I visited the Zoo last week, to see if I could find out whether Zoo animals are happy.

I’ve been intending to go for months; I found that I was really curious to know what it would feel like, whether the animals would talk to me, what they might say.

Now, generally speaking I’m not a fan of Zoos. It makes me very uncomfortable to see any animal, or bird, caged. However, I’m also realistic – humans as a species have caused Zoos to be necessary, the only place that some animals are safe from hunting, persecution, extinction. And, I believe that the majority of zoo keepers love the animals they are in charge of, and do their very best for them.

I do question whether there needs to be so many zoos… New Zealand has zoos, wildlife parks, wildlife reserves, bird sanctuaries, aquariums… Does every major city need its own? Or might that do a disservice to the animals it homes – perhaps fewer, bigger zoos would be better, to provide more ACCURATE living conditions? Should zoos contain animals from completely different continents – and therefore living conditions?

Anyway, those are musings that are probably outwith my control. But worth consideration.

So, I finally made it to my local zoo.

I will say up front that I didn’t feel that there was anything particularly ‘wrong’ with the zoo. And, I chatted to and witnessed one zoo keeper who had a lovely bond with the birds she was taking care of. There were definitely some enclosures that seemed very small to me – but, I have no idea whether there is more space for those species behind the scenes, that the public don’t see or aren’t aware of.

I made my way around the zoo, asking at each enclosure if they were happy, and whether there was anyone there who would like to talk to me. Quite a lot said they were happy – which I suppose surprised me. But if you consider the species it makes more sense; birds tended to be happier than mammals, and the more ‘domesticated’ species were also more satisfied.

Please note that what follows is just my opinion / experience.

Where possible I ‘measured’ things like happiness, whether they liked living there, to give a clearer idea of their feelings.

are zoo animals happy
Scarlet Macaws

The very first enclosure I came to housed a pair of Scarlet Macaws. They really weren’t happy, I could feel the sadness emanating off of them. When I asked them why they were unhappy, they just shrugged. I asked, have you been here a long time? Another shrug… ‘We’ve lost track of time.’ There were another two large parrots next door; I asked if they’d be happier all in together? No. So I asked, what do you want? ‘Open skies, and unlimited space.’ I got quite teary at that, and told them I was so sorry that I couldn’t help them. I sent them lots of love, energetically. I told them that they are helping to educate humans…. they really didn’t care about that.

Interestingly, the Blue and Yellow Macaws in the next enclosure were pretty happy.

Nearby, the Cotton Top Tamarins were extremely cute! There was a breeding pair, with their young baby – and boy, they’re proud of her. She was very active (see the clip below), as young animals tend to be, and knew no different regarding her living conditions. However, both parents measured 0/5 when asked whether they were happy living there. They did say that they are well looked after, and they know that they’re safe. There wasn’t anything they specifically wanted or needed – the conditions are just not what they would choose. Their overall happiness measured 3/5.

The Cotton Top Tamarins –

There was a cage that housed 14 Masked Lovebirds – very cute little things. They said that they’re ok because they’re together. They’ve got what they need, and don’t really know any different.

are zoo animals happy
Masked Lovebirds

I found the Brown Capuchins interesting. They know that they’re helping to educate people. They don’t like living there, but they do have everything they need. However, they feel that they are missing out; they want to explore more. The younger ones were very active. Their overall happiness measured 3/5. There was one (older I’d guess), that did seem to have a stereotypical behaviour:

According to www.wildlife.org.nz, Stereotypic behaviour is defined as a repetitive, invariant behaviour pattern with no obvious goal or function. Stereotypic behaviour is not seen in animals in the wild and is understood to be abnormal and is therefore a negative factor in conservation captive breeding.

are zoo animals happy
Not the best pic, but this Brown Capuchin seemed to display stereotypical behaviour, walking round and round the enclosure

The Ruffed Lemurs were gorgeous!

Like a cross between a Maine Coon cat and a monkey, lol. (You can totally see why some of these really cute animals end up as pets, unfortunately.) One in particular really liked posing for photos, and knows she’s cute. However, they don’t like living there, and happiness measured 2/5. They’re getting everything that they need, but would like more variety.

are zoo animals happy
Ruffed Lemur

As a slight aside, when I arrived at the zoo late morning (around 11am) there were a LOT of kids, and consequently quite a hubub (or, less charitably, a constant racket). I found that immensely tiring and wondered how on earth the animals cope – they obviously have no option but to put up with it, and learn to tune it out. Isn’t it a shame that we have no reverence for what these animals are doing for us? That we can’t even be quiet and respectful around them?

