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Full Report

Summary report

Investigator profile

Claire Louise* is a zoologist with a master’s degree in Applied Animal Behaviour from Edinburgh University, UK.

She was awarded the Douglas Houghton Memorial Award – a prestigious fellowship set up to enable individuals to further animal protection – which enabled her to continue her postgraduate studies.

Her master's thesis centred on the behaviour of sloth bears rescued from the streets of India where they had been exploited as “dancing bears”. She has studied a wide range of disciplines including animal evolution, behavioural ecology, animal nutrition and metabolism, veterinary medicine, cognition and consciousness and her research projects have included the mutilations of farmed animals and captivity-related stress and abnormalities.

Since her studies, she has carried out investigations into zoos and circuses in India, Thailand and, most recently, Spain. Claire is an animal rights campaigner and investigator who is working with Animal Equality to raise awareness on the plight of animals in the zoo, circus and other industries where animals are exploited for human entertainment. She is committed to a vegan lifestyle and working towards the abolition of speciesism and animal use.

*This is not the investigators full name.


Eight zoos across the east, south and west of Spain were visited by Animal Equality as part of a nine-month investigation to obtain a snapshot of the lives of animals held captive in Spanish zoos. The zoos visited had been identified by Animal Equality supporters as being of concern and included municipally-owned and privately-owned facilities. The zoos visited were as follows:

Barcelona Zoo, Bioparc, Madrid Zoo, and Zoobotanico Jerez are members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). Madrid Zoo, which is operated by a private corporation, is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), as is Barcelona Zoo, which is operated by the municipality.

A total of 226 terrestrial wild animal exhibits were surveyed, housing 271 individuals from 155 different species. During the investigation, Animal Equality also visited a reptile house and a zoo farm. Investigators recorded animal shows, interactive sessions and animal rides where possible. Interviews were conducted with zoo staff, and full transcripts are available upon request.

Photographic and film evidence was collected to show the zoos in their entirety, and additional information was obtained from the industry’s websites, as well as the zoo’s own literature and websites. Investigators visited the zoos as members of the public who walked around the entire zoo to obtain an overall impression but only recorded in detail up to 30 randomly-selected wild, terrestrial animal exhibits at each facility.

Space, substrate, features, furnishings, privacy and signage were analysed at the exhibits. Animal Equality investigators filmed where possible areas where performing animals were housed.

An undercover investigator was also placed in Seville Zoo during May 2011 to obtain more detailed information and collect further film evidence.

Investigation findings

Life inside the zoos

At each of the zoos visited, animals were living in wholly oppressive environments. Animal Equality found individuals housed in exhibits that were extremely small and, in some cases, severely restricting. Such small spaces prevent animals from engaging in natural movements and behaviours, which are essential for their well-being.

Some animals were housed in old-style cages and pits, and few were provided with sufficient shelter to mitigate temperature extremes, or privacy areas. A lack of privacy is often a major source of stress for animals confined in zoos. Animals were housed in exhibits containing concrete or a gunite-type material substrates, which is well-known to result in damage to joints and ligaments of feet and legs. A hard, unnatural substrate does not permit foraging – an activity that, in the wild, would often occupy a large proportion of the day for some individuals.

Overall, the zoos visited have made little effort to attempt to imitate the animals’ natural home. For example semi-aquatic mammals, such as hippopotami, which would naturally spend a great amount of their time in water, were provided with small, stagnant pools in which they were barely unable to submerge in, let alone swim. These pools were often the only water source available to the animals. Animals that would, for example, live in rainforests – such as monkeys, apes and lemurs – were seldom even provided with live vegetation.

Poor hygiene can cause some severe health problems for captive animals, as it can lead to the spread of disease. Animal Equality observed exhibits with an excessive accumulation of debris (including feed and faeces), particularly at Castellar Zoo, which can be harmful to animals if ingested. An exhibit at Madrid Zoo was so poorly drained it was waterlogged.

