“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill, of things unknown, but longed for still, and his tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom.”[1]Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou has eloquently and beautifully described the agony of being borne and bred in captivity. She speaks about longing for freedom, even if you have never actually known it. While the caged bird might be also understood as a metaphor for a person who has been enslaved or captivated, it cannot be denied that it is an apt and plausible description of animals who have been captivated and kept in a zoo.

Zoo, as we understand it today is a public place where wild animals are kept in captivation for the purpose of exhibition, scientific study, etc. This article aims to examine the origin of zoo, the applicable legal framework present in India, moral responsibility towards welfare of animals, etc., in order to determine the relevance and need of urban zoos present in the country today.

How did the practice start?

While, it is impossible to ascertain the exact time period when the practice of captivating animals began, there is considerable evidence to prove that it has been a part of human culture since ancient times. One of the earliest appearances of a concept akin to the modern zoo is dated back to 2500 BC Egypt. Paintings on ancient Egyptian tombs where wild animals such as antelope, gazelle, etc., are depicted wearing collars have been discovered. Historians have also found evidence that this practice was also found in other civilizations such as Chinese, Roman, Aztec, Greek, etc. However, zoos or zoological parks as we know them today only came into existence in 1800 century. The first zoo in the world is supposed to be in Paris.[2] While the Thiruvananthapuram Zoo is popularly considered to be the first zoo in India.[3] The usage of the term zoo only became prevalent in 19th century in London as an abbreviation of zoological gardens.[4]  

It is pertinent and fair to mention that with the passage of time, there has been a significant transformation in the way zoo is build. From museum like structures with compact cages for keeping the animals, the structure of zoo has gradually evolved to more habitable enclosure for ensuring the conservation of wild-life. The biggest reason behind this transformation is the change in objective, i.e., from show of power and entertainment to scientific study and conservation of endangered species. 

What are the applicable laws?

The Indian Constitution: The Constitution of India recognizes the importance of protecting the wildlife and accordingly has not only entrusted the responsibility to the State but also to the citizens of India. Article 48A of Part IV of the Constitution, charges the State with the responsibility of protection and improvement of environment and safeguarding of forest and wild-life. While Article 51A(g) of Part IVA states that it is the fundamental duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the environment including wild-life and to show compassion towards living creatures. However, being part of ‘the Directive Principles of State Policy’ and ‘Fundamental Duties’ respectively, the same are not enforceable by any court of law and merely acts as a guideline.

The constitution empowers both the parliament as well as the state legislature to pass statutes for preventing cruelty to animals and protecting wild-life and birds under the concurrent list of Schedule-VII of the Constitution.

Interestingly, it was the infamous 42nd Amendment[5] to the Constitution that inserted Article 48A, 51A(g) and the abovementioned entries. Overshadowed by the other more notorious changes it brought about, the pivotal role played by the amendment in giving animal rights a greater representation under the Constitution, is often forgotten.

The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972: The Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (“Act”) was enacted in September, 1972 with the objective “to provide for the protection of wild animals, birds and plants and for matters connected therewith or ancillary or incidental thereto with a view to ensuring the ecological and environmental security of the country”. Repealing all the other repugnant acts dealing with protection of wildlife[6], the Act became the primary statute for protection of wild animals and birds. However, it was only 19 years after the enactment of the Act, that the parliament first chose to incorporate provisions in respect to regulation of zoos vide the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act, 1991.

The term “zoo” is defined very broadly under the Act to mean “an establishment, whether stationary or mobile, where captive animals are kept for exhibition to the public and includes a circus and rescue centers but does not include an establishment[7] of a licensed dealer in captive animals.”[8] Inclusion of circus[9] and rescue shelters ensured that these establishment had to abide by the Act and hence gave greater protection to animals. Nonetheless, it is still debatable if the abovementioned establishment which are so distinctive in nature can be efficiently clubbed together for the purpose of regulation.  

