Originally appeared on The Huffington Post on 18/08/2015
For the last seven years, I've spent a portion of the school holidays doing live shows at some of the nation's best-known zoos. The shows attract thousands, mostly families with younger kids, and most leave with big smiles on their faces. I do however, every year receive a number of messages that go something like this: "You're a massive hypocrite. You claim to be a conservationist, to care about wild animals, and yet you endorse institutions that keep these noble beasts imprisoned behind bars." My stance on this criticism - for which I have a certain amount of sympathy - is rather too complex to get across in 140 characters or less, so I decided to offer a more considered response to the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity.
The first thing I have to say is - deep breath - I do support zoos. Admittedly with reservations, and with dreams of how they could be better, but sixteen years working in wildlife media has convinced me that they have an essential role to play in the healthy future of our planet. Much of my conversion dates back to a night I had drinking Guinness in a distant Scottish pub with Terry Nutkins.
Sadly no longer with us, Terry was the man best known for the stumpy fingers he had bitten off by otters, for breaking down on a major motorway with a sea lion in the back of his van, and was the driving force behind the Really Wild Show (a kid's wildlife series that ended up running for 20 years). Terry gave his whole life to the good of wildlife, and ended up living in the most remote part of Scotland in glorious wilderness... but grew up in the middle of London, to parents who knew and cared nothing for nature. He gained all of his inspiration from climbing over the wall into London Zoo and gazing at the elephants. Despite spending the next sixty years filming and living with animals in the wild, he still looked back on the zoo as the place that changed his life. And I see kids like Terry every hour when I'm doing my zoo talks; youngsters fired with a zeal that will become a life's passion. Young people particularly get enthused by what they can see, smell, touch and feel. A lion on the telly is OK, but a real lion is something else entirely...