From Conquerors to Custodians: In Defence of Zoos, Ambassador Animals, and Captive Breeding (Part I)

Header Photo Credit: Terry Allen

Series Contents:
Part I: Introduction – In Defence of Zoos
Part II: The History of Zoos & Animal Welfare Organisations

PART I – Introduction

There is so much to discuss on a topic like this, especially for someone like me who, although currently a historian, grew up working on a conservation facility with my family, and still occasionally works in this field. This article is not a quick pop-sci piece, this is a lengthy essay discussing the merits of zoological facilities and the issues they are facing, and it is very near and dear to my heart. In the interests of academic integrity, I have provided a full disclosure/disclaimer regarding my affiliations and biases at the end of this article.

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I had an early start with animals and this relationship has stayed with me my entire life. This is part of the reason I believe animal encounters, if properly managed, can be positive and life-changing for the animal and the visitor.

My goal here is to give you an in-depth understanding on conservation, zoos, and ambassador animal programs, and to thoroughly answer the biggest questions animal facilities face. In part, this is to provide a defence for some of these facilities who have found themselves under attack recently, and many unfairly so, but to also educate others who might want to help but are swamped by misinformation and emotional fervour that often colours attempts at improving and understanding animal facilities.

As such, I have split the article into several pieces to make it easier to digest and work with. This will also help me respond to any new information as this series unfolds.

This series has helped me take a long, hard look at conservation and its many issues, and I hope it answers the same questions for you as it has for me.

  • Part I will be an introduction to globalisation and the environment, and what this article series is ultimately about, as well as it’s goals, and which questions it will answer.
  • Part II will be a brief history of zoos for context, and an explanation of the various facilities and organisations that manage and monitor them.
  • Part III will be about ethics, welfare, tourism and the organisations involved there.
  • Part IV will be the actual Q&A – answering the important questions about these issues and what can be done about them.
  • Part V will address specific accusations and topics such as canned lion hunting, stances taken by certain organisations, “hunting for conservation”, and volunteer exploitation.
  • Part VI will be the conclusion where I’ll wrap all of this up in a neat few lines of text (unlikely, but one can hope).
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David Attenborough, possibly the world’s most famous and recognisable conservationist and naturalist. Listen below to his stance on zoos.


Before we get too much further, it might help to understand some basic terms that will be used throughout this series:

Captive breeding is the reproduction of plants or animals in controlled environments, such as zoos, wildlife reserves, conservation facilities etc, with the intention of preventing population decline of species that are under threat of extinction from human activities or other events.

Ambassador Animals are animals that are used for interaction with and education of the public. In some cases the animal might be tame or docile, or used to human handling, and might be used for direct contact, for example touching a cheetah or an owl. And in other cases the animal may be unsafe for human interaction, except by a trained professional, and is used for indirect interaction, such as a snake bite demonstration with venomous snakes. (It should be noted that “cub-petting” does not fall under this category as often the cub-petting industry focuses on profit as opposed to education and does not take the visitor nor the animals safety into consideration.)

Eco-tourism is defined by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as: “Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”

Endangered Species are animals, plants etc that are under threat of going extinct due to sharply reduced populations. The moniker “critically endangered” is applied to those species that are only a few deaths away from going utterly extinct.

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Even something as common as a chicken can be an ambassador animal and help connect people to their environment.

Globalisation and the Environment

As we have expanded globally as a species, and as our technologies have advanced, we have become more aware of our impact on our local and our global environment. We have been able to measure this impact in hard, scientific fact and, thanks to communication technologies such as photography and the internet, we are able to share these findings and have come to realise our relationship with the natural world is, quite frankly, awful.

The “Green Movement“, which has sprung up over the last 50 years, has gained much more traction since the early 90’s and has become a force that has changed minds in corporations, governments, and regular people. The struggle is on-going, but many zoological facilities, NGO’s, and NPO’s are doing whatever they can to ensure the safety of the natural world and are changing our relationship with our environment from conquerors to custodians.

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The Green Belt Movement is an excellent example of the Green Movement and aims to create sustainable tourism and living practices all whilst planting new growth in environments where it is sorely needed.

The significant difference between conqueror and custodian being that we are realising we are not lords over nature, but are rather members of a huge, interconnected web and that our actions have serious consequences. We are realising that it is better to be custodians; to protect, nurture and understand the environment rather than abuse and plunder. We are realising this because we are living in a time when our actions have caught up with us. And the consequences are severe.

To that end, a moral and ethical debate has arisen along with the factual realisations of what we’ve done. We know WHY we’re trying to save the environment, but we’re also asking if HOW we’re doing it is still OK. This is an important question for a growing global society to be asking.

2018 has seen some of the sharpest changes in temperature worldwide, and these trends have been shown to be directly affecting and destroying huge parts of ecosystems worldwide. The earth is on the verge of a collapse.
Credit: Washington Post

The issues surrounding zoological facilities, animal breeding and ambassador animal programs (that is to say, members of the public touching or handling animals), form part of  these discussions as such actions have come under the spotlight quite heavily over the past decade and are certainly controversial on many levels.

It should be noted that many places that house animals are terrible and harmful spaces. Circuses that use animals in their shows are historically abusive and harmful to their animals, many other zoos, animal parks and sanctuaries barely deserve those titles as they neglect, abuse and/or exploit their animals for profit. These places are certainly worthy of criticism and should be taken to task for their crimes.

