Educational Series: Animals at Roadside Zoos Endure Lives of Misery

By Nick Engelfried
Zoos can be a fraught topic for people in the animal welfare and conservation world. Some maintain that properly run zoos serve important functions breeding endangered species and providing homes for animals who are no longer able to survive in the wild. Other animal advocates would rather not see wild species kept in captivity at all. However, whatever your thoughts on the larger question of the morality of zoos, there is at least one thing all people who love animals should be able to agree on: roadside zoos have no place in a humane world.

Although roadside zoos have existed for decades, they have gained new notoriety from the recent success of the Tiger King and Tiger King 2 Netflix series. Tiger King, which focuses on the life and business of convicted felon Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage, or “Joe Exotica,” does little to explore the impact roadside zoos have on animals, and has contributed to the glorification of the exotic wildlife trade and people who abuse endangered creatures. However, attention generated by the series does provide an opportunity to engage the public in a deeper conversation about why roadside zoos like the one run by Maldonado-Passage are deeply problematic.

What distinguishes roadside zoos from more reputable zoo facilities is largely a matter of their mission. Major zoos are usually run as nonprofits or government-funded public services. They have a multipart mission focused on educating the public about wildlife and participating in conservation efforts. All zoos must bring in revenue to continue functioning – but for reputable zoos, maximizing profit isn’t the primary reason for their existence. The contrast with establishments like Maldonado-Passage’s, informally referred to as “roadside zoos,” couldn’t be greater.

As their name suggests, roadside zoos are often little more than tourist attractions located along the side of a busy highway, whose main mission is to entice visitors to stop and spend money. Roadside zoos are usually relatively small, and lack the space or facilities to properly house the animals like big cats and primates who are imprisoned there. Instead, these majestic creatures are kept in cramped, often overcrowded cages that provide little in the way of enrichment. Making matters even worse, many roadside zoos force animals to pose for selfies with visitors, or allow them to be hand-fed bread and other human foods. Baby animals may be torn from their mothers so they can interact with visitors in petting zoos. In short, everything at roadside zoos is geared toward luring tourists in with the promise of “fun” activities – regardless of the negative impact on the animals.

Because they have acquired such a bad reputation, an increasing number of roadside zoos now advertise themselves as animal “sanctuaries,” a term that can be misleading and which is made meaningless when applied to for-profit enterprises. So how can you tell the difference between a roadside zoo posing as an ethical establishment, and a true sanctuary or more reputable zoo? The easiest way is to research whether a location is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

The nonprofit AZA was formed with the goal of holding zoos to a high standard that emphasizes animal well-being and conservation. To maintain their membership, zoos must undergo periodic inspections and prove that they are following best practices for caring for wildlife in captivity. They must also demonstrate that they advance conservation and public education goals, and do not exist solely for the purpose of making money. The AZA currently includes over 235 member zoos and aquariums, located mostly in the United States but also in other countries. According to the organization’s website, more than 200 million people visit AZA member organizations every year to learn about animals and see them in naturalistic settings.

Roadside zoos are not accredited by the AZA or any similar entity. Some may advertise that they have an exhibitor license from the US Department of Agriculture – but this is hardly something to boast about. The USDA licensing process focuses mainly on ensuring a zoo facility’s human visitors are safe from harm, and does little to protect the animals who spend their entire lives in unsuitable cages. Indeed, the fact that no meaningful government standard exists to ensure zoo animals are humanely treated is precisely why organizations like the AZA are necessary. Today, most large zoos and aquariums in the US are AZA members and abide by its standards for animal care and conservation.

The roadside zoo industry is closely linked to the largely unregulated market in exotic wildlife, which makes it possible for unethical facilities to obtain their animals in the first place. The US has no federal law in place to regulate the sale or exhibition of captive exotic animals, even including endangered species like big cats and great apes. Although a patchwork of state legislation attempts to place constraints on the industry, some of these laws are stronger or better enforced than others, while other states still have not enacted any relevant regulations at all. This has led to a situation where the abuse of wild animals behind bars easily runs rampant.

The African Wildlife Foundation estimates that as many as 10,000 lions, tigers, and other big cats languish in captivity in the United States alone. For context, fewer than 4,000 tigers are believed to survive in the wild. Some cats and other exotic animals are kept in private menageries, while others end up in roadside zoos. As long as the breeding and sale of wildlife remains so unregulated, it will be difficult to stem the proliferation of roadside zoos who exploit and abuse them for profit.

The most obvious way to combat the roadside zoo industry is to never visit these facilities. If you visit a zoo or aquarium, make sure it is accredited by the AZA. You can also educate family members and friends about the problems with roadside zoos. The fact is, many visitors at these establishments are taken in by their misleading claims about “sanctuary” status or contributing to so-called conservation efforts, and do not realize they are patronizing an organization whose only real mission is to make money. The more people know the truth about roadside zoos, the better off animals will be.

Ultimately, the end of roadside zoos will likely not come until the US and other countries enact strong, enforceable regulations that set standards for the treatment of wild animals in captivity, while banning the sale and ownership of endangered wildlife by private individuals. Contact your elected officials and let them know you support the establishments of strict standards. By acting as individuals and as members of a larger community of people concerned about the humane treatment of wildlife, we can make roadside zoos a thing of the past.

Photo credit: Max Pixel

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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