Whenever I am in a new city, I am always tempted to go and look at its zoo. However, sometimes I find myself hesitating because, well, my feelings about zoos are complex.

You can’t get away from it - these institutions are built on keeping animals in captivity. And yet it is also undeniable that without zoos, and their breeding and conservation programs, some of the earth’s most beautiful animal species would be lost to us.

How do I reconcile this? Well, before I decide whether or not to visit a zoo, I do my research.

Check its credentials


The first thing I check for is to see which organisations the zoo is registered with - the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is a promising start. Zoos registered with WAZA abide by a Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare. Of course, WAZA isn’t the only body that zoos can register with. There are a whole host of regional zoo associations around the world, US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the European based European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) and the South East Asian Zoos and Aquariums Association (SEAZA). This list is not exhaustive.

One zoo that I think has some fairly stellar credentials is the Tiergarten Schonbruun in Vienna, Austria. I found myself there on a whim after nabbing a cheap flight from Berlin last summer. Tiergarten Schonbrunn is accredited by the EAZA, the Austrian Zoo Organisation, the Association of Zoological Gardens and until quite recently was run by Helmut Pechlaner, a president of the Austrian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). This zoo is the world’s oldest continually operating zoo, and despite its age (it was established in 1752) it is a beautiful place to visit – it was previously a palace after all. The baroque buildings and pavilions alone would be worth a visit but coupled with the delightful giant panda exhibit, this really is unmissable.
 

What is the zoo’s mission statement?


The very first principle of the WAZA code states that “assisting in achieving the conservation and survival of species must be the aim of all members”. Check to see that the zoo's mission statement aligns with that, at the very least. All reputable zoos should have a mission statement that is easy enough to find, and lets you know exactly what its priorities are.

Australia Zoo, based on the Sunshine Coast, near Brisbane in Australia, is upfront about its priorities. When I went to pre-book my tickets on the website, the very first sentence I read was “Delivering conservation through exciting education”. And let me tell you, it did exactly that. While it isn't in a major city, getting to the zoo is easy enough, you can nab a cheap fare to Sunshine Coast from most Australian cities. Now, of course, I visited the crocodiles, but I found its Rainforest Aviary far more enticing. I was able to spy a number of native Australian birds, and learn about them, for example, did you know that the wedge-tailed eagles reach speeds of almost 100km per hour when diving for prey? Just like me when I’m shopping for designer bags in the Black Friday sales.
 

What else does the zoo do?


Yes, zoos display animals for human observation – that’s essentially how they make their money. But that is not all they do. There are hundreds of zoos around the world contributing resources to the conservation of animal species, through in-house breeding programs and external conservation activities. Most of them will detail some of their work on their websites.

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo is one such place that has made significant contributions to the conservation of animals. The Bill and Berniece Grewcock Centre for Conservation and Research is located on-site, and has been responsible for major advances in breeding gorillas and tigers. I spent more than half an hour in the Hubbard Gorilla Valley, watching these amazing creatures go about their day and - I must confess - though a dark swamp is not where I typically choose to spend my time, I did linger in the Kingdom of the Night exhibit, the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit.
 

Photographic evidence


Have a look for pictures of the zoo’s animal enclosures (but go and look at other websites, not just the zoos). How much space do the animals have? Do the enclosures resemble anything like the environments the animals would live in if they were in the wild? If you can see anything like concrete slabs and steel bars, move on.

One spacious enclosure that took my breath away was the Fragile Forest at the Singapore Zoo. I found myself in Singapore not too long ago after nabbing an irresistibly cheap flight to the island. Housed in an enormous biodome, this forest teems with life from the different equatorial forests. Frogs, birds, lemurs, flying foxes, they are all here and I reveled in the sheer diversity and beauty of this fragile ecosystem.
 

Animal practices


Read the zoo's website. Does the zoo offer group elephant rides? Are you allowed to cuddle a baby kangaroo? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then perhaps rethink your visit – no reputable zoo will let you handle the animals extensively. While we all like the idea of up-close and personal animal encounters (myself included), animals don’t necessarily feel the same as us – being handled, ridden or cuddled by visitors may cause them unnecessary stress. Zoos that allow this should be reconsidered. And of course, if you see a zoo advertising any shows that sound suspiciously like circus acts, run a mile.

One zoo that offers educational animal experiences (and not animal entertainment) is the Chester Zoo in the UK. It offers encounters with a number of animals, but more than that, it allows the really keen to muck in see what really goes into taking care of animals. And even budding botanists are given a chance to learn about the plant life at the zoo. Now while I applaud these endeavours, neither was for me, as my hands would undoubtedly be dirty and I didn’t have the time for another manicure. I was happy enough to wander the grounds, goggling at giraffes and smiling at the misbehaving monkeys.

Honestly, ten minutes spent with your phone will give you most of the answers to these questions, and if you do choose to support a zoo, you will be able to do so knowing you are supporting a worthwhile organisation.