Most people will never get to see a giraffe in the Serengeti, or an elephant in the jungles of India. The closest they will ever get to these and most other exotic animals is at a humane zoos.
But are zoos good places for animals? Shouldn’t they be running wild, living the way nature intended? Sure, in a perfect world. But in our less-than-perfect existence, zoos are necessary. Not only do they provide a way for people to connect with rare and exotic animals, they also contribute to the continued survival of many species.
That said, not all zoos are the same. Even an untrained eye can tell the difference between a well-designed metropolitan animal park and a rundown roadside zoo. But aside from the obvious aesthetics, how do you know if a zoo is a humane place for the animals kept inside?
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) considers legitimate zoos and aquariums to be facilities that foster scientific research, technological developments and educational efforts, and contribute significantly to field conservation efforts that preserve wild animals in their native habitats. The organization also states that stringent criteria must be met to ensure humane care for the animals who are housed there.
The zoos and aquariums described above differ significantly from roadside menageries, which exhibit wild and exotic animals in substandard conditions. (Joe Exotic’s G.W. Zoo comes to mind.) In these poorly run facilities, animals are exploited for money or glory. They are not kept in natural conditions, and are often denied proper nutrition, veterinary care and emotional enrichment.
According to the ASPCA, the organization supports the exhibitions of animal in zoos and aquariums only if the following conditions are met:
- The zoo or aquarium is staffed by individuals who are educated and trained in the physical and psychological needs of the animals in their care.
- All enclosures meet or exceed the standards set by the Animal Welfare Act and enforced by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- The zoo or aquarium strives to meet the more exacting requirements necessary for accreditation by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
- The zoo provides educational displays that stress the themes of endangered species, wild habitat destruction and reduced biodiversity.
- The zoo or aquarium demonstrates humane treatment of animals by not only meeting the animals’ physical needs, but also by providing safe and appropriate social groupings of animals, and by using positive reinforcement methods to train animals. Training should only be done in order to allow for facilitating necessary medical procedures and for providing mental stimulation believed beneficial to animals in confinement. It should not be for the entertainment of humans.
- The zoo or aquarium participates in a tightly controlled breeding program and takes responsibility for all the animals and their offspring, even when the animals are no longer under the zoo or aquarium’s direct care. Excess young are not permitted except to maintain proper gender balances and social groupings. No zoo or aquarium should send their “surplus” animals to “canned hunts,” auctions or medical research facilities, and placing animals with private individuals should not be considered an option for all species.
Finding Good Zoos
Knowing what makes a zoo a humane place for animals is important if you want to make sure you are supporting a good facility. But how do you know if a zoo you’d like to visit meets all or most of this criteria? Here are some ways to find out:
- Look for accreditation by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), based in Silver Spring, Md., is a membership organization of zoos and aquariums throughout the U.S. The AZA accredits reputable zoos by evaluating each facility to make sure it meets the organization’s standards for animal management and care. The AZA also determines whether the animals are provided with enrichment, which stimulates natural behavior and provides variety in their daily routines. The AZA’s Accreditation Commission evaluates the zoo’s veterinary program, and its involvement in conservation and research, education programs, safety policies and procedures, security, physical facilities, guest services, and the quality of the institution’s staff. And because a zoo or aquarium needs a strong foundation in order to continue to meet high standards, accreditation also includes evaluation of the institution’s finances, its governing authority, and its support organization. If you are considering visiting a zoo, check to see if the facility is included in the AZA list of accredited facilities.
- Check for American Humane certification. American Humane has been protecting animals since its founding in 1877, and offers a certification to zoos and aquariums that provide exceptional care to their animals. The certification is independent, and scientific and evidence-based, with standards that help ensure the welfare and humane treatment of the animals in human care at zoos and aquariums around the world. For a facility to receive AHA certification, it must be contributing to conservation efforts for the species it houses. American Humane provides a list of accredited animal parks on its website.
- Check for Global Federation of Sanctuaries accreditation. Some zoos actually call themselves “sanctuaries” or “rescues” because they provide homes to unwanted exotic animals, like pet tigers seized from individuals, or exotic animals that are disabled and can’t be returned to the wild. These smaller facilities can be legitimate homes for animals as long as the animals are well cared for and are not being exploited. The animal’s habitats should be natural and provide opportunities for exercise, socializing with other members of the same species (if appropriate), and mental stimulation. If you see an animal pacing back and forth in its enclosure, or cramped pens with concrete floors, you are in a poorly run facility.
Before visiting a sanctuary or rescue, check with the Global Federation of Sanctuaries (GFS) to see if it’s accredited. While not all reputable sanctuaries and rescues are accredited by the GFS (accreditation is voluntary), facilities that appear on the GFS accredited list are guaranteed to be providing a good environment for the animals in their care.Visit the GFS website to search for a facility.
Once you are certain a zoo is providing a humane home for its animals and contributing to the welfare of exotic species, consider becoming a supporting member of the facility. Most established zoos offer memberships to the public that include a variety of benefits, like discounted admission fees, gift shop discounts and even invitations to special events. In turn, your membership fees help the zoo care for the animals in its charge.
By doing your homework and making sure the zoos you visit are working in the best interest of animals, you can enjoy spending time at these facilities without worry. Seeing big cats in a large, natural enclosure playing with one another; watching zebras relax together in a makeshift meadow on a sunny day; or seeing a family of chimpanzees groom one another while they lounge around a miniature jungle can be a wonderful way to appreciate nature’s most special creatures. It’s the next best thing to seeing them in the wild.