals and use them as feed, while others try to sell them on to other zoos for breeding or find someone else who is willing to take them. What happens to them from that time onwards is usually of no concern to their former owners.

Of course new animals are also purchased by zoos from the wild. They need these to ensure sufficient genetic diversity in their breeding stock. Unfortunately around seventy five percent of wild monkeys and apes die within twenty months of entering captivity.

Zoos create captivity where it previously didn’t exist. They also perpetuate it by breeding animals into a life of captivity. The chances of captive animals ever being returned to a viable life in the wild is extremely slim. Not only is their no financial gain for the zoo, and hence no motivation, but the animals themselves will not have acquired the essential survival skills needed to feed and protect themselves, nor the resistance to the conditions and pathogens that they will encounter in the wild environment.

In summary, zoos breed animals and import others from the wild. In doing so they consign them to a life of captivity and a very uncertain future with respect to their extended care. In addition their primary objective in keeping animals is for exhibition to the public and consequently for profit. Zoos are often supported as public amenities by local councils and funding agencies.


Exotic animal sanctuaries are a relatively recent phenomenon in the developed World, partly brought about by the activities of zoos and circuses. Public attitudes have changed and animals are now quite justifiably seen as having rights that progressively need to be defended.

A true sanctuary does not have a breeding program. Breeding perpetuates captivity.

A true sanctuary will never import animals from the wild; this would create captivity where it did not previously exist.

A true sanctuary will not act as a source of supply of animals to other organisations or individuals.

At Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary we try, by educating people, to reduce the number of animals being taken from the wild or bred into captivity and we hope that one day sanctuaries will no longer be required. We are unlikely to see this in our lifetime however and recognise that many misguided organisations and individuals are still committing wild species to captivity from which they will have no hope of escape and will subsequently become seen as an unwanted burden.

In the meantime we are dedicated to providing unwanted animals with a comfortable and dignified existence for the remainder of their natural lives. This means putting the needs of the animal first rather than ensuring it is simply displayed to the public in the optimum way.

As sanctuaries are not intended to be public exhibits they tend to be the poor relations when it comes to funding support. Invariably sanctuaries only exist by the support of their operators, volunteers and public charity. However they put their support to best use by focusing their efforts on the welfare of the animals and not forcing them to live in unnatural or stressed situations just to please the visitors.

At Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary we welcome visitors to come and see our work and to participate in any way they can to help us continue to provide a vital service that few others in Europe are prepared to offer to unwanted and sometimes infirm monkeys and apes, especially those that require special care.