You'll definitely be in for a big surprise. Animal welfare, conservation and education now top the agenda, as Nicki Household reports. Only a few years ago, it seemed as if no one had a good word to say for zoos - particularly after the sustained lobbying of animal welfare agencies. But by the time anti-zoo publicity was at its height in the late 1980s, zoos themselves had begun a sea-change. No longer simply leisure parks where the public could go and gawp at captive wild animals, British zoos had become deeply committed to animal welfare, conservation, and education.
This was not a sudden shift. As long ago as 1966, the Federation of Zoological Gardens of Great Britain and Ireland (Federation of Zoos) was founded out of a desire to set and raise standards of animal management and welfare.
Today, 60 zoos and wildlife collections are members of the federation. By law, they are obliged to undertake education and conservation work. As Britain is the only European country that has a law to establish minimum animal welfare standards in zoos, the principal anti-zoo organisations, Born Free and Zoo Watch, are now concentrating most of their efforts abroad.
Attitudes have also changed because it's now universally recognised that without captive breeding programmes, many species would simply not survive in the wild. The conservation of species in their original habitats is still the ideal, but as natural habitats are dest-royed and wild animal populations decimated, zoos have an increasingly vital role to play in preserving endangered species. Almost all British zoo animals are now bred in captivity. Creatures are only taken from the wild when it is necessary for the long-term survival of the species.
"The future of conservation is in the hands of people who know and care about animals and the threats they face. That is why we now take our role as educators very seriously," says Nick Jackson, federation chairman and zoological director of the Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay. "Zoos are one of the most potent ways of raising awareness because they bring 12 million visitors a year (of which 40 per cent are children) face to face with living animals."
It could be argued that people no longer need to see live animals, because wildlife films are so good but surveys have shown that seeing animals on film actually makes people even keener to see the real thing. "A 12in-high giraffe on a television screen may be fascinating," says Nick Jackson, "but it's the live animal that makes people exclaim 'God, how can anything be that tall?'" All federation zoos have planned education programmes and more than half have one or more full-time education officers. "Zoos know very well that the days of school jollies are long past and that outside trips have got to be relevant, " says Stephen McKeown, chairman of the federation's education committee and head of education at Chester Zoo. "We examine all levels of the curriculum closely and regularly invite teachers in to discuss their needs."
Of the 850,000 school children who visit federation zoos ann-ually, around half receive on-site tuition from ed-ucation officers or teachers trained by zoo education officers, while the other half take self-guided tours, using material provided by the zoo's education department.
Among experiences on offer at Chester Zoo are "close contact sessions" with a variety of tame animals who are unstressed by human contact, including dom-estic rats, hand-reared pigeons and small snakes. The zoo also has a collection of ivory tusks, leopard skins and stuffed baby crocodiles - confiscated by customs officers - which are used to stimulate discussions about conservation.
"But we're not all doom and gloom about the wild, because we want to offer children a positive view of the future," explains McKeown. "The important message we get across is that things can be done to slow down the damage, and that they can play their part."
The obvious highlight of every visit is a guided walk around the animal enclosures. "The children are always dying to get out to see the animals and we regard the collection as a unique resource. Short of taking the children to Africa, there's no other way they could come face to face with real lions, elephants and giraffes."
As a former biology teacher, Stephen McKeown believes zoos are particularly useful for sex education. "Of course you have to know in advance what is and is not appropriate for a particular group, but the unselfconscious way animals have sex makes them a perfect medium for discussing all kinds of sexual topics - including homosexuality and masturbation, both common sights in zoos!" Bristol Zoo has three full-time education officers and offers to teach "any subject a teacher wants". It runs a special A-level day focusing on animal classification and adaptations, and for primary pupils there are gadgets which enable them to measure how much faster they can run than, say, a crocodile. "Every session has a conservation message," says assistant head of education Stephen Woollard, "and we encourage the children to suggest ways to save threatened species like the rhinoItheir favourite solution is to shoot the poachers."
Since the mid-1980s, the Federation of Zoos has run a series of nationwide awareness and fund-raising appeals, including Parrots in Peril, The Monkeys Matter, The Bali Starling Appeal and last year's Tiger Week Appeal, which raised more than Pounds 70,000 for three wild tiger conservation projects. This year's appeal, It's Your Wildlife ... Save It!, is in support of native British species, such as the dormouse, red squirrel, smooth snake and sand lizard.
"Perhaps the most important change of recent years is that zoos now co-operate rather than compete with each other," says Stephen McKeown.
Further information: The Federation of Zoological Gardens of Great Britain and Ireland, Zoological Gardens, Regent's Park, London NW1 4RY. Tel: 0171 586 0230 London Zoo education department: Tel: 0171 449 6552 Chester Zoo, Caughall Road, Upton-by-Chester, Cheshire CH2 1LH. Tel education department on 01244 380280 Bristol Zoo Gardens, Clifton, Bristol BS8 3HA. Tel: 0117 970 6176