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Zoo Breeding Programmes

Updated on April 29, 2020
Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter is an independent International Zoo Consultant working in zoos for over fifty years.

Giving Nature a Hand

"The zoo has a breeding programme for....."

I have lost count of the number of times I have read that phrase. No they don't! No zoo can go it alone. They don't have the finances, they don't have the space and they don't have the knowledge. Breeding programmes are a combined effort.

Zoo breeding programmes are essential for the long term maintenance of healthy and genetically viable captive populations. If captive animals were allowed to breed indiscriminately, moved around without thought then they would quickly change into something which nature did not intend.

Przewalski Horse

Pho By :
Pho By :

Good zoos join the breeding programmes for all the species they hold. On joining the programme they sign a document called the 'Memorandum of Participation'. This essentially means that they give up ownership of the animal making it available to the breeding programme as a whole for the betterment of the species. In theory the animal could then be moved to another collection. In practice this is unlikely to occur without discussion.

Each species breeding programmes is managed by a studbook holder and species co-ordinator. Sometimes these are one and the same person. The studbook holder and co-ordinator are answerable to the TAG (Taxon Advisory Group) committee. The TAG is made up of all those collections who have signed up to the breeding programme. The TAG in turn is answerable to the Regional, National or International Zoo body.

Photo by:
Photo by:

Under UK Zoo legislation if there is a breeding programme for a species which the zoo holds it MUST be a member of that programme. By being a member it must submit information annually and co-operate. Failing this then the zoo will not be given or will lose its zoo licence. Without the licence the zoo must close or operate without visitors.

In the majority of cases zoos are not breeding animals to return to the wild tomorrow. It would be foolish to do so. Usually the reasons for the animals being kept in captivity still remain. Poaching, Forest Fires, Enroachment by man. Animals ARE released but these are usually supervised and controlled trial runs for research purposes and are often into huge fenced areas in the first place. Recently Przewalski horses were returned to the wilds of Mongolia except they are penned. If they were let free they would quickly breed with feral domestic horses and then the whole breeding management would be rendered pointless.

No, animals today are been bred today with the aim not of releasing them but releasing their great great great grandchildren into a hopefully saner and more settled world.

Photo By:
Photo By:

We know that we can train animals to survive in the wild even after being born in captivity but they need to retain the physical characteristics to do so. They need to retain, for example, a striped coat, a pointed nose, long arms or whatever. This is where breeding programmes are important. These are scientifically managed and assisted by some pretty sophisticated software known as SPARKS (Single Population Analysis Record Keeping System). SPARKS was developed by zoos cooperating ISIS.

Zoos which keep and breed White Tigers, White Lions, Ligers, Tigons are missing the point altogether. These animals are freaks of nature and were never intended to live in the wild. True enough there may have been the odd individual spotted here and there but they are freaks. Zoos which breed these are NOT conservation minded.

It may surprise some people that zoos today are as much about NOT breeding some species as they are breeding others. There is only a limited number of spaces in captivity and it is important to use this space wisely. Indiscriminate breeding and release is a criminal act and may do more harm to existing wild populations than help them. At the very least the released animals may wither and die without a carefully monitored and supportive release plan. Released animals may force existing animals from their territories. Released animals may introduce disease into the wild population. There are examples of all these having occurred in the past. It is sad then that some zoos, and some quite reputable ones included, will release to free up captive space and take the 'glory' of the 'introduction' from the press.

Nature has a way of balancing up births so that roughly 50:50 males and females are born. In the wild nature also has a way of dealing with the surplus males and so only the strong survive. In captivity things are different and the survival rate for both sexes is very high. Zoos are now encouraged to form single sex groups to prevent breeding.

Breeding then is carefully managed. A prime male from Zoo A may be shipped to a genetically desirable female in Zoo B. The studbook holder will have it all worked out and a 'wanted' animal will be born. Perhaps the male from Zoo A may be in Zoo B for life or move on after a few years to Zoo C or maybe return home.

So much depends on species. Young primates are best to remain with their parents till a couple of siblings are born as they both learn and assist in rearing. Other animals may need to be removed quite quickly or they may be killed by the parents.

The studbook holder will advise where animals should be moved. The studbook holder will also ask for breeding to stop in some cases. This may mean separation whilst the female is in season or perhaps using contraception.

The number of studbooks increases every year and along with advances in DNA research and 'The Frozen Zoo'. At the same time International exchanges mean that the future looks secure for 'Zoo' animals for quite some time to come.

It is to be hoped that education and the preservation and protection of the wild environments may reach a stage where animals can actually be safely returned.


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