The vast majority of exhibits were essentially featureless and barren. These exhibits did not have species-specific furniture and the animals living in them were sensory- deprived and understimulated. These animals had no choices or control over their environment which had led to them becoming mentally disturbed. Animals often had little opportunity to keep physically active, which can lead to illnesses.

Animal Equality observed social animals living in solitary confinement, such as the striped hyena at Seville Zoo. Animals who were housed in groups were often living in extreme close confinement with others, resulting in aggressive encounters and consequential injuries.

Animals as ‘performers’

Where possible, animal shows, interactive sessions and animal rides were recorded. Investigators also studied information boards at the zoos, and information available on the internet.

The duration of these events was recorded, and also the time spent by the trainers informing visitors about the natural attributes (e.g. habitat use and biology) of the animals was noted.

Out of the eight zoos visited by Animal Equality, six offered one or more type of exploitative show or close encounter experience with animals. These were Barcelona Zoo, Castellar Zoo, Cordoba Zoo, Madrid Zoo, Rio Safari Park and Seville Zoo. These included ‘petting’ sessions with domestic animals, sea lion, parrot, dolphin and elephant performances, ‘free flights’, photograph sessions with animals and the handling of a snake.

Madrid Zoo currently displays dolphins who have been caught in the wild, as did Barcelona Zoo until early 2011 when the individual died. Animal Equality’s investigation reveals a disturbing pattern of animals being bred and sold by Madrid Zoo to other captive dolphin facilities, seemingly to replace individuals who have died. Dolphins get depressed, sick, and die young in zoos and marine parks because of the artificial conditions of a tank. Animal Equality documented the deep abrasions on the rostrums of dolphins at Madrid Zoo, likely to be a consequence of trainers standing on the animals’ faces during training sessions and performances, or the animals hitting their faces against tank walls. The dolphins at Madrid Zoo currently have to perform up to three times a day, and the dolphins at Barcelona Zoo five times a day.

Animal Equality attended shows at the zoos in which animals were made to look like clowns, and all of the shows involved animals carrying out potentially damaging and stressful behaviours. The elephant (‘Babaty’) and sea lions at Rio Safari Park performed circus-style tricks such as ‘dancing’ and playing musical instruments. ‘Babaty’s trainer held an ankus close-to-hand throughout. The ankus is a tool with a sharp steel hook on one end that is employed in the handling and training of elephants. It is used to inflict damage on elephants – animals that, despite appearances, have extremely sensitive skin. The trainer was observed embedding the hook into the soft tissue behind the ears of the animal whilst tourists sat on her back.

When the animals are out of public view, they are kept in appallingly cramped, barren, sensory-deprived environments. In fact, the situation for these performing animals appeared worse than that of the animals on constant display. At Madrid Zoo and Seville Zoo, when not performing, birds were chained in direct sunlight to the ground, or confined in cages so small that they were unable to stretch their wings, let alone fly. At Barcelona Zoo, the dolphins swam around the edges of a 62 ft. tank that is fenced off from public view.

Seville Zoo openly operates not only as a zoo, but also as a supply centre for companies wanting to use animals in advertising. Zoo staff even told investigators that this side of the business pays for the animals’ upkeep. Yet Seville Zoo charges 15 Euros entrance fee, keeps animals in small, make-shift, corrugated iron exhibits, and displays information about animals on paper signs stapled to wooden fences. It is certainly not the animals – deprived of their freedom in this run-down facility – who are standing to gain from this venture.

At Seville Zoo, Animal Equality found confined in small cages tiger and lion cubs, some of whom were still with their mothers. The cubs are hand-reared so they are habituated to humans and spend the majority of the rest of their lives confined in small cages. It is possible that the zoo sells the animals when they become too large to handle. The use of animals for human entertainment not only means a life of deprivation for the animals, but often also being subjected to barbaric training practices, reliant on physical domination and fear.

At Seville Zoo visitors are encouraged into the adult tiger and lion exhibit to have their photograph taken whilst sitting on the animals. Investigators filmed the trainer being bitten by the lion, yet this did not stop the photo session from commencing in the same exhibit with the tiger shortly afterwards.

