How can agents be sure the zoos they are selling to customers meet international ethical standards? Charlotte Cullinan asks the experts.
Faced with the deadly threat of ruthless poachers, East Africa’s 700 eastern black rhinos are on the brink of extinction. However, the species has a determined ally 6,000 miles away at Chester Zoo.
Since 1999, the zoo has supported a range of projects in Kenya and Tanzania to help save the resident rhinos, including monitoring populations, education work and increased security.
Like many zoos and aquariums, it is now on the front line of animal and environmental conservation, and helping customers to support these organisations can make an educational and enjoyable addition to their holiday.
While laws governing animal welfare vary by country, one avenue for finding responsible and progressive zoos and aquariums is via regional professional zoological associations.
The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria has more than 350 members. Communications and membership manager David Williams-Mitchell says they are all thoroughly screened. Members also abide by standards and ethics codes, which include animal husbandry, enclosure size and how animals are acquired. They are expected to be actively involved in conservation, offer an imaginative education programme and, ideally, run research and breeding programmes.
Williams-Mitchell explains: “Good zoos and aquariums are no longer just collections of animals – they aim to take the legacy of the time when that was true and make a strong contribution to conservation, education and research.”
Dom Strange, head of commercial operations at Chester Zoo, agrees, adding: “We hope visitors see that we are more than a zoo, but also a conservation charity that aims to be a major force in conserving biodiversity. With 12,500 animals, our collection of artefacts and our first-hand experience of working with wildlife, we want visitors to take away important values and understand the significance of animal conservation.”
One way Chester Zoo engages visitors is through its Act for Wildlife campaign, which raised £40,000 in 2014 to support wildlife projects around the world, including the East African rhino work. Supporters are encouraged to make donations, and each admission ticket includes a contribution.
SeaWorld launched a similar initiative for UK customers earlier this year with Fun2Fund. It donates $2 to UK charity conservation projects for each SeaWorld Parks Extra add-on ticket sold, which includes animal encounters and private tours. The attraction chain also pledged $10 million to fund research and conservation for wild killer whales.
The marine park group is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums. Executive director Kathleen Dezio says the alliance’s accreditation standards are “the most comprehensive and stringent in the world”.
She says members often do work that visitors rarely see, such as scientific studies that benefit wild animals and helping with marine animal rescue.
Vice-president of veterinary services, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Dr Chris Dold, says: “One of the key threats to endangered wild killer whales in Puget Sound is toxins that accumulate in the animals’ blubber. These toxins are nearly all the result of human impacts. Female whales pass the contaminants along to their offspring through milk, harming both female reproduction and the viability of the calf itself. Predicting the impact on this endangered group of whales is important and difficult. But, today, killer whale biologists from the US government are working with the whales in SeaWorld’s care to give biologists unique insight that can help better understand this problem."
Moreover, SeaWorld has helped more than 26,000 animals over the past 50 years through its rescue and rehabilitation programme. Earlier this year its Orlando team helped on a nine-hour rescue mission to successfully save 19 manatees after they got stuck in a drainpipe.
When agents discuss Alliance facilities with customers, Dezio recommends highlighting these aspects, as well as the care that staff give. “The animals receive high-quality, nutritious food and preventative veterinary care supervised by licensed professionals,” she explains.
“They exercise and play in ways that are mentally and physically beneficial, and many voluntarily engage in training done through positive reinforcement methods and based on mutual respect.”
Attraction World group sales and marketing director Tony Seaman says that during the sales process it is worth highlighting what customers will experience at animal-based attractions. He explains: “These are the places where people have their favourite holiday photos taken, and it’s things like seeing a killer whale that the kids talk about when they get home. You are selling the memories people make on holiday.”
Seaman says bookings are “pretty strong” for the 40 zoos and marine attractions the supplier sells, all of which are carefully vetted. While they often appeal to couples, the majority of tickets are sold to families. Seaman adds: “They are fantastic, fun places for families, or grandparents with children. Seeing and learning about the fish and animals is amazing, and kids love them.”
Essex-based Your Holiday Booking homeworker Lianne Gater runs Florida Deals 4 U. She says highlighting interactive animal experiences can help “make a trip of a lifetime” for customers. She draws attention to Discovery Cove in Orlando’s swimming with dolphins packages and Busch Gardens Tampa’s behind-the-scenes tours.
For other innovative add-on packages, look to Singapore Zoo, where customers can enjoy breakfast with a family of orang-utans, and Calgary Zoo, where visitors help hand-feed penguins.
The most popular add-ons at San Diego Zoo Safari Park are “roar and snore”, where visitors camp in the zoo, and caravan safaris, where they feed giraffes and drive into enclosures in open-air trucks.
However, despite their customer facing-offerings, in-house animal care and conservation and rescue work, zoos and aquariums often receive criticism, particularly from animal welfare campaigners.
It is a situation SeaWorld has repeatedly faced, having received a barrage of negative publicity following the 2013 documentary Blackfish, and it was recently criticised by One Direction singer Harry Styles at a concert.
While Gater has never received negative SeaWorld feedback from customers, she visits the Orlando park annually to keep abreast of its work and is confident in tackling any customer concerns.
She says: “SeaWorld has some of the best trainers in the world. I know the care the animals receive is fantastic and I’m happy telling customers that.”
“Children can find out more about the animals there and understand what goes into protecting and caring for them, and it’s great to talk about that.”