Two weeks ago, I was in Michigan, where I participated in an international symposium sponsored by the Detroit Zoo about the welfare of animals in captive settings: “From Good Care to Great Welfare–Advancing Zoo Animal Welfare Science and Policy.” The symposium, pulled together by Detroit Zoo director Ron Kagan and his team, focused on understanding and bridging the gap between simply providing good care, and ensuring great welfare by understanding the impacts of captivity and taking all possible steps to reach a higher standard.
Zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are charged with giving animals the best environments possible, and typically these facilities have the kind of resources and the professional expertise to reach for high standards of care. We’ve been critical on occasion of the decisions by some zoos to keep and maintain certain species, but perhaps the biggest captive wildlife welfare issue is the vast number of unaccredited facilities in the zoo world. While there are just over 200 accredited zoos, there are perhaps 2,000 non-accredited facilities nationwide, and many are little more than roadside menageries. We recently had something to say, in a report by the local ABC television affiliate, about an unaccredited facility in Las Vegas.
Most AZA zoos exceed the minimum standards of animal care mandated by the federal Animal Welfare Act. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the vast number of unaccredited, often run-down operations where highly intelligent species with complex needs have been kept in the same cramped and barren concrete cages for decades. It’s no longer acceptable for animals to be simply “maintained” at zoos; today we expect animals to have a good life, even if they are in a captive setting. As the AZA recognizes, captive animals require room to exercise and a stimulating environment that gives them opportunities to express natural behaviors.
The HSUS is flooded with complaints from the public about grossly sub-standard roadside zoos where sad animals beg for food and exhibit profound and disturbing neurotic behaviors. Some of these animals are long-lived and they will never know what it’s like to climb a tree, dig in the dirt, forage for fresh fruit, swim in a cool stream, socialize with others of their own kind, or make simple choices about their daily lives. Some of these operations fool the public into believing they are “rescue” operations or saving endangered species—as though parading a tiger cub around a shopping mall for children to handle will somehow help animals imperiled in the wild.
State and federal laws need to catch up with the care and husbandry standards developed by zoo professionals and scientists. Accredited zoos and their professional staff can help to advance sensible public policies for animal welfare, such as banning the private ownership of dangerous exotic pets. Lawmakers and regulators should ensure that all captive wild animals are provided with a humane environment that stimulates both mind and body.