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A Culinary Conundrum for Zoos: Bridging the Gap Between Mission & Menu

Dr Jake Veasey

May 23, 2023

Zoos, aquariums and other wildlife attractions advocate for conservation and animal welfare - given the environmental and welfare impacts of meat consumption, how can zoos align their mission with their menu?

In the early 2000’s, I was invited to the opening of a new and innovative wildlife attraction, established by a respected, conservation focused charitable zoo organisation. As a relative newcomer to the sector, I perhaps put my foot in it, when I asked the curator responsible for much of the development (though not the catering), why the most endangered animal at the facility was the fish sold in the restaurant. That facility shut down some two decades later though almost certainly not due to the choice of fish on the menu! However, that example, wasn’t the first or last instance where I’ve triggered some awkward conversations about the disconnect between a wildlife attraction’s mission, and its menu, or the products sold in its gift shop for that matter.

Admittedly, I have a tendency to challenge the status-quo on both animal welfare and conservation matters, so I have become accustomed to raising eyebrows, but bizarrely, the topic of zoo restaurant menus, might just be the one that triggers the greatest collective groan across the sector! And so, I raise it with some trepidation, but feel its a conversation that needs to be had as I believe the food zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks serve in their restaurants, is possibly the most significant, but under-appreciated educational opportunity available to the sector in delivering positive environmental behaviour change amongst their large visitor base.

So, my question is, considering the undeniable biodiversity benefits associated with a meatless, or significantly reduced meat and dairy based diet, how can zoos justify serving meals so heavily reliant upon animal products to their visitors? And, I ask this question with the humility of someone who is a relatively recent (2016) and far from perfect convert to a more plant-based way of life. For full disclosure – I guess I’d be considered a flexitarian; I seek out vegan options including avoiding dairy, but when circumstances dictate (as they often do), I do drift, I do own leather shoes, and I would make the odd exception for humanely harvested, conservation compatible meat such as wild Scottish venison. The point being, I don’t come at this with the judgemental zealotry that some vegans (unfairly I think), have a reputation for.

If zoos were to embrace vegan or almost vegan food options, I believe they would create an unprecedented opportunity to deliver actionable educational impacts that would help foster a deeper understanding of the linkages between the food we chose to consume, and the health and wellbeing of life on this fragile planet.

Sadly, I don’t think a smattering of vegan “options” are enough, in just the same way fast-food chains offering a salad whilst retaining all of their other planet and health damaging choices will ever eliminate the obesity crisis. When presented with a choice between all the tasty junk society has become addicted to, and an uninspiring salad, most will understandably revert to type, and so, if zoos are to truly be environmental champions, there is a case to be made that that choice needs to be removed, or weighted heavily against environmental harms. Why not for example add a premium to animal and planetary harming foods, and subsidise those kinder more sustainable food choices? The data required to calibrate such environmental and welfare harming premiums is easily accessible, so it wouldn't be hard to achieve.

The environmental benefits of global reductions in animal based agriculture would be staggering; in fact, if we picked any single aspect of our lives with the potential to improve the wellbeing of our planet, you’re unlikely to find something more impactful than changing the make-up of the food we eat. The following points should give a taster of just how profoundly our food choices impact life on this planet; the livestock industry accounts for around half of global greenhouse gas emissions, 91% of Amazon deforestation, uses a third of the world’s freshwater, and dominates land-use across the world’s habitable surface area, accounting for a bigger surface area than all of the world's forests.

The following graphic from the Guardian encapsulates the issue well; with the biomass of a just handful of farmed species, outweighing the combined biomass of more than fifteen thousand species of wild mammal and bird, is it any wonder there is little space for wildlife?!

Lets be clear, if we ate less meat, redundant agricultural landscapes could revert to nature, be better able to soak up atmospheric carbon, creating much more room for wildlife, retaining more biodiversity, resulting in a healthier, more resilient planet. It really is that simple - so how can conservation organisations such as zoos, justify selling hotdogs and burgers?

By dramatically limiting animal-based products, with perhaps, a very small selection of carefully curated exceptions, which comply with strict environmental and welfare related criteria that crucially, form part of the the facility's educational content, zoos could align their conservation mission with their catering function and supercharge their ability to deliver genuine behaviour change amongst their large visitor base, who will be uniquely primed by the inspirational experiences wildlife attractions can undoubtedly offer. And let’s give this some further context, its likely more people attend wildlife attractions each year than attend paid sporting events, and so the ability of zoos to move the needle educationally, shouldn't be underestimated!

If the environmental and educational benefits associated with a shift in catering offerings were the only reasons for meat-free menus, they would of course be reason enough to do so, but that is possibly the tip of the iceberg – a metaphor that will be less relevant the longer we keep consuming animal protein!

Zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums want, and need to be seen to be guardians of animal welfare, as well as the environment, and most staff who work in such facilities not only strive to provide the best possible care for “their” animals, they tend to care for animals more generally also. So, the basis by which wildlife attractions limit their animal welfare concerns to the animals within their care is problematic, particularly when zoos claim to care about the conservation of animals in and outside the zoo.

By limiting catering offerings to vegan (or almost vegan) food choices, zoos can tangibly demonstrate their commitment to the welfare of ALL animals as well as all species, whilst also promoting a more sustainable and compassionate lifestyle that aligns with, and emphasises what should be their core values. And it’s not just individual animals that would benefit from such a shift; evidence increasingly supports case for substantial human health benefits of a predominantly plant based diet, and so if zoos have an opportunity to promote a healthier lifestyle for their visitors, surely they should at least consider it?

Progress has been made in recent years, but not enough, and not uniformly so. ZSL’s London Zoo has taken solid steps to align their menu with their mission by offering a range of plant-based options, together with sustainable, seasonal and locally sourced food choices, whereas the equally respected and conservation focused WCS’s Bronx Zoo menu, still leans heavily towards traditional animal-based fare, and I don’t believe, either go far enough. No doubt, catering managers will make the financial argument against plant-based menus, quoting poor sales for unappetising salads - but a visit to any one of the number of good vegan fast food restaurant popping up all over London, will attest to the tastiness of veggie fast food options. Crucially, zoos have a large, and once inside, somewhat trapped audience who will likely pick something, even if their factory farmed favourites are not on the menu, which creates a unique opportunity to guide the public to a more sustainable, ethical and healthy diet.

The risk for wildlife attractions of not aligning their catering offering with their mission and values, is they will squander an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in core areas, and not only is that not good for welfare, conservation and the planet, I don’t believe it’s in the long-term interest of zoos, aquariums and wildlife parks.

We at Care for the Rare look forward to formally acknowledging the first wildlife attraction that can clearly demonstrate it has taken the steps necessary to genuinely align its menu with its mission, and learning about the steps they’ve taken to do so!

#zoos #aquariums #wildlife #nature #conservation #climatecrisis #climatechange #biodiversity #sustainablefood #sustainable #animalwelfare #vegan #vegetarian #menu #fastfood #carefortherare #leadership #restaurant #whowillbefirst

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