If you were to have entered my university room when I lived in halls you would have learnt one thing instantly – I love giraffes. The giant giraffe poster on the wall would have been your first clue, shortly followed by the ornament of a giraffe and cuddly giraffe sitting on my windowsill. I swear in a previous life I must have been a zoologist. In this life the only place I can see giraffes in the flesh is in a zoo. So last summer I visited four of them.

I enjoyed walking around, learning about strange looking animals and observing their behaviour. My boyfriend and I stood by the giraffe enclosure for a good hour, commentating on what each of them was thinking. In our heads there was a lot of family drama and giraffe rivalry.

Giraffes Rothschild and calf BallyFoyle.

Belfast Zoo’s giraffes – Rothschild and calf BallyFoyle

After visiting a zoo, when I’m shoving a photograph I’ve taken of a lemur or hippo under a friend’s nose, there’s always the same discussion. Everyone asks, how can a vegetarian also support animal captivity?

It’s as simple as this – us humans are destroying the planet. We are the ones putting beautiful species in the face of extinction and we have a responsibility to protect endangered animals. That’s where zoos come in.

Sumatran Tiger

Belfast Zoo is home to Sumatran tigers, which the IUCN believes is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

One of the zoos I visited last year was good old Belfast Zoo. Despite being on a nightmare of a hill, it was an enjoyable, albeit grey, day.

Now, I’m an avid reader. I’ll read everything and anything in my eyeline – even the ingredients to foreign shampoo. So when I wandered around Belfast zoo, I stopped to read the boards outside the enclosures and proceeded to “um” and “ah” at pretty much everything.

The zoo also offers educational visits for people of every age, aiming to highlight the importance of conservation, particularly amongst young people. By coming face to face with the animals who lose their habitats as a consequence of day to day human life, we can learn how to better protect these animals and the environment.


Mother and baby chimpanzees at Belfast Zoo

Importantly, zoos like Belfast offer visitors in developed countries the chance to witness the interactions between animals like a mother and baby monkey, a sight they would otherwise probably never see. Without zoos I wouldn’t get to go and observe giraffes and probably wouldn’t be as obsessed, which although might be healthier for me, would definitely not be good for them.

IMBV-Barn Owl

Belfast Zoo researches the causes of death for barn owls

Most zoos host some form of research. In Belfast, John Lusby monitors nest-sites and collates data on the causes of death for barn owls. He raises public awareness through school and community group visits in order to protect this species.

As long as zoos provide a realistic habitat for each species of animal, provide mental stimulation to give the animal a high quality of life and follows the regulations in place, I’m happy.

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Asian Elephant at Belfast Zoo enjoying a mud bath as it would do in the wild

Walking round the zoo, it’s clear that other people are happy too. Sometimes I find myself not observing the animals, but instead the look of wonder on a young child’s face as they presses their face up against the glass of the gorilla enclosure. It’s like they’re seeing snow for the first time – their eyes can’t get any bigger and they forget how to blink.

Parents clearly love introducing their children to the animals of the world, it’s clear from the way they’re holding their iPhone at an awkward angle in order to capture the moment.


Baby monkey, Xiao Xing, at Belfast Zoo

In the end, it comes down to my opinion that zoos protected endangered species and improve people’s attitudes to animals. The more a person gets attached and falls in love with a species, the more likely they are to protect it.

At the end of the discussion I always turn to my friend and say, so how can you be against animal captivity but happily eat meat?

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