Using the term "Social License to Operate" in the Zoo context to gain conservation allies

Zoos, aquaria, and animal sanctuaries are among the conservation organizations under more constant and increasing social pressure from animal rights activists and conservation ethicists alike (1). While the “Ark paradigm” has proven to be a weak argument given the outcomes produced in the last decade (2), ex-situ management interventions are becoming a primary part of an increasing number of conservation strategies (3).

Over the past decades, public perception of captivity has changed significantly; the “Good zoos” have been adapting to the variable attitudes with investments in redefining values. Research, education, animal welfare, and conservation have been the driving forces towards getting a better positioning in the scientific conservation community and gaining public approval. Some institutions, like the Bronx Zoo, have become leaders of very successful conservation movements (4), and some are renowned as the “national pride” such as the Singapore Zoo (5). However, not all zoos have been able to adapt to these shifting perceptions timely. The loss of legitimacy of some institutions also influences the industry's reputation, affecting the funding and the capacity to play a significant role in the conservation process, a cycle that leaves one victim; biodiversity.

These emerging social changes in perception have led to increased public concern and interest in the role of ex-situ managed collections (6). Even projects that maintain animals under human care for conservation purposes are experiencing increased public scrutiny, which will intensify as the scientific understanding of animal welfare develops further (7). The traditional benefits of zoos, amusement, education, scientific research, and conservation of species are overshadowed by the moral presumption against keeping animals in captivity (8). Therefore, ex-situ managed programs must engage with active and relevant conservation projects, conservation-oriented meaningful research, advanced animal welfare science, and a robust education outreach campaign to inspire people to protect wildlife.

Zoos must engage with active and relevant conservation projects, conservation-oriented meaningful research, advanced animal welfare science, and a robust education outreach campaign to inspire people to protect wildlife

To blend the four key factors of zoological institutions; Animal Welfare, Conservation, Research, and Education, into one simple combined concept, we had to investigate the available options to find the concept that better suits our objective. Finally we found the term "Social License to Operate," a concept that has been used in the zoo industry only recently when approaching Animal Welfare concerns, especially in Australia and New Zealand. Here, however, we propose a wider application of the concept considering the four values in which zoological institutions must be supported in order to maintain their legitimacy.

The term "Social License to Operate" (SLO) was first introduced more than two decades ago in the mining industry, responding to the deteriorating social reputation of the natural resource extraction industry (9). As a theoretical construct, the SLO concept is based on the perception and opinion of local communities and other stakeholders regarding the company’s business operations affecting them (10). It represents the implied public approval and consent for a business to operate independently from legal or statutory requirements (11). In order to “attain” SLO, a company must gain trust from the public and other stakeholders (12). The trust can only be achieved after gaining legitimacy through compliance with legislation and moral principles, and credibility by providing sufficient information to make informed decisions.

Demonstration against the mining industry (extracted from 15)

The SLO provides a platform for public intervention and a more significant social commitment for companies beyond corporate social responsibility (13). The SLO is dynamic and hard to certify without measuring specific indicators regularly. Within the zoo industry, an SLO is built not only on its reputation but also on the perceptions of both visitors and the broader community through more thoughtful consideration of their opinions and attitudes while influencing their values positively (14).

Like the mining industry, zoos operate around valuable natural resources -in this case, endangered species-. Still, unlike the mining industry, zoos must produce benefits for the public and the conservation of their resident animals. Unlike the mining industry, the resources of zoos are not taken from the environment. However, like the mining industry, zoos have to justify their actions and operations to maintain legitimacy, credibility, and trust. Social License to Operate represents an acceptable long term social framework for the future of the zoo industry.

“Zoos need to outgrow their past, based in awareness and entertainment, and become real conservation organisations that demonstrate compassion for all living beings”
~ Jennifer Helen Gray
An adult male Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) enjoys his favorite ficus fruit. Bako National Park. Borneo. Malaysia. Photo by Borja Reh

So where to from here then?

The future of all ex-situ managed programs relies on the capability of every institution to adapt to the new public perceptions and to make meaningful contributions to the conservation of endangered species through the different avenues available – conservation education, research for conservation, ex-situ and in-situ conservation –. Additionally, animals must be kept under the highest welfare standards and must be kept in natural settings to promote their educational value. Reaching acceptable levels on all these different values often requires strong support and determination.

Today, the zoo is standing at a crossroads and has to decide if it will fully commit to the new
paradigm and develop into a conservation center or if it will degenerate into a venue for entertainment that will provoke increasing criticism, not only from annimal protectionist but also from wildlife conservationists.”
~Jozef Keulartz

Allies for Wildlife is looking for institutions aiming to step up their conservation efforts and are wishing to become key wildlife conservation partners. We offer the support needed to make a meaningful impact and to enhance the Social License to Operate


  1. Gray, J. (2017). Zoo Ethics. Clayton South, Victoria: CSIRO Publishing.
  2. Traylor-Holzer K, Leus K, Bauman K. (2018). Integrated Collection Assessment and Planning (ICAP) workshop: Helping zoos move toward the One Plan Approach. Zoo Biology. 2019;38:95–105.
  3. IUCN/SSC, 2014. Guidelines on the Use of Ex Situ Management for Species Conservation.
  4. Wildlife Conservation Society 2020 Conservation Strategy. (2020).
  5. Mr Lee Kuan Yew wanted a zoo as successful as Singapore. (2015). Today newspaper.
  6. Sherwen S.L. & Hemsworth, P.H. (2019). The Visitor Effect on Zoo Animals: Implications and Opportunities for Zoo Animal Welfare. Animals 2019, 9, 366.
  7. Walker, et al. (2014). Animal welfare science: Recent publication trends and future research priorities. Int. J. Comp. Psychol. 2014, 27, 80–100.
  8. Keulartz J. (2015) Captivity for conservation? Zoos at a crossroads. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 28(2): 335–351.
  9. Boutilier, R. G., Black, L., & Thomson, I. (2012). From metaphor to management tool: How the social license to operate can stabilise the socio-political environment for business. International Mine Management 2012 Proceedings, 227-237. Melbourne, Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
  10. Joyce, S and Thomson, I, 2000. Earning a social License to operate: Social acceptability and resource development in Latin America, The Canadian Mining and Metallurgical Bulletin, 93(1037):49-52.
  11. Taylor, D., & Mahlangu, S. (2017). Earning the Social Licence to Operate – A case study about culture.
  12. Warsaw, D., & Sayers, J. (2020). The influence of animal welfare accreditation programmes on zoo visitor perceptions of the welfare of zoo animals. Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research, 8(3), 188-193.
  13. 14 Hampton, J.O., Teh-White, K. (2019). Animal Welfare, Social License, and Wildlife Use Industries. The Journal of Wildlife Management 83(1):12–21; 2019.
  14. 15 Herrera Herbert, J. (2017). Introducción a la Minería (2ª Edición). Vol. II: Características de la industria minera.. Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Madrid.