16/08/2015 17:34 BST | Updated 16/08/2016 06:59 BST

A Trip to the Zoo?

For the last seven years, I've spent a portion of the school holidays doing live shows at some of the nation's best-known zoos. The shows attract thousands, mostly families with younger kids, and most leave with big smiles on their faces. I do however every year receive a number of messages that go something like this: "You're a massive hypocrite. You claim to be a conservationist, to care about wild animals, and yet you endorse institutions that keep these noble beasts imprisoned behind bars." My stance on this criticism - for which I have a certain amount of sympathy - is rather too complex to get across in 140 characters or less, so I decided to offer a more considered response to the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity.

The first thing I have to say is - deep breath - I do support zoos. Admittedly with reservations, and with dreams of how they could be better, but sixteen years working in wildlife media has convinced me that they have an essential role to play in the healthy future of our planet. Much of my conversion dates back to a night I had drinking Guinness in a distant Scottish pub with Terry Nutkins.

Sadly no longer with us, Terry was the man best known for the stumpy fingers he had bitten off by otters, for breaking down on a major motorway with a sea lion in the back of his van, and was the driving force behind the Really Wild Show (a kid's wildlife series that ended up running for 20 years). Terry gave his whole life to the good of wildlife, and ended up living in the most remote part of Scotland in glorious wilderness... but grew up in the middle of London, to parents who knew and cared nothing for nature. He gained all of his inspiration from climbing over the wall into London Zoo and gazing at the elephants. Despite spending the next sixty years filming and living with animals in the wild, he still looked back on the zoo as the place that changed his life. And I see kids like Terry every hour when I'm doing my zoo talks; youngsters fired with a zeal that will become a life's passion. Young people particularly get enthused by what they can see, smell, touch and feel. A lion on the telly is OK, but a real lion is something else entirely.

Many zoo critics will say '"we took the children to the Masai Mara, and that's how wildlife should be - living free in their natural environment". Fair enough. As a naturalist, I'd rather find an obscure cockroach in the wild, than see a snow leopard in captivity, but then my life has been absurdly privileged. I had parents who used their concessionary air travel to take my sister and me round the world from an early age. We went on our first safari when I was probably six years old. We grew up on a smallholding surrounded by animals and wild land. I had their knowledge and passion to show me the way, and have spent the entirety of my adult life in the world's wildest places filming and finding wildlife. My life is a one in a billion privilege, and for someone with that privilege to snub the zoos that provide a taste of those experiences to the multitudes would be stratospherically unjust.

There are obviously caveats. There are private zoos which keep scores of big cats. Places like SeaWorld where sentient cetaceans are made to perform cheap tricks for our entertainment, and vile concrete and chicken wire prisons where some of the world's most majestic beasts pace back and forth across inadequate pens in tortured stress. I've seen many of those in developing countries that haunt my nightmares. But our best zoos are now at the forefront of animal welfare and conservation awareness. When I was a kid, zoo enclosures had notices alongside that identified an animal, said where it comes from and what it eats. Now there will also be a display noting their conservation status, the threats that face them, and in the best institutions, things you can personally do to make a difference.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I am spending my summer filming for the BBC, is one such place. The 1.8million people that pass through their doors every year are all treated to a phantasmagoria of information, presented through art, interactivity and divine displays, which give them the knowledge and the tools to save our ailing oceans. Everyone leaves a little smarter, a little better informed, a lot inspired. In the ZSL institutions I worked with, a portion of the money gained from watching animals like pygmy hippos and elephants goes to protecting those same species in the wild; in some cases their efforts are the crux battlements that could prevent extinctions of all manner of beasts, from Chinese giant salamanders to pangolins. These places are empowering, and you leave with determination to go out and make a difference. I'm sure we've all seen a kid who's got a bee in their bonnet about a cause - they can make big waves, even changing lifelong habits of their parents!

Correct management starts with choosing the right animals to stock exhibits with, and this is all information that is well-known. A classic example found in many aquariums worldwide is that the shark of choice is the ragged tooth or grey nurse shark. They are one of the few species that hang out in groups, that keep to a limited home range, and thus seem to do better in captivity than pelagic species that range for hundreds of miles and find conflict with others of their kind. We know which animals do well in captivity and which do not. My dream zoo is dominated with invertebrates and reptiles that visitors can actually interact with. Many of these have simple needs of food and temperature, and if those are met, they can live as happily - if not more so - than in the wild. Other more intelligent animals have large enclosures that allow them to roam over decent distances, with correct social groupings, and considered 'enrichment' to assure they don't get stressed or bored. We would have more native species, with information and advice for how those animals can be seen in our own backyards, converting little naturalists by the million.

I've now been to 105 countries around the world, and over the last two decades seen changes that make my head spin. Wildlife is in big trouble. For example, three out of five species of rhino are critically endangered; the Western black gone, Javan and Sumatran rhinos probably functionally extinct. We've gone from half a million to a few thousand rhinos left in the blink of an eye. While those left in the wild are ludicrously precious, the rhinos that are in zoos (which were bred there, born there and cannot ever be released into the wild) are of disproportionate importance to their kind. And I'm not talking about 'captive breeding programmes', which in many cases are really breeding programmes for animals in captivity, and can offer little to the genetic diversity of animals in the wild. I'm talking about the power those individuals have to inspire and excite the next generation. The pragmatist in me says the captivity of certain animals is essential. And of course they would be better in the wild, but we are past such naïve idealism now.

The future of most wild animals is in human hands, and if a few can benefit the many, then I believe that is the path we have to take. We need rich folk going to zoos, falling in love with a beautiful rhino and then reading the sign alongside that says why they're nearly gone... then deciding not to have a cocktail with powdered rhino horn in it. We need young naturalists moved to tears by the thought that the gibbon swinging around their ears may not have a home left in the wild - unless they do something about it. Our planet needs the next Goodall, the next Attenborough, the next Nutkins. So I don't know about you, but I'm going to the zoo.