When filmmaker Geoff D’Eon was a boy in England in the late 1950s, his parents took him to the London Zoo to see the “Chimpanzee’s tea party.”

“They would dress the chimps in bowler hats and waistcoats and frocks and dresses, and they would put cups of tea and little cakes on the table and the chimps would play havoc and we’d roar with laughter and that was a form of entertainment and nobody saw anything wrong with it,” he recalled. “And then we would ride the elephants, not just look at them.”

D’Eon is the writer and director of Zoo Revolution, produced by Dream Street Pictures in association with CBC Television. It aired Thursday on the season premiere of Doc Zone.  

D'Eon admits that when he was first asked to do a film about zoos, he was unaware of the “raging debate” over zoos and whether they do more harm or more good.

“Like anyone else, I’m opposed to cruelty to animals and I react badly. But for the most part, that’s not what I saw when I visited zoos,” D’Eon said in an interview.

That was before he started calling zoos and asking to film them and interview their staff.

Aquariums refused to participate

Many refused, including every single aquarium he contacted and the London Zoo, which he really wanted to include.

 “The hardest part of making the film probably was not getting the access to all the places we wanted to go,” he said.

Geoff DEon

Geoff D'Eon, writer and director of Zoo Revolution, admitted that when he was first asked to do a film about zoos, he was unaware of the "raging debate" over zoos and whether they do more harm or more good. (Dream Street Pictures)

But he noted that zoos are a huge industry that attracts 700 million visitors a year worldwide.

“There’s more people in North America that go to zoos than go to all the major sport franchises combined. So you’re dealing with an industry which is very conscious of its image and is very protective of its image.”

In the end, D’Eon managed to visit about a dozen zoos, from large city zoos to unaccredited roadside attractions.

Some, such as Zoos Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, were welcoming and proud of their work, which they believe is helping the public develop a connection with animals and builds support for conservation efforts.

Canadian zoos, D’Eon said, were “open to us visiting, with more hesitation.” The Toronto Zoo refused to talk at all about its elephants, which are slated to be sent to a sanctuary in California, after animal rights groups voiced concerns about the animals’ welfare.

D’Eon didn’t even try to interview the owners of the roadside zoos, which prohibited photography. Instead, he and his crew posed as tourists.

“Anytime you go into a place that is in the business of keeping animals – and photography is prohibited – I think it automatically raised suspicion in our minds,” he said.

It turns out those suspicions were well-founded, said D’Eon, who described some of those zoos as a “horror show.”

Conservation role?

Besides documenting conditions in a range of zoos, D’Eon interviewed articulate people on all sides of the zoo debate, including:

  •  Jenny Grey, CEO of Zoos Victoria, who believes modern zoos play a vital role in saving endangered species.
  • Will Travers, executive director of the Born Free Foundation, who thinks the money spent on zoos is wasteful and diverts resources away from effective conservation efforts, such as habitat protection.
  • Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, who believes some zoos do a good job of public education, even as others treat their animals very badly.

The heated public debate is forcing zoos to respond and adapt to public expectations, D’Eon said.

 “I think it’s unquestionable that zoos are undergoing change and they are rethinking the way they present animals to public,” he added.

Many are redesigning their enclosures to make it appear that animals have more freedom and space and that there are fewer barriers between the humans and animals. They are also more concerned about the needs of the animals, and think more carefully about what species are appropriate to exhibit at their facility, given factors such as the local climate.

In the end, D’Eon said making the film made him more aware of shortcomings of zoos that he had previously overlooked, but that his personal conclusion is that zoos “probably do more good than harm” – with the exception of some bad zoos, which he thinks should be shut down immediately.

However, he said he and his team were careful not to take a position in the film.

He hopes that by presenting many angles, it will “open people’s eyes” to the issues surrounding zoos.

“So that when they go to the zoo, they’ll have a  more critical eye… and they’ll be able to come to a more mature conclusion about whether zoos in their minds are a good or a bad thing.”