British environment ministers urged their Continental counterparts in Brussels to agree that in future only zoos satisfying EU animal welfare inspectors should receive a licence to operate. Angela Eagle, a junior environment minister, insisted that voluntary agreements are inadequate to tackle the problem of maltreatment - which exists even at supposedly reputable zoos.
While there was wide support in principle for an umbrella directive, European ministers were keen that the detail of how to run zoos should be left to national governments. Germany, the Netherlands and Greece would not even agree to a broad directive, saying zoo rules are better left to the nation state.
There are more than 1,000 zoos in the 15 EU member states and, according to a recent report by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, many of them are housing distressed animals who are living in cramped conditions and are deprived of medical attention even when they are obviously ill.
An RSPCA undercover investigation of Continental zoos found many animals in a "very distressed state". Cases included an elephant needing hospital treatment in Germany, a tiger dragging its back feet in Italy, a lioness unable to stand in Belgium, hippos unable to submerge themselves in water in Spain and oryx stressed by being placed opposite a lion enclosure in France. The RSPCA singled out Rome Zoo, the Parc Zoologique and the Menagerie des Jardins Plantes in Paris, and Limburgse Zoo in Genk, Belgium, as particularly bad.
Only a handful of member states, including Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, have laws which are enforced. Even so, the RSPCA has found cases of mistreatment in these countries.
Ministers insist that Britain's zoos are "okay", but the campaigning group Zoocheck says there are at least "half a dozen bad ones" and distressed animals even in the better ones. It cites Basildon Zoo in Essex as failing to meet even "middle-ground expectations" for standards of welfare and says that the elephant enclosure at London Zoo is "appalling".
Another survey, by the Born Free Foundation, also reported untreated animals, including an elephant in a Spanish zoo with a wound "as big as a chopping board", and elderly animals which could barely stand up. Polar bears and big cats were found in surroundings so small and spartan that they were reduced to a psychotic state, just pacing about.
EU officials said the British initiative had "moved zoos up the agenda", but stressed that the very strong political resistance of the Germans would be difficult to overcome. They suggested that an effective piece of EU legislation might have to be put off until after the ratification of the Amsterdam Treaty which at Britain's insistence has a protocol on animal welfare. Germany argues that a strong but non-binding EU "recommendation" on zoos would be preferable to a binding but weak directive.
Michael Meacher, the environment minister, stressed that a network of zoos throughout the Community could achieve more in conservation terms than individual zoos acting alone. "Zoos have a vital role to play in conservation work," he said.
"Some 230 zoos in the Community are involved in programmes of action to conserve 150 endangered species - ranging from the European otter to the Siberian tiger. A new directive will support this trend and encourage other zoos to follow suit."
Mr Meacher added: "At present there is evidence of poor standards at too many zoos in Europe."Reuse content