Action for Primates

Long-tailed macaques, photo by Sarah Kite
Facebook icon Instagram icon X icon Vimeo icon Contact us via E-mail

Non-human Primates in Zoos

The issue

White-cheeked gibbon in French zoo; Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation
White-cheeked gibbon in French zoo
Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation

Millions of wild animals, including non-human primates, are held captive in thousands of zoos across the world. Many zoos are not accredited and maintain poor standards, so that the complex social, behavioural and psychological needs of non-human primates are not met. In many zoos, wild animals are subjected to the additional stress of being used as photo props, forced to take part in shows and encounters with people to 'entertain' visitors.

The artificial and restricted environment in which these animals are kept – even so-called natural enclosures – cannot compare with their natural habitat. Denied their freedom inside zoos, non-human primates have no control over their lives, which are often a mixture of boredom, frustration, lack of privacy, continuous anxiety and fear from exposure to people (Collins et al; Hosey et al 2023)...and worse. In testament to the harmful environment of zoos, some are using drugs to 'calm' the animals (Laidman 2005).

Further, non-human primates in zoos are no longer part of their normal ecosystem. They cannot contribute to the normal cycle of life and death; they cannot contribute to the propagation of their species nor have an impact on the gene pool of their species.

Another disturbing issue is the killing of healthy animals. When zoos have a 'surplus' of a particular species or do not want to keep them for various reasons, they may kill the animals or send them to be used in research laboratories to make room for others (Anon 2004, 2017; Prescott 2006; Wikipedia). The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) executive director Dr Lesley Dickie estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 animals are management-euthanised in European zoos in any given year (Barnes 2014).

Why do people support the existence of zoos

Zoos and those who support them will justify their existence for various reasons, including education and conservation (McKie 2020).

Sumatran orangutan being observed by children in German zoo; Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation
Sumatran orangutan and children in German zoo
Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation

Education: People often defend zoos on the basis that these institutions somehow 'educate' people about wildlife and give them a better appreciation which might lead to a more benevolent view. However, one cannot gain a true appreciation for wildlife by seeing them in captivity, in a setting that is abnormal and artificial for them. A well-done nature documentary on wild animals in their natural environment would provide a better education, understanding and appreciation of the species. The few studies that have been done on this issue have shown that, in general, people do not go to zoos to be educated; they go to be 'entertained' and spend most of their time socialising with each other or viewing the 'exciting exhibits'. The presence of and noise caused by visitors has a detrimental effect on the animals (Quadros et al 2014; Sherwen et al 2015). Just as important is the actual 'lesson' that people are being 'taught': because they see these animals in what are virtual prisons, people come away thinking (either overtly or subconsciously) that it is okay to take animals from the wild and put them in cages if it is in the interests of people and even if it is not in the interests of the animals. This is perhaps the worst 'lesson' or 'education' that is unavoidably provided by zoos.

Chimpanzee in German zoo; Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation
Chimpanzee in German zoo
Jo-Anne McArthur / Born Free Foundation

Conservation: People also defend zoos on the basis that this is the only place some species might survive or that we can save a species from extinction in this way. There are literally many thousands of species which are threatened, endangered or on the brink of extinction due to human activities; we simply do not have the resources to save them all in this fashion. Moreover, zoos are usually full of non-threatened, appealing species, kept in captivity simply to entertain the public. Human encroachment on and destruction of habitat are the most important issues with respect to wildlife and extinction. No captive breeding program could ever resolve this situation. If, for example, we are successful at breeding orangutans in a zoo, where do we release them if they no longer have a home in the wild? How will people learn that the most important things that we as humans can do for wild animals are to protect their habitats and to stop capturing and killing them. And, just as importantly, breeding orangutans in captivity, an abnormal environment where they will have none of the natural and normal pressures on their lives, will lead to individuals who are not 'real' orangutans in the wildlife sense.

Way forward

People should not patronise zoos. Instead, children and others should be encouraged to watch quality wildlife documentaries to appreciate wild animals in their natural habitats and as part of the world's ecosystem. People should also be encouraged to donate to worthwhile projects that protect wildlife habitats, rather than pay to watch wild animals confined in an artificial environment.


  1. Anonymous 2017-02-21 Japan zoo culls 57 monkeys carrying 'invasive' genes accessed 2020-06-03
  2. Anonymous 2004-10-13 World Briefings: Finland: Public Outcry Saves Baboons The New York Times accessed 2019-09-16
  3. A plan by the Helsinki Zoo to kill its 14 baboons and replace them with more cold-resistant Japanese snow monkeys caused such an uproar in Finland that the zoo has been forced to keep them.
  4. Barnes, Hannah 2014-02-27 How many healthy animals do zoos put down? BBC News accessed 2020-07-14
  5. Collins, Courtney; McKeown, Sean and O'Riordan, Ruth 2023-06-03 A comprehensive investigation of negative visitor behaviour in the zoo setting and captive animals' behavioural response Heliyon 9(6):e16879
  6. Hosey, Geoff; Ward, Samantha and Melfi, Vicky 2023-06-01 The effect of visitors on the behaviour of zoo-housed primates: A test of four hypotheses Applied Animal Behaviour Science 263:105938
  7. Small arboreal primates were more likely to be affected negatively by visitors.
    Visitor noise was associated with negative responses by primates
  8. Laidman, Jenni 2005-09-12 Zoos using drugs to help manage anxious animals The Blade accessed 2020-07-14
  9. McKie, Robin 2020-02-02 Is it time to shut down the zoos? The Guardian accessed 2020-07-14
  10. Prescott, Mark J. 2006-07-01 Finding new homes for ex-laboratory and surplus zoo primates Laboratory Primate Newsletter 45(3):5-8
  11. Quadros, Sandra; Goulart, Vinicius D.L.; Passos, Luiza; Vecci, Marco A.M. and Young, Robert J. 2014-07-01 Zoo visitor effect on mammal behaviour: Does noise matter? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 156:78-84
  12. Sherwen, Sally L.; Harvey, Trista J.; Magrath, Michael J.L.; Butler, Kym L.; Fanson, Kerry V. and Hemsworth, Paul H. 2015-06-01 Effects of visual contact with zoo visitors on black-capped capuchin welfare Applied Animal Behaviour Science 167:65-73
  13. Wikipedia 2020-04-24 List of animals culled in zoos Wikipedia accessed 2020-06-03