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To hell in a gift basket: The deceptions and dangers of corporate conservation and philanthrocapitalism


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). BFF’s 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 believeszoos spend (see also BFF, May 2007).

My own investigations have revealed that charitable zoos’ spending on all ‘conservation’ (vaguely and inconsistently defined both within and between zoos) 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 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’ (a word that lends a sense of scientific authority and charming cohesiveness to these shop fronts of captivity) and public attendance comprise an essential source of funds to support vital conservation work, it seems these are relatively 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 situconservation (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 zoos’ (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. Whether via ‘cage’ or new improved ‘enclosure’ (semantics matter little for the animal), the effect of containment is the same. As Pierce and Bekoff (2018: 43) write, “the fact that an entire literature is dedicated to so-called captivity effects should leave us in no doubt that being caged causes major problems for individual animals.”

To make matters worse, previous research by BFF (similarly under-reported in the media) found that over half of the 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. A shocking 70.5% 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 of the already proportionately small amount of spending classified ambiguously in these charity’s financial reports as conservation, the majority of this is not supporting the zoos’ “central and driving motive force” around the survival of species of conservation significance (Regan 2004: 9, 29). This fact, combined with the negligible role the zoo as a public ‘attraction’ plays in this conservation, are not addressed in the British and Irish Association of Zoos & Aquarium’s (BIAZA) response to the BFF report.

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 (one way to check is to search their website for a registered charity number). 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.

Accurate figures for zoos elsewhere are hard to come by. Only 10% of the estimated 2,800 zoos and other wildlife exhibits in the US are accredited with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, and only 54% of these (around 140) are not-for-profit.

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 increasingly close partnership between capitalism and conservation is not a new observation. As Brockington and Duffy explain, “the idea that capitalism can and should help conservation save the world now occupies the mainstream of the conservation movement” (2010: 47). However, 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. That would be self-annihilation.

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 the lucrative economies of experience and affect — rather than questions of oppression, exploitation, injustice, and the political economy under which they are constituted (Thorup 2013).

It is the credo of capitalism to keep ignoring the forest until all the trees are gone, or delay addressing a planet-killing asteroid until its economic value has been assessed. This ‘new frontier’ of philanthrocapitalism (Bishop 2013) — also described as capitalism with a conscience (Koot 2021) — is simply a further impediment to leaving behind the false fantasies, and real dangers, of capitalism altogether and acknowledging the legitimacy of alternatives (see also Harvey2020).

While enjoying a neoliberal resurgence, the logic of philanthrocapitalism — that what is good for the rich is good for the poor (Thorup 2013) — is not new. The King’s dole, Maundy, largesse, and alms refer to different forms of royal charitythat since medieval times (and to this day) have been bestowed on the Crown’s subjects at different times of the year. In a clear parallel with today’s social license to operate (SLO), this charity proceeds “from a desire to buy the goodwill of a reluctant populace rather than a charitable wish to ease the burdens of the poor” and “as expiation for minor sins” (Farquhar 1933: 64, 135).

There is more that could be said here about how businesses now “most aggressively” absorb, reconfigure, and integrate “ethical, emotional, relational, cognitive and…also ecological resources” into their operations (through triple bottom line accountingESGCSR, and SLO), in a survival bid to transform counter-discourses and critique into market assets (Thorup 2013: 558). Think of the opportunities that critiques of factory farming and live export have provided in the market for ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ animal products with their much-touted ‘transparency’ (Arcari 2017). Extinctions, endangered animals, and loss of habitats function the same for zoos. In each case, the goal is to divert attention from all the lives created, appropriated, and used up in order to power these ‘public good’ industries, keep their component parts moving, and maintain the flow of money.

The important point is that it is becoming both increasingly hard and increasingly important to separate business from narratives and visions of meaningful social change. The two are fundamentally incompatible.

Take horseracing as another example.

This ‘playground of kings and billionaires’ is kept spinning by a matrix of capitalist organisations that includes racecourses, bookmakers, media companies, and breeders. Collectively worth a staggering £4 billion annually to the UK economy, the fraction of that which is spent on horse welfare is dismal. In 2019, the Retraining of Racehorses (RoR), which is the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) official charity, received £580,898 in donations and legacies from different arms of the industry (the bulk from ROA below). The BHA itself donates services in kind, including staff resources, access to pension schemes, and facilities for events. The BHA director incidentally received a salary of £434,000 in 2019.