Chapter IVA of the Act deals with central zoo authority and recognition of zoo. As per the provisions of the Act, not only a zoo requires to be recognized by the central zoo authority in order to operate, but post April 2003 a zoo may be only established after procuring prior approval from the Authority. In the year 2018-2019, there are 142 zoos which are recognized by the authority and are in operation.[10] 

The Central Zoo Authority is a statutory body established by the Central Government as the apex governing body. Apart from its role of granting recognition and approval to zoos, the Central Zoo Authority is also entrusted with functions such as specifying minimum standards for housing, vet care and upkeep of animals in the zoo, coordination of acquisition, exchange and loaning of animals for breeding in captivity, coordinating research, training, etc. Furthermore, the Authority also has the power to deny granting recognition, suspending recognition or canceling it if it has reasons to believe that  zoo is functioning in a manner which is prejudicial to the protection and conservation of wild life and/or is not abiding by the standards, norms and other matters as may be prescribed from time to time. Some of the general requirements prescribed[11] are to establish and sustain population of physically, genetically and behaviorally healthy animals, proper landscaping to provide a naturalistic environment, to refrain from display of sick and injured animals to the visitors, etc.

Apart from the above regulatory provisions, it is worthy to mention that the Act also penalizes any person who teases, molest, injures, feeds, or disturbs animals in the zoo with fine of rupees 2000/- or 6 months imprisonment or both. The penalty slightly increases for repeated or subsequent offenses.

Other relevant policies and guidelines: One of the earliest attempts to giving proper direction to the management of zoo by the government was in 1983 when the Indian Board of Wildlife decided to prepare and adopt national Wild-Life Action Plan. The first wildlife action plan was adopted in the year 1983 and was in effect till 2001. Presently, the third national wildlife action plan is in operation and shall be in operation till the year 2031.[12]

The government took the next major step towards regulating the zoos in India through the National Zoo Policy, 1998[13] issued on October, 1998. The policy recognized and emphasized on the role played by zoo in ex-situ conservation[14]. The policy laid down guidelines and strategies on acquisition, housing, health care of animals as well as the general planning and management of the zoo. Apart from the above the government has also come up with guidelines from time to time for the purpose of management of the zoos operating in the country.

Does zoo ensure the well-being of animals?

The applicable laws depict zoo to be a sanctum aiming to protect its inhabitants, however the accuracy of this utopian image is quite questionable. The inhuman beating of elephants in Mysore in 2005  [15], the rampant increase in death tolls of animals of National Zoological Park, Delhi[16] in the past few years are all reminders that this sanctuary is not that sacrosanct after all. What is even more perturbing is that many zoos present in the country today are negligent and deficient in providing the basic amenities such as proper drinking water, food, housing, veterinary care, environmental enrichment, safety and security to the animals.[17]

Only a very limited amount of credible information about such instances trickles down to the common man and even those often gets lost in the hustle of the usual news. The main source of information in respect to the animals in the zoo are the annual reports published by the zoo authorities. However, allegations that the figures of such reports are manipulated for the purpose of manifesting a more favorable condition of the animals in captivity has been a major concern for the environmentalist and animal activists for a long time.[18] Such circumstances highlight the lack of transparency. Therefore there is a need for re-evaluation of the present system and introduction of a better check and balance machinery in order to ensure the safety of these animals.

The big question: is it moral?

While the provisions of the Act and the National Zoo Policy make tall claims that the central purpose of a zoo is conservation of wildlife and education, the reality is that it majorly functions as a place for amusement. Hence, the question that stares us in the face is: ‘is it humane to strip wild animals from their natural habitat for the purpose of human entertainment?’.

It is necessary to address right in the start that the concept of zoo is not totally deprived of merit. Many species which were dangerously close to extinction have indeed been saved by breeding in captivity. Hence it is safe to conclude that zoo does act as an effective tool of ex-situ conservation. But the question remains that ‘is keeping animals in captivity the only way of saving them from extinction?’. The answer is in negative, as other methods of In-situ conservation do exist. It may also be argued that Ex-situ conservation is actually less desirable, as once animals become adapted to captivity it is difficult for them to survive in their natural habitat and are made dependent on human care forever.

