Two lion cubs in Bulgaria

Wild animals in zoos

7.1.2021

Problem zone - Eastern Europe

For thousands of years, zoos have offered people the opportunity to observe dangerous or shy wild animals at close quarters. Zoos in Western Europe usually adhere to the legal standards for the keeping of wild animals like bears, lions, tigers, etc. All Member States in the European Union must implement the Zoos Directive, which aims to ensure that zoos contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and aim for public education. Requirements for zoos include meeting the biological needs of animals and contributing to conservation, education and research.

Sadly, wild animals in zoos in Eastern Europe are often still forced to live crammed into tiny spaces in appalling conditions. For these and many other reasons, zoo animals develop stereotypical behavioural disorders that can also be noticed by zoo visitors. For example, if animals perform the same movements over a longer period of time, this indicates a behavioural disorder that has occurred due to poor or inadequate keeping conditions. Stress, boredom and noise can unfortunately exacerbate these disorders. The absence of such disorders unfortunately does not necessarily mean that animals are in good mental and/or physical condition. Big cats for instance are often very good in hiding their suffering. Inadequate keeping conditions include limited space, poor enclosure furnishing, a lack of enrichment or opportunities to hide and uncontrolled breeding or even inbreeding.

Non-compliance and licensing issues

Not all eastern European countries are part of the European Union and in the non-EU countries the keeping standards in zoos are often low. In the European Union the Zoos Directive was adopted in 1999. Although all zoos in the European Union are bound to these directives, they have still not been enforced in all Member States, even years after their coming into force. Most Member States in Eastern Europe have transposed the Zoos Directive into national legislation but often it is not properly enforced. This is due to local authorities implementing the national zoos legislation in their countries at their own discretion. Frequently, the know-how is lacking and professional development opportunities are not offered to zoo staff. This has already led to many zoos in Eastern Europe losing their licenses to keep wild animals such as bears, lions and tigers. Some zoos have been closed for years while the animals are still there, suffering. Other zoos remain open, operating without a license, or have even been granted a license despite not fulfilling the requirements.

Bulgaria for example, has been a Member State since 2007, but is systematically failing to get zoos to fulfill any of the required functions. On the contrary, the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Water has deliberately legalised inappropriate facilities keeping wildlife species by granting them a zoo permit, without ensuring that they meet animal husbandry, conservation and education standards. Even facilities that remain illegal have been allowed to continue to keep and breed wild animals. Similar situations have been observed in Romania and Croatia: authorities simply allowing illegal wild animal keeping in non-licensed zoos to continue or legalising these activities by granting them a zoo permit without requiring the facility to fulfil the legal obligation. FOUR PAWS has collected evidence of unsuitable conditions, poor health and welfare, uncontrolled breeding and zoos operating without or with a license despite not meeting the requirements.  

what you can do

  • Do not visit badly run zoos and animal parks.
  • Never take part in wild animal photo or petting opportunities.
  • Consider how animals experience the zoo. For you it is a day visit, for them it is a lifetime.
  • Complain about inadequate keeping conditions directly to the zoo management and the responsible (local) authorities.
  • Check the education and conservation value that the zoo provides.
  • Be informed about projects to protect wild animal species in their home countries and support them.
  • Call on the Bulgarian Prime Minister to end the legalisation of the inappropriate keeping of wild animals.

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