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The Tiger Temple in Thailand is known for unethical and harmful animal encounter practices.

However, in this fervour to protect our environment and express our moral virtues, there is the very real danger of targeting places that are actually doing good work and that are possibly too weak or undermanned to defend themselves from parts of the Green Movement that are highly aggressive, ignorant and/or misinformed. Many of the more militant members of these movements tend to see all such facilities as evil, even if the reality on the ground is very different to their perceptions, and some will even go so far as to kill healthy, captive animals rather than see them in enclosures.

In (a very limited) defence of environmental extremism, some good has been done in the name of helping the environment, and extreme actions have sometimes yielded excellent results. For example, the Sea Shepherd organisation which has often forced Japan to scale down its wailing operations. In other cases some zoos have also been forced to change their practices to align with a more moral outlook much to the benefit of the animals there.

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The Sea Shepherd organisation is known for being extreme, but also for getting positive results for whale conservation.

Though we should be aware that the danger also lies in angry internet mobs and witch-hunts wherein a facility will be targeted even if it has been vetted by relevant environmental authorities. This is an unfortunate side-effect of social media for as much as it can be used as a tool for good, it can also be used to incite violence and promote ignorance and hatred. As a rule, the dangers of extremism outweigh the benefits and there are many more horror stories than successes in such actions.

This is also why we are seeing a rise of flat-Earth, climate change denial, and anti-vaccination movements – despite our advancements in technology and understanding, we are still prone to our base desires and instincts which can easily be twisted if they are not challenged with critical thinking skills – and even then, it’s not a magic bullet to fix thinking patterns.

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What’s in a Question?

I’m going to do my best to ask and answer some of the most important questions surrounding the zoological industry in the most objective and factual manner I can, but I will be restraining my answers mostly to South Africa and in particular to those questions that have been directed at or are relevant to the Cango Wildlife Ranch in Oudtshoorn, South Africa which I will be using as a case study.

The Cango Wildlife Ranch (CWR) is a tourism, education and endangered species breeding facility where I grew up and worked for a significant portion of my life before I went on to study history. It prides itself on being ethical and safe, for the animals and visitors, and I believe it exemplifies how a facility should treat it’s animals. I have visited multiple other facilities around the world, and  I will refer to them in this series, but the CWR is what I am most familiar with.

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The Cango Wildlife Ranch is known for it’s ethical cheetah breeding and excellent tourism education programs. Their NPO, the Cheetah Preservation Foundation, does sterling work in the plight of cheetah and other endangered species.

Some of the questions we will be addressing include:

  • Is the touching of animals in a zoological facility by visitors ethical and/or traumatising for the animals in question?
  • Is hand-raising captive animals specifically for touching ethical and/or traumatising for the animal in question?
  • Is the educational role of ambassador animals overstated and not worth the emotional costs, if any, to the animal? Does it just boil down to entertainment?
  • Is captive breeding of animals sustainable in South Africa, and especially with reference to cheetah?
  • Is there any point to a captive breeding program if the animal is not released into the wild?
  • If most animal facilities abuse their animals for profit, does that mean all facilities should be shut down even if their animals are happy and healthy?
  • Is separating new born cubs from their mother traumatic for the cubs and mother? And is the hand-raising of said cubs for Ambassador Animal programs ethical?

All these questions are worth entire books and themselves generate hundreds of other questions, but for brevity’s sake I will try to address them in a concise and focused manner according to my limited scope in this field but with reference to those who have studied this sufficiently and have more authority and experience than I do – in other words, this isn’t just my opinion and I will report the information even if it disagrees with what I believe.

I urge you to do your own research from multiple, peer-reviewed and accredited sources, to think critically and to be aware of who the writer is as their motivations may influence their results.

Read Part II “The History of Zoos & Animal Welfare Organisations” here.


The views and opinions expressed in this article and its series are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Cango Wildlife Ranch. Every effort has been made to ensure that the information provided on this website and any material available from it is accurate.


In order to ensure I am not accused of bias or otherwise hiding this information, I will herewith provide full disclosure on my connection. First and foremost, I am the son of Andrew and Glenn Eriksen who own the Cango Wildlife Ranch (CWR) in Oudtshoorn, South Africa – an endangered species breeding facility that also has an animal ambassador program. I grew up and worked there for most of my life and thus will have a strong bias towards my family’s facility. I did eventually leave the Ranch and went to university where I decided to study history, including environmental and conservation history. Currently I am studying a PhD in History focusing on the experiences of war veterans. I should also add that whereas I do feel there are many, many facilities that abuse animals horribly and do offer animal touching for all the wrong reasons, I believe that the CWR is not such a facility. I believe that wholeheartedly and I also believe that if animal touching can be done right, it is being done right at CWR.

It should be noted that even though I have a very healthy working knowledge of animal behaviour and conservation, I am not a trained zoologist, nor have I ever claimed to be. However, I have been trained to think critically, to try and not let emotion dictate my findings, to gather facts from multiple sources and corroborate their authenticity against experience, knowledge and other studies, and to allow my hypothesis to change based on new evidence. I raise this because I feel that many times the attacks against facilities like the CWR are couched in emotional outbursts rather than actual facts and, even though I have a familial and emotional bond to the facility, I would like to think that I can rely on my training enough that my findings here will reflect the truth and not my personal biases. Thus my full disclosure.

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