The global debate as to whether zoos are good or bad is still controversial 🤔👍👎 - I believe zoos exist on a spectrum from fantastic to terrible. The good ones raise awareness of environmental issues, run/support conservation projects around the world (e.g. Chester Zoo has projects in >30 countries), have excellent facilities and animal welfare, and are part of broad breeding and reintroduction programmes. The bad ones simply don't do these things. But for me there's something even the best zoos in the world are doing wrong - serving meat 🍔🌭🥓.
I'll start by sciencing my argument up a little (sciencing is definitely a word). Trying to feed our current global population of ~7.6 billion people is not only driving climate change and depleting water supplies, but also devastating our ecosystems on land and in our oceans 👨👨👧👦👨👩👧👧👩👩👧👦🌍.With population growth expected to be at ~9 billion by 2050 we're going to place HUGE pressures on our food supply systems; we must not only meet the rapidly changing demand for food from a larger and richer population (mo' money typically means mo' meat 🍖), but do so in ways that are environmentally and socially sustainable.
So how can we do this?? A recent scientific paper shows that avoiding meat and dairy is the biggest way we can reduce our environmental impact 🐄. Let me hit you with some stats from their paper - just by avoiding animal products we can reduce food’s land use by a whopping 76% (3.1 billion hectares), greenhouse gas emissions by 49% (~6.6 billion metric tons of CO2), ocean acidification by ~50%, and eutrophication by ~49%. The impacts of livestock agriculture don't stop there either, as cattle farming is one of the major drivers of deforestation worldwide, e.g. responsible for ~70% of deforestation in the Amazon🌳. By replacing these forested areas with livestock we're also escalating human-wildlife conflicts, and as a result our revered large carnivores are in a nosedive worldwide 📉. Reducing these things is even more pertinent given the current climate crisis, and doing nothing will leave us waving goodbye to a healthy planet.
📸 Lori & Rich Rothstein
So in a world where we're collectively contributing to a 6th mass extinction of wildlife through our meaty indulgences, surely it's worth organisations that focus on conservation (like zoos) to make a simple switch from a beef burger to a veggie burger (I'd recommend the one and only Linda McCartney burgers 😋😍) to save the beauty of a natural world that's evolved over billions of years and that they're trying to protect?
Hypocrisy vs Leadership
Let's ignore the sad ethical hypocrisy of zoos pampering certain species like endangered banteng (a cow from southeast Asia), whilst serving others like British cows on a plate, and move onto the conservation element of zoos.
📸 Jo-Anne McArthur/ We Animals
As I mentioned, good zoos not only run conservation projects but raise public awareness of conservation issues and strive for change 💪. And with >700 million people visiting zoos and aquariums worldwide, they're perfectly placed to inform us of how we can take actions to help protect wildlife 🐼. Given that we now know avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way we can help the environment, surely this should be a top priority? Zoos could argue that they need to try satisfy all their customers, but shouldn't they be leading the way for conservation and setting an example? Otherwise what do they stand for? Besides, visitors could surely survive one vegetarian meal on the odd occasion they visit?
Such a collective reduction in meat would have massive positive impacts for the environment and, with adequate signage explaining the reasoning behind their veggie revolution, could increase awareness amongst millions of people and may also snowball change 📈. Funnily enough, our attitudes often follow our behaviours (not the other way around) and our behaviours are most influenced by what other people around us are doing (cultural norms) or what we've been 'made' to do through things like fines (think of seatbelt laws, smoking bans, and paying 5p for plastic bags 🚔🚭🛍️). Creating a veggie-only culture in a fun, engaging, and hopefully science-based environment like a zoo, may lead to small individual shifts in the behaviours and attitudes of hundreds of millions of visitors, equalling immense bonuses for our world and all the wildlife suffering the consequences of livestock production 🐮🐆.
📸 Simone Sbaraglia
Even companies without environmental ties are making more of an effort than the best zoos 🎉 - for example WeWork will no longer serve meat at company events and made a pledge to stop reimbursing employees for meals that include red meat, poultry, or pork 👌. Google is experimenting with delicious veggie dishes to 'nudge' its employees to eat less meat as part of its sustainability vision. I've personally attended several conservation conferences where the food was strictly vegetarian because it's well-known amongst conservationists to reduce your environmental footprint 👣🌏. So what's the hold up in the best UK conservation-based zoos like ZSL, Chester Zoo, Durrel Wildlife Park, and Edinburgh Zoo and others all over the world? 🤔 I was over the moon to hear recently that Fife Zoo are veggie-only in their restaurants!! That's because they know how much of a difference it can make, and that's exactly the kind of leadership we need. Top work!
The facts are clear that we can't meat a growing demand for protein and nutrients in an environmentally and socially sustainable way with animal products 🙅🏾♀️🙅🏻♂️. We as the consumers have the greatest power to make a difference, but those zoos which are doing wonderful things for conservation have a responsibility to remove meat from their menus and lead by example for the future of our natural world and the wildlife they're aiming to protect 💪🐯.