It seemed that the Meerkats were really not happy (0/5). They have everything they need, but, ‘the enclosure isn’t right’. They mind people looking at them, and said there wasn’t enough space. When I said, ‘you’re helping educate people who otherwise might not see a meerkat’, they said, ‘Why do they need to see me at all?

are zoo animals happy

The Chimps… oh, the chimps.

All I felt was sadness. I felt overwhelmed, that I couldn’t make their life better for them. I asked, overall is life ok? They shrugged. Do you know any different? ‘No.’ The food and the keepers are ok. They don’t mind being watched, or the noise. But, they want to go (ie range) further; that would make them happy. As it was their happiness measured 0/5.

are zoo animals happy

Coincidentally, I was at the Chimp enclosure when the ‘keeper talk’ was about to start. She threw lots of food down to them, I guess partly to feed them, partly to get them to come where we could see, and partly so there was something for us to look at (ie them moving around). However, one of the females apparently has extreme food anxiety, and I found that distressing to watch – it felt to me far like voyeurism to me, to stay and observe, so I left. I can’t see how having all those people watching is going to improve things for her.

I spotted no Fishing Cats at their enclosure, which seemed very small to me – but when I asked ‘are you ok?’ I got back, ‘This is crap‘. Happiness was 0/5.

are zoo animals happy
Saving Sumatran Tigers

The Sumatran Tigers were stunning.

I asked, do you know why you’re here? Yes. Is it ok here? Yes. You like it? They said Yes – but measured 0/5. ‘What choice do we have?‘ And then, ‘this is ok compared to the alternative.’ They know they’re safer there. I asked, do they look after you well here? Yes, 5/5.

are zoo animals happy
Sumatran Tigers

The Tapir was quite happy, as were the Alpacas, and the pigs.

I was amazed around this time about how clueless some parents are. There were kids climbing on enclosure fences, and kids trying to feed animals…. Oh my.

I was lucky that 2 Giraffes came up to the fence to feed. I asked, is it ok here? ‘No’. There’s not enough space. Their overall happiness measured 3/5. I asked, do you know why you’re here? No – I explained (for what it’s worth). They don’t mind people looking at them.

are zoo animals happy

The American Bison were fine; they had 2 babies too, which seemed to put them in a parental glow.

At this point I recorded a quick video to upload to Facebook –

Something about the Spider Monkeys concerned me. When I asked if they were ok, I got ‘No’. They said that they have enough space, and the food and the keepers are fine. But, their happiness measured 0/5. They know why they are there, and it makes them sad. When I first passed them it seemed to be nap time; 2 were asleep on a log, and another was lying on its back on the ground, only a foot or so away from the fence. That struck me as odd behaviour, and I suppose points towards their desensitisation and habituation towards their surroundings and visitors. The feel I got from it was one of resignation.

are zoo animals happy
Spider Monkey

I’ve seen Rhino’s in the wild before (I did a horseback safari in South Africa 14 years ago) – but had totally forgotten how huge they are! They were surprisingly ok. They know they are safe there, and they’re well looked after. Their overall happiness measured 5/5.

are zoo animals happy

The zoo is doing a good job of having educational material outside the enclosures (though, I’d have liked to know more stats – you know I love my statistics, right?! – particularly how many of each particular animal they have at the zoo).

And finally, I walked through the Native Birds section, and came to a Morepork. It really minded being looked at, and wanted to be left alone. They are nocturnal, so it could be as simple as that. It seemed a small enclosure to me, and definitely craved more space and the ability to ‘get away’. I didn’t take its picture.

So there you have it…

My conclusions?

Overall I guess it’s not as bad as you might think… Many of the animals (eg all the ones I haven’t specifically mentioned), are ok, and quite a few know that they’re in the best place, are safe and well looked after. Even those that weren’t super happy said that the food and the keepers were fine.

It comes back around to whether zoos are necessary, how we can improve them, and, for me, how we can show more gratitude and respect to those animals that are ultimately there for our education and (unfortunately) entertainment…

I hope that my visit did something to help the animals I spoke to. I sent them all copious amounts of love – and I do think that they were grateful that someone was listening to them, even if they couldn’t do much to improve things.

I’d love to hear your comments or experiences below!

Trisha x

Grab my ‘Insider’s Guide to Animal Communication’ – a 12 page e-book to help you understand, and communicate better with your horse or pet – here.

About Trisha

Trisha Wren has been an equine professional for most of her adult life.  She rode, competed, and taught Western Riding for 15 years in Scotland, then taught horse and rider bio-mechanics in New Zealand and Australia for 10 years.  She’s been a full time horse and animal communicator since April 2016. Find out more about Trisha here and sign up for her self paced Animal Communication course here.