Zoo Quick to Jump to Conclusions

As a continuation of my piece on Netflix’s Tiger King, I’ve decided to survey social media and find out what people really think about zoos and then address those misconceptions as they appear! This article had basically nothing to do with Tiger King so don’t scroll on just because you haven’t seen it!!

I asked a series of questions to my social media followers (across several accounts to reduce bias in followership) about their thoughts of zoos and their legitimacy; below, I share my findings and fill in some common knowledge gaps!

What’s something you’ve heard about zoos that is concerning to you?

Popular answers included: animals being abused; animals being stressed

There is a long standing misconception about modern zoos that has managed to taint the image of even the most highly rated, internationally recognized zoos - which is that keeping animals in captivity is animal abuse. We all own the right to our opinion, but this claim doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on. I’ll get to what distinguishes a “zoo” from a “roadside zoo” and an “enclosure” from a “cage” a bit later, but zoos as they’re meant to be are the opposite of abusive. Animals in legitimate zoos are treated fairly and often live lives that are equal to or longer than they would in the wild. They have access to onsite vets, high quality feed, trained/educated keepers, enrichment activities, and much more. Captivity does not equal abuse, but that does not mean that abuse cannot include captivity; more on that in a bit. As for animal stress... Well, that’s a well founded concern, and one that I - and most (read: all) keepers I know - share. It’s difficult to read stress based solely on body language especially in certain small, or unusually shaped animals. However, stress is part of the lives of all animals both in and out of captivity. Zoos who care about their animals do what they can to limit stress when signs of it appear. Ways I have personally witnessed include: shutting down exhibits to guests temporarily, moving animals to off exhibit enclosures, giving animals a “behind the scenes” resting spot, signage asking for quiet around certain areas, climate control, or keepers or volunteers stationed to keep watch over the situation on busy days. Another huge stress management technique employed by zoos (and savvy pet owners) is called enrichment. Essentially, enrichment is any activity engages an animals natural instinct or parts of their brain that aren’t typically activated by life in captivity. An example is foraging mazes (placing food in different places for them to find), which are fun to make and can be seen on display at almost any accredited zoo.

Here’s one I made for a bird! It simulates food items on unsteady perching without actually endangering the animal. I used all animal safe parts and paint!

Do you know what AZA stands for? Do you know what it means to be “accredited”?

Most popular answer: no/not really

The AZA stands for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They are a 96 year old nonprofit dedicated to helping zoos advance in education, conservation, and engagement. They also offer an prestigious repeated accreditation program. It involves checking on advocacy initiatives, checking enclosures, analyzing conservation project impact, maintenance of SSPs (see below), animal health and welfare, and several other metrics. Accreditation is DIFFICULT to achieve and almost equally difficult to maintain (and reachieve every few years) - but it is what sets what I have referred to as legitimate zoos aside from the likes of roadside zoos or drive through safaris. However, the AZA accreditation varies dramatically from that of what I can only call “copycat” orgs that offer accreditation at much lower stakes. If a zoo is AZA accredited, it should be on their website. If it’s not, call and ask if they. If you’ve never been to an AZA zoo, I recommend it, I believe the difference will be very, very obvious. I do want to offer up that incidents happen at all zoos and accreditation is in no way a promise that nothing goes awry, but it does assure that all measures possible to maintain the safety and wellbeing of guests and animals have been taken.

Do you think roadside zoos still exist?

Most popular answer: yes

Ding, ding, ding! They ABSOLUTELY do. And unfortunately, due to their often low costs and high promises, they still draw in tons of guests. Though I know you already know that if you watched Tiger King *eye roll*. Roadside “zoos” give real zoos a bad name and it is really disappointing that they’ve even kept the name “zoo” tacked on to the end in popular culture. We should call them what they really are: menageries. As in animals kept SOLELY for human gain, profit, and entertainment. Real zoos keep animals for guest education and enrichment, and conservation. They are not the same.

Do you believe zoos engage in real conservation work?

Most popular answer: *almost half and half*

They do. Though a lot of the money made goes back into the zoo (employee payroll, animal feed, constructuon, etc.) they do contribute to conservation monetarily, as does the AZA itself. Additionally, it offers invaluable opportunities for humans to connect with the animals we’re being begged to care about. It’s a lot easier to care about something once you seen it’s beauty and majesty.

Do you know what a species survival plan is?

Most popular answer: yes

The best summary possible is one from the creators themselves!


What could be done to convince you of a zoo’s legitimacy?

Popular answers included: better enclosures; seeing what kind of food they get; vets at the zoo; behind the scenes/transparency reports

I think I’ve addressed most of these throughout the article, but the one that really stood out to be is increased transparency. I agree with that. I think it would be great for the public to see what goes on behind the scenes, to know more about the keepers on staff, to hear from zoo vets, etc. It could increase the trust given to zoos as conservators and places of scientific opportunity and communication and decrease the stigma that still - sadly - surrounds the word zoo.