To hell in a gift basket:  Corporate conservation and philanthrocapitalism

Dr Paula Arcari

In July 2021, the Born Free Foundation (BFF) published another in a series of reports that challenge the claims, and public perception, of zoos as venerable institutions dedicated to conservation and preventing extinction.

The reports (see references) focus on a cohort of nine UK zoos that identify themselves as progressive in terms of “plough[ing] any charitable surplus back into their ethical purpose” – known as the Consortium of Charitable Zoos (Regan 2004). The latest report finds these zoos spend on average just 4.2% of their annual income on in situ conservation (conservation that takes place on-site, in wild nature), considerably lower than the 25% to 30% the public believes zoos spend (see also BFF, May 2007).

My own investigations have revealed that charitable zoos’ spending on all ‘conservation’ (vaguely defined) typically matches or is significantly less than the funds they receive through legacies, donations, endowments, grants, adoptions, and Gift Aid (excluding admissions and memberships).

Edinburgh Zoo, for example, received over £3.3m in grants, donations, legacies, and a charitable donation from their own onsite catering and retail business in 2019 while spending just £1.7m on ‘conservation and science’. The same year, Bristol zoo received £626,000 in donations and legacies in 2019 and allocated £640,000 to ‘conservation and research projects’. ZSL, including London and Whipsnade zoos, gathered over £26m in donations, legacies, grants, and Gift Aid in 2020/21 (including their Covid appeal) with just 10m of this going to field conservation.

Contrary to zoos’ claims that their ‘collections’ and public attendance comprise an essential source of funds to support vital conservation work, it seems these are largely redundant. ZSL’s Director of Conservation and Policy has admitted as much. Indeed, BFF found that of the average admission cost of £19.11 for CCZ zoos, about £1.30 is allocated to in situ conservation (July 2021). For one, it was just seven pence.

Given the frequency with which zoos have featured in the UK news over the last two years, broadcasting their dire financial straights, pleading for government support, making direct appeals for donations (with the backing of Sir David Attenborough and other celebrities), and using Covid’s impact on ‘vital conservation work’ to plead their case, BFF’s most recent findings warranted wide media attention.

Yet only one news outlet, the Welsh Nation Cymru, flagged the report’s release, noting its critique of the allocation of CCZ zoo’s (which include The Welsh Mountain Zoo) income to capital projects rather than conservation. For example, the same year Chester Zoo’s new island exhibit opened, at a cost of £40m, the zoo allocated £1.5m to in situ conservation. And at £2.8m, Edinburgh Zoo’s new giraffe enclosure received almost twice the amount allocated to ‘conservation and research’.

Many capital projects claim to increase the wellbeing of their residents and ameliorate the negative effects of captivity. However, most focus on large ‘popular’ species and/or creating additional spaces to house new species for public display, reasserting the balance of priorities on visitor revenue.

To make matters worse, previous research by BFF (similarly under-reported) found that over half of species held by CCZ zoos are categorized as ‘Least Concern’ and just a quarter are considered threatened (May 2021; see also Conde et al. 2013). These figures are paralleled in the resources allocated to breeding. Species categorised as Least Concern make up 50% of CCZ zoo’s breeding efforts with only 35.4% considered threatened. Over 70% of species bred by these zoos are not part of an EAZA breeding programme (which includes European Endangered species breeding Programmes and European Stud Books).

It stands to reason that the already disproportionately small amount of spending classified ambiguously in these charity’s financial reports as conservation is not supporting the zoos’ “central and driving motive force” around the survival of species of conservation significance (Regan 2004: 9, 29).

The picture becomes even bleaker when it is considered that charitable zoos make up only 40% of the UK’s 400 zoos (Born Free identifies over 300 licensed zoos). The majority (45%) are private enterprises, including Blackpool Zoo, and Knowsley and Longleat Safari Parks – some of the UK’s most popular attractions. As limited companies, the financial accounts of these zoos are not on public record. However, from what information is available, and as would be expected, conservation is an even lower priority.

Blackpool Zoo is one of 60 parks owned by the international Parques Reunidos group. The group’s annual revenue for 2019 is estimated at over £500 million. Of this, their website states they have contributed around £230,000 to conservation projects overall – so not in any one year but their total contributions ever. This is equivalent to 0.05% of one year’s revenue or one third of the CEO’s annual salary.

Longleat’s website lists three in situ conservation projects outside its own estates to which it contributes. A payment of £25,000 to the Australian bushfire action fund is highlighted but spending on the other two projects is not detailed. An online search delivers a story from 2017 praising the £157,000 over 15 years that Longleat has donated to an African wildlife charity, the equivalent of £10,000 per year. Knowsley’s website documents the park’s involvement in around eight in situ projects (three UK based). However, as with Longleat, the financial allocations are not stated and ambiguous descriptions leave ample room for speculation as to how much of the zoo’s revenue they receive.

