humane school excursions

All teachers want to choose the most exciting, extraordinary, and hands-on learning experiences for their students. But what are the ethical and educational costs involved when it comes to studying animals in unnatural habitats?

Big, small, fluffy, feathery, you name it – kids have a natural love and fascination for animals. And it’s hard to beat the opportunity for students to get up close and personal with them.

In Australia we’re blessed with a myriad of incredible native fauna. Some businesses even promise to bring the likes of possums, owls, turtles, lizards and snakes straight into the classroom.

Here, we take a look at why some traditional options for school excursions may not actually be as humane as we’d expect. And importantly, we look at how they offer little to no educational value for students.

Is entertainment the main purpose of the excursion?

Despite what the attractive marketing material might say, animals don’t want to spend their lives in cages, transported from city to city in confined boxcars, or be gawked at by noisy (and sometimes unruly) young crowds.

Education should be fun, engaging and motivating for students. But when it comes to living, breathing and sentient animals, we begin to see some serious problems.

Whether it’s a zoo, an aquarium, a circus or a mobile animal farm, it’s important to assess whether the visit is primarily for entertainment. When you show students that it’s OK to use other animals for the purpose of entertainment, you teach them that it’s OK to take advantage of those who are weaker and unable to speak for themselves. Despite what the attractive marketing material might say, animals don’t want to spend their lives in cages, transported from city to city in confined boxcars, or be gawked at by noisy (and sometimes unruly) young crowds.

There are many ways to give your students a meaningful, enjoyable and humane educational experience, without harming and causing distress to other animals. And the best part is, by choosing kinder alternatives, you are also providing a valuable lesson in empathy, respect and moral consideration for other living beings.

School excursions you may want to rethink


Zoos deny animals a natural habitat in which to express their natural behaviours. Animals are confined in artificial enclosures which often causes them to exhibit abnormal behaviours such as pacing and circling, rocking forwards and backwards, over-grooming, and even self-mutilation. This does not provide an accurate, and thereby educational demonstration of how animals live in the wild.

While some zoos carry out conservation projects, the majority of animal species in zoos are not actually endangered, and are purely kept in captivity to generate profits from visitors.

Zoos are not the best way to teach students about animal behaviour in the wild. (Image via One Green Planet)

Zoos are not the best way to teach students about animal behaviour in the wild. (Image via One Green Planet)

And while zoos claim to provide educational value for students, research has shown that this is a largely unsubstantiated claim. After surveying more than 2,800 children after both guided and unguided visits at London Zoo, 62 per cent of the children showed no indication of learning any new facts about animals or conversation. The study showed that some children even demonstrated a “negative learning outcome”, which was discovered when children were asked if they believed they could actively participate in conservation efforts. According to researchers, the children “did not feel empowered to believe that they can take ‘effective [beneficial] action’ on matters relating to conservation after their zoo experience.”

Mobile animal farms (petting zoos)

Most animals in mobile farms come from intensive animal facilities, and are given back once they’ve become too big and are no longer considered ‘cute’. Some may even bond with their handlers and suffer emotional and psychological distress after separating, only to then face a short life of further confinement, lack of sunlight, and pain before their eventual slaughter.

Businesses that run mobile animal farms promise to bring live animals (usually baby farm animals like chicks, calves, ducklings and piglets) directly to your school, setting up small, enclosed exhibitions in which animals and children can interact. They’re often popular as incursions for farming-related units, school fetes and fundraisers. But there are several problems involved with this practice.

Animals used in mobile farms spend a great deal of their lives being transported from one place to another in tiny crates. They are fed and watered irregularly, often deprived over long periods of time to ensure children can bottle-feed them later. A great majority of these animals include young babies, often only weeks old, who have been removed from their mothers too early and are forced to be bottle-fed.

school excursion mobile animal farm

At only weeks old, baby animals are forced to travel from place to place, often subjected to loud, unfamiliar and stressful surroundings.

Most of the farm animals come from intensive animal facilities and are then given back once they’ve become too big and are no longer considered ‘cute’. Some baby animals may even bond with their handlers and suffer emotional and psychological distress after separating, only to then face a short life of further confinement, lack of sunlight, and pain before their eventual slaughter.

Lastly, as baby farm animals can be extremely fragile to handle (e.g. baby chicks and ducklings) many become severely injured, have their wings and legs broken, and even die from being mishandled by young children. Even under the supervision of a handler, this is an occurrence that has become far too common in petting zoos around the country.

A rough and noisy environment is not an ideal place for small, defenceless animals. Rabbits and guinea pigs resort to burying and hiding under scraps of hay to avoid being handled, and piglets often panic when being picked up by excited children.

On top of all of this, children are served a very problematic lesson: animals are there to be played with, picked up, and passed around – often when it’s clearly against the animal’s will – until we get bored and tire of them.

Related: Thinking about doing a chick hatching program? Read the information here first.

Reptile (and native animal) shows

Similarly to mobile animal farms, businesses that offer to bring live reptiles and native animals to your school subject animals to constant transportation and prolonged confinement. Many of these native species are accustomed to living in delicate ecosystems and are often nocturnal by nature. As a result, they can become highly stressed and anxious in loud, bright and unfamiliar environments. On top of this, children are often invited to touch and handle these animals, further adding to their distress.

Like all creatures, reptiles and other native animals are not meant to be transported from place to place and enclosed in cages or aquariums for their entire lives. They need to explore their surroundings and receive social interaction, not from children tapping noisily on a glass barrier, but from other members of their own species.