Psychologically disturbed animals

Mental illness is common in zoo animals. Frustrated, unhappy and disturbed animals often perform stereotypic behaviours, which are compulsive, repetitive, unvarying, functionless movements, and a sure sign that something is very wrong. Animal Equality assumed these movements to be stereotypic if they were performed by an animal in at least 5 cycles.

Stereotypic behaviours are clear indicators that an animal is suffering as most occur when animals have failed to cope with, or remove themselves from, stressful situations.

Over half the animals carrying out abnormal and stereotypic behaviours were housed at two of the zoos, Barcelona Zoo and Seville Zoo. 26% of individuals observed carrying out these behaviours were living at each of these zoos. ‘Locomotory’ stereotypes (i.e. repetitive routes of locomotion), accounted for the largest proportion (55%) observed. Pacing, a locomotor stereotypy whereby an animal moves repeatedly back and forth in a straight line, was the most common category of behaviour observed (44% of the total).

Captive carnivores are particularly prone to pacing. This stereotypy was most commonly observed at Seville Zoo. It was also commonly observed at Castellar Zoo, Barcelona Zoo and Cordoba Zoo by big cats, also bears, a rhesus macaque and a cape racoon. Begging was the second most common category of behaviour observed (13% of the total). This behaviour was performed mainly by bears at Madrid Zoo.

Also observed by Animal Equality were animals over grooming, circling, swaying, performing ‘loop the loop’, pacing in a ‘figure of eight’ pattern, horn rubbing, and lunging an object against a glass barrier.

Mammals were not the only group of animals observed performing these disturbed behaviours, reptiles at Madrid Zoo were also found to be attempting to escape their environment and performing a stereotype called ‘Interaction with Transparent Boundaries’ (ITB).

Poor health and well-being

The health and well-being of individual animals was assessed by collection of photographic evidence of what appeared to be differences from the norm, and seeking the expert opinion of two wildlife veterinarians, Samantha Lindley, BVSc MRCVS and Simon Adams MsRCVS. Assessing health in a captive wild animal is not always straightforward however, particularly when the time available to spend with the animal is so limited. Extensive knowledge and experience of the species concerned is required to pick up some of the more subtle health problems and the zoos’ health and husbandry records were not available for Animal Equality. The results of this part of the study therefore are likely to only represent the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Investigators were unable to count individuals with hair loss, for example, as the problem was so widespread. And so the proportion of exhibits housing animals with poor health indicators was calculated. Animal Equality found a disturbing number of exhibits housing animals with obvious indicators of poor health. It is alarming that these individuals were on display, instead of receiving treatment away from public view.

The two veterinary experts summarised their opinion on photographs of the parrots, bears and primates: “The photos strongly indicate chronic poor husbandry and that the animal’s well-being is not being addressed”. Also that, “images of other animals are strongly suggestive of the same”.

The most commonly observed indicator of poor health or well-being was hair or feather loss, which was likely to be the result of self-mutilation or over grooming by cage mates, and this amounted to 43% of the total. The second most commonly observed indicators were ‘contact injuries’ (e.g. fractures, breaks or wounds likely to be the result of contact with other animals, cage barriers or furniture), and these amounted to 25% of the total.

The zoo with the highest (28%) proportion of exhibits housing animals with indicators of poor health was Madrid Zoo, where animals were observed with fractured or broken wings or abnormalities likely to be stemming from inadequate nutrition. 19% of the exhibits housing animals with indicators of poor health were at Rio Safari Park. At this facility, parrots were commonly observed with feather loss. 17% of the exhibits were at Castellar Zoo, where primates were suffering hair loss.

Investigators observed also animals with weight and teeth abnormalities, foot problems and ecto-parasites. Some of the abnormalities were severe. Investigators observed raptors with fractured or broken wings, a bear who was clearly distressed from a tick infestation around the eye area, parasitic-diseased primates, deer and barbary sheep with severely overgrown hooves, and llamas with overgrown teeth.