Furthermore, many animals which are kept in zoo are not endangered species and therefore their captivity does not serve the purpose of conservation at all. Interestingly, a very similar question was raised before the Hon’ble Bombay High Court in People for Ethical Treatment of Animals vs. Commissioner, Brihan Mumbai Mahanagarpalika & Others[19]. In the said case it was argued that keeping animals which are not declared to be endangered in the zoo can’t be said to be done in furtherance of animal conservation and hence is not in line with the objective of the Act. However, the Hon’ble High Court restrained itself from making any observation or ruling on this contention and only noted the reply of the central government on this issue, which weakly claimed that the practice was necessary to inspire empathy among zoo visitors. The stand of the government here was quite oxymoronic as it claimed that for ensuring public empathy towards wild-animals, it is necessary to deprive them from their natural habitat and way of life. An act which may be reasonably argued to be sign of indifference itself.

Even though a case can be made both for and against the relevance and desirability of zoos in the country today, it is necessary to remember that Article 51A(g) of the Constitution charges each citizen with the moral responsibility to show compassion towards all living creatures and it is this test of morality that the urban zoo of present times miserably fails to qualify.

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Bhavya is a graduate of KIIT School of Law, Bhubaneswar. Since her graduation she has been working as an associate with Alliance Law Group. She is primarily involved in the corporate commercial practice of the firm including but not limited to corporate advisory, company law litigation and consumer disputes.


[1] ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ by Maya Angelou, first published in the year 1969.

[2] Zoo, National Geographic, resource library, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/zoo/(Last accessed on 17.05.2020)

[3] Zoological Garden, Thiruvananthapuram, Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala, http://www.keralaculture.org/thiruvananthapuram-zoo/542 (Last accessed on 17.05.2020)

[4]Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/zoo(Last accessed on 17.05.2020)

[5]The Constitution (Forty-Second Amendment) Act, 1976, Legislative Department, government of India,  http://legislative.gov.in/constitution-forty-second-amendment-act-1976, (Last accessed on 17.05.2020)

[6] Section 66 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act,1972.

[7] It was the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act, 2002 (Act 16 of 2003) which substituted “but does not include a circus and an establishment” with “and includes a circus and rescue centres but does not include an establishment” and hence broadened the definition of the term. The Amendment came into effect from 1-4-2003.

[8] Section 2(39) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act,1972.

[9] Section 2(7A) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act,1972 defines it as “an establishment, whether stationary or mobile, where animals are kept or used wholly or mainly for the purpose of performing tricks or manoeuvres”

[10] The annual report by Central Zoo Authority for the FY 2018-19.

[11] Schedule of the Recognition of Zoo Rules, 2009 

[12] Central Zoo Authority website, http://cza.nic.in/page/en/national-wild-life-action-plan (Last accessed on 17.05.2020)

[13]National Zoo Policy, 1998,  available at http://cza.nic.in/page/en/national-zoo-policy-1998 (Last accessed on 17.05.2020)

[14] Off-site conservation.

[15] Elephants illtreated at Mysore Zoo by Hindu, published on September, 2014 https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/elephants-illtreated-in-mysore-zoo-says-animal-welfare-group/article6462583.ece (Last accessed on 17.05.2020)

[16] The annual report by Central Zoo Authority for the FY 2017-18 and FY 2018-19 available at http://cza.nic.in/uploads/documents/reports/english/ar2018-19.pdf .

[17] India’s: Zoos a grim report by PETA India, https://www.petaindia.com/issues/animals-in-entertainment/indias-zoos/ (Last accessed on 17.05.2020)

[18] Delhi Zoo records 245 animal deaths in 14 months: Report published by Indian Express on 21st July, 2019, https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/delhi-zoo-records-245-animal-deaths-in-14-months-report-5839808/ (Last accessed on 17.05.2020)

[19] Writ Petition No. 2825 Of 2004, judgment dated 18.07.2005.

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