There are no situations in which circuses should ever be considered for school excursions, since they provide no educational value. Animals kept in circuses, such as elephants, tigers and monkeys, are trained to perform tricks that do not form part of their natural behaviours. Additionally, their lives are spent outside of their natural habitats, which are often wide open plains.

Circus animals are routinely subjected to months of traveling on the road confined in small, barren cages. They spend most of their time in enclosures where they cannot express their natural behaviours, and their living conditions cause them a great deal of stress, leading to ‘stereotypies’ such as pacing back and forth (lions), head bobbing (elephants), or mouthing cage bars.

circus school excursions

Circuses offer no educational value to students.

National, regional and local governments in at least 30 countries around the world have already banned the use of animals in circuses. Australian federal and state governments continue to allow it, however an increasing number of Australian councils are taking an ethical stance by adopting a ban on council land.

Aquariums and marine parks

Trips to aquariums provide unnatural environments for fish and marine animals, failing to provide an accurate and educational experience for students. Experts agree that captive fish, including sharks, do not follow many of the typical behaviours that they would in the wild. Fragile tropical fish, who were born to live in the sea, spend their lives swimming in the same enclosed glass tanks for their entire lives. To make matters worse, aquariums that invite people to touch fragile ocean creatures allow for highly intrusive, stressful and even dangerous situations for these animals.

Most species of sharks don’t live well in captivity, and many end up dying within a year. Experts believe that this is due to their high level of intelligence which prompts a severe stress response to living in an alien and enclosed environment. Capture in the wild and transportation is also a highly stressful experience for large fish like sharks. Natural migration patterns mean that sharks find it confusing and difficult to not have the ability to migrate hundreds of miles in captivity. As a result, many become ill, aggressive, and even refuse to eat.

zoos schools

Gus the polar bear began compulsively swimming figure eights in his pool for up to 12 hours per day at Central Park Zoo. In the wild, polar bears may travel thousands of kilometres per year, walking and swimming large distances.

As for marine parks, you may have watched the documentary Blackfish and have already decided to cross them off your list of potential field trips. While there are no captive orcas here in Australia, marine parks around the country keep intelligent marine mammals like dolphins, dugongs and seals in very small and shallow enclosures. These unnatural environments mean that animals cannot forage for food as they would normally do in the wild, and are often separated from their family, unable to create social bonds of their choosing.

Many marine animals cover wide distances and areas in the wild. For example, polar bears, who live in freezing Arctic conditions in the wild, have been found to swim at least 74km in only 24 hours. Sadly, captive polar bears like Gus (pictured above) and the bears living in sub-tropical Gold Coast at Sea World Australia are kept in confined enclosures that will never provide them this opportunity.

Kinder alternatives

There are humane and ethical ways to involve animals in your next field trip or school incursion. Some options include:

Wildlife sanctuaries

Wildlife sanctuaries that operate for the sole purpose of conservation and rehabilitation allow students to observe animals from afar, and sometimes interact with them where appropriate. These sanctuaries provide a refuge for wild populations of several threatened species such as Bilbies, Numbats, Woylies and Boodies. They allow students to observe animals in their natural habitat and learn about conservation efforts and how they can make a difference. Since many for-profit zoos advertise as wildlife sanctuaries, you should be careful in making sure the place you choose aligns with your values. The Yookamurra Wildlife offers a robust education program, including guided walks, vegetation surveys, tracking and bird-watching, and sits on over 5,200 hectares in the Murraylands of South Australia.

Farm sanctuaries

Farm animal sanctuaries not only allow students to get up close with the likes of pigs, goats, cows and chickens, they also provide valuable humane education learning outcomes for students of all ages. Visitors are given the unique opportunity to observe and interact with animals that are commonly used in exploitative industries such as intensive food production and animal testing. This provides a valuable and empowering insight into the importance of making ethical consumer decisions, and highlights the importance of treating animals with respect. Edgar’s Mission is situated on 153 acres just outside of Lancefield, Victoria, and provide school visits via their Joining the Dots Humane Education Program.

humane education edgars mission

The Joining the Dots Humane Education Program by Edgar’s Mission

National parks

Australia is blessed with stunning, diverse and unique natural bushland and rainforests, which provide a wonderful opportunity for students to explore our rich biodiversity. With over 500 national parks around the country, bushwalks and guided tours are a fantastic way for students to learn about plant and animal species, including a vast number of native birds and marsupials. Find an educational program in New South Wales, or search online for programs available near your school.

Animal shelters

Animal rescue groups and shelters exist to rehabilitate and rehome abandoned, neglected and abused companion animals. It can be an important opportunity to teach your students about the overpopulation and overbreeding of cats and dogs in Australia, and the importance of adopting animals instead of buying them from breeders and pet shops. It’s also a great way to teach them about the importance of community service, as many animal shelters are run by volunteers. Most animal shelters are happy to accommodate visits from schools, so contact your local organisation to ask if you can arrange something. You can use our helpful lesson plans about companion animals to make sure your visit is aligned to Australian Curriculum outcomes.

What to do if your school decides to go ahead with inhumane excursions

It’s understandable that teachers and parents do not want to rock the boat when it comes to protesting a school excursion. Explain why you object to visiting a zoo, marine park or circus, and make sure you suggest more humane alternatives that offer better educational outcomes. If your school still decides to go ahead, use it as an opportunity to pair your students’ learning outcomes with humane education outcomes, and help them think critically about using captive animals for entertainment after your visit. You can explore content about animals in captivity in Kind Education magazine and use the corresponding teaching guides to make the most out of a less-than-ideal situation.

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