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The role of a modern zoo

Zoos have undergone dramatic changes over the years. Their aims and objectives, as well as the way animals are kept in captivity, have changed greatly.

Zoos were first created as private collections, or menageries, with records of rulers in ancient Egypt keeping exotic animals brought back from expeditions. As public interest in natural history and science grew in the 18th century, zoos became popular with the public. These began more like museums of animals with a main purpose of displaying animals for show. However, over time zoos have further developed and now focus on conservation as wild habitats continue to decrease and many animals become more at risk of extinction. 

Modern zoos conserve a wild range of animal species and their habitats, promote education amongst visitors, take part in research projects and follow the highest standards of animal care and welfare. Zoos in the UK and Ireland must be licensed. Belfast Zoo is an accredited member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).

Animal care and welfare

Animal care and welfare is of the highest importance to Belfast Zoo and as a member of BIAZA, EAZA and WAZA, we are required to achieve the highest standards of care and welfare for all our animals. This includes physical health, mental health, nutrition, environment, behaviour, record keeping and enrichment.

We are home to over 500 animals who are cared for by a team of specialised zookeepers. They are responsible for cleaning, feeding, observing behaviour, enrichment, record keeping, environmental and enclosure work and visitor interactions. From time to time, zookeepers are required to hand-rear animals, particularly if they have been abandoned by inexperienced mothers. We famously hand-reared Lily the Barbary lion cub.

Animal health is overseen by the zoo vet. They are responsible for devising an annual care programme including:

  • vaccinations,
  • worming and other preventative measures,
  • pre-export and import health testing,
  • monitoring or isolation and quarantine periods,
  • animal transfer records and
  • providing the best care for animals with signs of illness.

Like humans, animals need a well-balanced diet to keep them fit and healthy. Our animal diets are designed to replicate their natural diets as closely as possible. We monitor the nutritional value and amount of food that each animal receives.

Animal food is delivered in different ways such as scatter feeding, ice blocks, termite mounds, hiding food and hanging food from trees and branches. This is a form of environmental enrichment which is used to encourage natural behaviour and provide stimulation. Our Asian elephants have pipes hidden in the sand where treats are placed, the Malayan sun bears have wobble feeders, the chimpanzees and anteaters have artificial termite mounds which they use tools or tongues to get food out. In hot weather we provide ice blocks with frozen treats for many species which is a good way to cool them down and challenge them.

Other enrichment techniques we have include habitat design with climbing frames, planting, water pools and heat lamps. We try to keep animals in group sizes which replicate those in the wild. Some animals, like big cats and bears, enjoy their senses being stimulated with scent bags.


Zoos are now seen as an essential places where many species which are under threat can be preserved and maintained. 

Belfast Zoo plays a vital role in conservation work by taking part in breeding programmes that aim to increase the population of endangered animals. 

Belfast Zoo currently takes part in more than 60 breeding programmes. Each programme is run by a species coordinator from a zoo around the world and is supported by experts from other zoos. The breeding programmes for the François langur, the black and white Colobus monkey and red squirrels are coordinated by Belfast Zoo staff.


More than 35 million people visit BIAZA collections every year and over 1.2 million take part in zoo education sessions. Zoos are in a unique position to teach and inspire a diverse audience about wildlife and the role of zoos, the dangers facing animals in their natural habitats and to inspire visitors to get involved with conservation.

Visitor attraction

Zoos are much more than a place to view a range of different animal species, we aim to provide a fun and memorable day out for many types of visitors. By providing a quality visitor attraction, we hope to educate and inspire visitors about our animal species and conservation.

Belfast Zoo is one of the city’s oldest visitor attractions, welcoming around 225,000 visitors per year. It is located only a fifteen-minute drive from the city centre.

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