The Racehorse Owners Association (ROA) gathers around £250,000 per yearfrom race entry fees, which goes towards the care of horses from foal to the end of their career. There are around 14,000 horses in training in any one month of the year maintained by a new annual ‘crop’ that fills the gaps left by those who leave. This rolling turnover (those entering and leaving each year) is estimated at 7,500 and equates to around £30 of ROA funds per horse per year.

Finally, the statutory industry-wide UK betting levy of 10% generated £98m in 2019/2020. These funds are intended to support infrastructure improvements, a reduction in injuries, better data, and higher prize money. It is notable that the table of priorities in the 2019/20 annual report for this levy (page 10) does not mention equine welfare, and indeed just £348,000 was allocated to equine welfare in 2020, a meager 0.35% of the total.

That’s £1m, more or less, towards equine welfare annually from these key industry sources, though there may be others I have not accounted for, not least one-off philanthropic donations — largesse from figurative and literal kings of racing. In comparison, £1.5m was spent on a national campaign to entice under 18s to racing with free entry. The priorities here are clear, and reveal the sorts of figures that are hidden behind outward claims that ‘the horse comes first’. It’s a similar story in greyhound racing where the industry claims to prioritize the health and wellbeing of its greyhounds ‘above all else’.

Whether genuine, half-hearted, or outright deceitful, and whether understood as capitalist/neoliberal conservation or philanthrocapitalism, these corporate manoeuvres foster the conviction that markets are a legitimate, or even the only, way to create the good society — “that capitalism is not the cause but the solution to all the major problems in the world” (Thorup 2013: 556). As associated practices become normalised, and old baselines are supplanted as part of a generational amnesia (see also Jones et al. 2021), this conviction gains further credibility. The idea of ending capitalism becomes increasingly untenable because (so the doctrine goes) any other economic system would only end in misery and chaos (Thorup 2013) including for the animals it relies on.

In 1620, Francis Bacon, known as one of the founders of modern science, described nature as a “slave” to be “bound into service”, put “in constraint” and “’molded” by the mechanical arts’ (Bacon, cited in Merchant 1980: 169). This ethos dominated the ensuing 400 years, effecting a de-animation or ‘thingification’ of the environment and animals that perfectly suited the nascent capitalist tendencies of the time, opening up a vast storeroom of free resources and free labour, thereafter to be plundered with abandon.

Bacon’s mission has fast become reality.

Since 1500, 617 vertebrate species have become extinct, extinct in the wild, or possibly extinct (Ceballos et al. 2015). A further one million species are currently under threat of extinction (IPBES 2019). Since 1970, populations of vertebrate and freshwater species have declined by an average of 68% and 84% respectively (WWF 2020). Ever-increasing numbers of animals are being taken from the wild (legally and illegally) or brought into short-lived existences for wholly human purposes — as food, captive entertainment, sport, research, and pets.

Earth’s ecological balance has shifted dramatically as a majority of its non-human animals are becoming de-wilded, domesticated, and created by humans. Planetary boundaries are being exceeded (Rockstrom et al. 2009) and 1.5 degrees warming is likely within the next 10 years beyond which there is increased risk of ‘tipping points’ or “thresholds beyond which certain impacts can no longer be avoided” (IPCC 2021).

In the 1990 preface to her landmark volume The Death of Nature, Carolyn Merchant suggested we might be on the brink of another revolution — that the old mechanistic worldview is giving way to a new paradigm grounded in ecological ethics. Developments in posthuman, non-anthropocentric, non-binary, and liberatory/emancipatory thought over the last 30 years bear this out. However, the question of whether, and when, this thinking will penetrate the extensive and well-oiled wheels of capitalism is the more pressing one.

The mechanistic worldview that has dominated the last 400 years certainly dovetailed with and enhanced the capitalist imperative, but the former’s demise may not, by itself, be a sufficient catalyst for change. Capitalism has its own momentum that is likely, and for considerable time to come, to outweigh, dilute, distort, and/or pervert any ideological shift through co-option and manipulation, further delaying the desired transformation (witness the various 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’ (also Arcari 2019), 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.

Dr Paula Arcari 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.

Thank you to Dr Richard Twine and Dr Jane Daly for their comments on a earlier version of this article.


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