Dear Sir,

I read with interest Anthony Sheridan’s article on ‘Europe’s Leading Zoological Gardens, 2009’ (IZN 57/5, pp. 267–273). I find it incredibly naïve of him to think that this scoring system and ranking is actually of any real use or relevance. You might as well go to a travel website like www.tripadvisor.com and use the visitor comments to get a view on each zoo – at least then you would get some real feeling for what those visitors who want to share their experiences think, but even then this is a select audience and not representative of the whole.

The scoring system Anthony describes is flawed – the discussion regarding extra points for elephants, zebras etc. (pp. 268–9) clearly illustrates this. What is this whole exercise trying to achieve? Does it actually matter if you are in the top ten or nearer 50th on this list? And what is the comment about Schönbrunn and Beauval having female directors supposed to tell us? That female directors pick animals that score higher on the list?

By all means give credit to well thought out and designed exhibits, serious commitment to conservation projects (in situ and ex situ), real activity on education and interpretation, research both pure and applied and the visitor experience and quality of service. This does not depend on having the ‘iconic’ species described as deserving ‘extra points’. The accreditation systems operated by associations such as EAZA, BIAZA and AZA should be a benchmark, and one that is raised higher as time goes by. Then on top of those you can add factors such as visitor service as reported through visitor feedback, trends in visitor numbers etc., and get a better idea of the ‘quality’ of a zoo.

It’s a great shame that such obvious enthusiasm for the work and experience of zoos has been diverted into this pointless exercise. I am, however, happy to concur with Anthony’s concluding paragraph regarding the need for investment and funding, and public (visitor) support.

Stephen P. Woollard,
Education and Interpretation Manager,
Animals, Conservation and Education Department,
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland,
Edinburgh, EH12 6TS, U.K.

Anthony D. Sheridan replies:

(1) My work, including ranking lists, is valued by very many zoo directors throughout Europe. I am encouraged by their help, support, and interest.

(2) There does not appear to be a similar or comparable on-going survey of Europe’s leading zoological gardens. Whilst mine is not perfect, I believe that it provides a fair and balanced picture of the largest such zoos, taking account of the main factors of interest to concerned and regular zoo visitors, as well as being of serious interest to many in the zoo world, including professionals, financial backers and ‘Friends of the Zoo’ organisations.

(3) My latest ranking lists have been divided into three columns to show that some zoos are stronger in conservation and education whilst others have collections of more interest to visitors. With regard to ‘iconic’ species, there is definitely a stronger visitor interest in certain species and this commercial factor needs to be recognised if zoos are to attract maximum visitor numbers.

(4) I admit that it is a coincidence that Schönbrunn and Beauval both have female zoo directors; in the case of Schönbrunn’s pre-eminence much can be attributed to the previous male director who retired in 2007. Inclusion is just an interesting fact when female zoo directors are in such a small minority amongst the 80 zoos surveyed.

(5) I continue to develop and improve my project; visitor surveys are an area I am currently investigating, although professional visitor surveys are at present confined to a minority of zoos.

(6) Finally, I should welcome meeting Stephen to discuss all of this in more detail if he is interested in doing so.