At Madrid Zoo, Zoobotanico Jerez and Rio Safari Park, primates were suffering severe hair loss and bleeding, fresh wounds. Investigators observed aggressive encounters between baboons and tigers which had resulted in wounded animals. Fights and injuries are common in zoos and are a direct result of captivity where animals live in low-complexity environments they have little control over, have restricted space and are forced into close contact with conspecifics.

The questionable ‘educational’ message

Zoos portray themselves as facilities where visitors can learn about the natural attributes of animals. To determine the zoos’ commitment to public education, Animal Equality measured the quantity and quality of signage and recorded whether the facilities offered guided tours or educational talks.

The following checklist for signage was used:

- Common name
- Scientific name
- Natural habitat
- Biological characteristics

It was revealed that whilst information signs were displayed on the vast majority of exhibits, this varied amongst the zoos. Rio Safari Park for example displayed information signs for only 77% of species held in the exhibits, whilst Carmona Zoo displayed information signs for 97% of species. The physical condition of signs also varied amongst the zoos. The signage at Carmona Zoo and Seville Zoo was extremely weathered, dilapidated, sometimes illegible, and containing irrelevant information.

The signage at Rio Safari Park included information mostly in illegible English language.

The behaviour of visitors

Investigators recorded the number of exhibits where members of the public were observed throwing or poking objects at animals, smoking, vocalising loudly and inappropriately, throwing litter, banging on glass barriers, feeding, touching and harassing the animals.

Visitors were observed carrying out at least one of these behaviours at 17% of the exhibits visited during the investigation. In total, 25% of these exhibits were at Castellar Zoo. At this zoo, visitors were actively encouraged to feed the animals (in fact, food was provided in plastic bags at the entrance to the zoo), and freely enter into exhibits to touch, feed and take photographs of the animals.

Animal feeding was the most frequently observed category of behaviour observed, and amounted to 26% of the total. Visitors were observed feeding the animals mainly at the camel, bear, macaque and baboon exhibits at Madrid Zoo. The response of the baboons and bears was to beg for more food. Banging on glass barriers was the second most frequently observed category of behaviour, and this amounted to 23% of the total. Visitors were observed banging on the glass of the big cat and primate exhibits at Cordoba Zoo. The zoo had not installed stand-off barriers, which demonstrates a lack of consideration for the animals who are housed there.

Primates in particular become stressed when visitor density is high, investigators observed gorillas at Bioparc and Barcelona Zoo charging the glass barriers of their exhibits. Investigators also observed primate exhibits which had broken glass barriers.

Animal Equality observed that visitors could have direct contact with animals at six of the zoos. Four of these zoos actively encouraged visitors to have direct contact with the animals and, where this was not the case, visitors and animals could have contact as a result of inadequate, or complete absence of, stand-off barriers. This was a widespread problem amongst the zoos, particularly at Bioparc, which prides itself on being a modern-day facility that enables the public to get up close to animals. Direct contact with visitors can be very stressful for animals, and cause the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Animal Equality recorded the types of animals that visitors could have direct contact with and referred to the UK’s ‘Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice (SMZP)’ ‘Hazardous Animal Categorisation’. Alarmingly, Animal Equality found that 67% of animals who were observed to be in direct contact with visitors were categorised as ‘Greater Risk’, and the remainder as ‘Less Risk’. No animals observed to be in direct contact with visitors were categorised as ‘Least Risk’.


The Animal Equality investigation provides a snapshot of the situation for many animals in Spanish zoos. These individuals are denied their freedom and housed in inappropriate environments. The frequently observed abnormal and stereotypic behaviour performed by animals is strongly indicative of widespread psychological suffering in zoos, and the high proportion of animals with indicators of poor health or well-being raises the question of the availability of husbandry expertise, health care and veterinary attention at the zoos.

Animal Equality is opposed to the holding of animals in captivity for entertainment purposes or under the guise of ‘education’. We urge people not to visit zoos or any other facilities that exploit animals for human gain.