Environment ministers will try to persuade their European counterparts to agree to bring in an EU directive to require the Continent's 1,000 zoos to be licensed and inspected - a measure dropped six years ago at the insistence of the Conservative government.
They want to bring standards in other European countries up to those in Britain, even though campaigners insist there are also bad zoos here.
A recent RSPCA undercover investigation of Continental zoos found animals in a "very distressed state" in many of them. These included an elephant needing hospital treatment in Germany, a tiger dragging its back feet in Italy, a lioness unable to stand in Belgium, hippopotami unable to submerge themselves in water in Spain and oryx stressed by being placed opposite a lion enclosure in France.
The organisation names Rome Zoo, the Parc Zoologique and the Menagerie des Jardins Plantes in Paris, and Limburgse Zoo in Genk, Belgium, as particularly bad. 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".
The European Commission has prepared a non-binding recommendation for zoo standards. Tomorrow the British minister, holding the EU presidency for the first time since 1992, will try to give the recommendation the force of a directive.
The push will be led by the Junior Minister, Angela Eagle, since environment minister Michael Meacher will be in the chair and will have to be impartial.
Because of opposition from other countries the directive will be presented as one setting uniform standards to encourage the conservation of animals through inter-breeding. But it is also aimed at improving animal welfare and public safety.
In response to the criticism, Yoland Surcouf, the owner of Basildon Zoo, said: "There is absolutely nothing wrong with our animals." And London Zoo said: "We don't think there is anything wrong with our elephant paddock."Reuse content