Clearly, for these private UK zoos, and the remaining 15% that are run by local authorities, to suggest that conservation is a priority would be a gross misrepresentation. Yet, my research with zoo visitors over the past two years indicates that people do not differentiate between charitable and private zoos. The moniker applies to all, and the construction of ‘the zoo’ as a legitimate and laudable leader in conservation, welfare, and education is carefully cultivated and resilient.

There is no doubt that zoos provide people with something purposeful to do (pre-planned routes, destinations, activities etc.) and a place to go that can offer temporary relief from the noise, traffic, and pressures of everyday routines. For parents especially, they offer a safe, secure, and easy space in which to meet friends, move around, and keep children occupied for most of a day, especially if they have children with special needs. They also tick off an activity in school field trip calendars.

However, there is scant evidence for their much-vaunted educational value, and rather more grounds for skepticism (see also Marino et al. 2010; Staus 2020). A 2021 survey by Twycross Zoo (another CCZ zoo receiving £1.4m in donations, gifts, legacies, Gift Aid and support grants in 2020 while allocating £428,138 to ‘life science, education and conservation welfare’) found visiting children knew more about dinosaurs than the zoo’s apes. If something-to-do-with-children is one of zoos’ main appeals, there are a host of other options that do not fuel justifications for breeding and holding in lifetime captivity animals of low/no conservation concern, with all the national and international relocations, severing of social bonds, and/or annual culling of ‘surplus’ animals (known as ‘management euthanasia’) this necessarily entails.

The partnership between capitalism and conservation is not new but it “now occupies the mainstream of the conservation movement” (Brockington and Duffy 2010: 47). This trend should be much more concerning than it apparently is, because the capitalist imperative cannot, and will never, eliminate the inequalities on which it depends. Appearances to the contrary, whether packaged as conservation or welfare, are gestures designed to shore up an industry’s social license to operate. This applies to all industries that profit from animals as food, entertainment, sport, research subjects, and pets, which together comprise a globally interconnected network known as the animal industrial complex (Twine 2012).

Zoos, even the ‘good’ ones, turn the actual and perceived vulnerability of animals into a commodity, profiting from it under the guise of alleviating it. But like all forms of charity under capitalism, or philanthrocapitalism, victims and their suffering remain the focus – ongoing sources of value in lucrative economies of experience and affect – rather than questions of oppression, exploitation, injustice, and the political economy under which they are constituted (Thorup 2013).

Contrary to the ethical turn in industry (witnessed by diverse brands of corporate washing), we are not going to arrive at any new ecological paradigm through capitalism. Said claims need to be seen clearly for what they are, as attempts to preserve the hierarchies that precipitate so many vital endings. The seeds of more just futures are being sown in alternate spaces, or ‘heterotopia’, that operate under different terms – where traditional uses of animals are rejected or undone, where animals are permitted to flourish under their own terms, and where the prevailing societal anthropocentrism is challenged. It is these spaces that we need to nurture, while simultaneously foregoing the ideologies and practices symbolic of, and complicit in, nature’s death – both epistemic and very real.

This blog is an extract of a longer piece published in Medium in February 2022:

Paula is a Leverhulme ECR Fellow located within the Centre for Human Animal Studies at Edge Hill University. Her three-year project ‘The visual consumption of animals: challenging persistent binaries’ aims to support transformational change in the way humans conceive and interact with nature.


Born Free Foundation, 2021, Zoos: Financing Conservation of Funding Captivity? Evaluating the financial contributions of the Consortium of Charitable Zoos to in situ conservation. Published: 20th July.

Born Free Foundation, 2021, Conservation or Collection? Evaluating the conservation status of species housed and bred in licensed charitable UK zoos. Published: May.

Born Free Foundation, 2007, Animal Ark or Sinking Ship?: An evaluation of conservation by UK Zoos. Published: July 2007.

Born Free Foundation, 2007, Committed to Conservation? An Overview of the Consortium of Charitable Zoos’ In Situ Conservation Dividend. Published: May 2007.

Brockington, D & Duffy, R 2010, ‘Capitalism and Conservation: The Production and Reproduction of Biodiversity Conservation’, Antipode, vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 469-84.

Conde, DA, Colchero, F, Gusset, M, Pearce-Kelly, P, Byers, O, Fiesness, N, Browne, RK & Jones, OR 2013, ‘Zoos through the Lens of the IUCN Red List: A Global Metapopulation Approach to Support Conservation Breeding Programs’, PLoS One, vol. 8, no. 12.

Marino, L, Lilienfeld, SO, Malamud, R, Nobis, N & Broglio, R 2010, ‘Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study’, Society & Animals, vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 126-38.

Regan, J 2004, The Manifesto for Zoos, John Regan Associated Ltd.

Staus, N 2020, ‘The Educational Value of Zoos: An Empirical Perspective’, in B Fisher (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Animal Ethics, Routledge, New York and London, pp. 367-80.

Thorup, M 2013, ‘Pro Bono? On philanthrocapitalism as ideological answer to inequality’, ephemera, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 555-76.

Twine, R 2012, ‘Revealing the ‘Animal-Industrial Complex’ – A Concept & Method for Critical Animal Studies’, Journal for Critical Animal Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 12-39.