Ethical Zoos: How to Determine the Good from the Bad

Everyone is watching Tiger King! This docuseries on Netflix explores the true crime story between between a tiger breeder and his big cat sanctuary owner rival. As I’m a wildlife biologist, people are asking me lots of questions. The zoos featured in the series are awful (check out my review of Joe Exotic’s Zoo and Myrtle Beach Safari), but some people want to know if they are really that bad compared to other zoos. How can you tell ethical zoos from these terrible ones?

Before we get into the specific zoos mentioned in the show (there will be a blog post on them and sanctuaries too), we need to go over the basics of zoos in general. There are good zoos and bad zoos and it is SO CONFUSING to tell the difference. There is a lot of grey in between. In this post, I’ll help you tell ethical zoos from the bad ones.

What is a Zoo?

The word zoo describes a collection of living animals. There are different types of zoos with different structures of ownership, ethics, and educational value and therefore wildly different practices when it comes to animal husbandry.

What are Zoos For?

Zoos as Sources of Entertainment

Zoos were originally created purely for entertainment. That has DEFINITELY changed over the decades, but originally people just wanted to look at cool animals up close.

We still go to zoos today for entertainment. It’s extremely fun and entertaining to see beautiful animals most people will never get to see in the wild. Once I watched meerkats for a research project and they made me laugh and smile so much. When I worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I loved watching the okapi. Okapis are an elusive and endangered species that live in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even as a wildlife biologist, I am unlikely to ever see them in the wild.

Zoos as Sources of Education

Zoos are important places for people to learn about animals. You can read about animals in books or see them on TV, but nothing is like seeing them for yourself. Seeing animals inspires people to want to know more about where that animal lives, what it does, and what it eats. After going to the zoo, children may go home and read about the animals that they see.

Ethical zoos will have a lot of educational information posted about the animals that you are looking at. Zoos also provide a lot of educational information about animals through their websites.

Zoos’ Role in Wild Animal Conservation

Zoos are important today because we are in a conservation crisis. We are currently in the sixth mass extinction of biodiversity on Earth. Humans directly caused species extinctions and declines through the destruction of habitat, poaching, overhunting, climate change and pollution. Many zoos are trying to save wild species through conservation efforts.

There are four major ways zoos play a role in conservation:

Connections to Nature for People

Zoos provide people with the rare opportunity to see animals up close. Experiences with nature, especially during childhood, are key for conservation. When people learn about and have real and personal connections with nature, they are more likely to have pro-conservation attitudes and behaviors.

lion at Lincoln Park Zoo
Seeing animals up close is super cool! Here I am with a lion that is sitting in the window of an exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo. I am technically only inches away from the lion. This experience is different than zoos were you can hold the animals because the lion has a choice. It can walk away at any time. You should always let the animals come to you.

With increasing urbanization and people spending more and more time indoors, these experiences with nature decline with every generation. This is called the “Extinction of Experience.”

Zoos offer people an opportunity for people to reconnect with nature. Connections with nature are especially important in urban areas where green spaces can be harder to find. The environments at zoos may be artificial, but most of the plants and animals are real.

Ambassador Animals

Animals in zoos can spread important conservation messages about their species in the wild. They are are often called “ambassador animals” for this reason.

If I tell a group of people that climate change threatens polar bears, some of them may take action to reduce their impact. But if I tell the same message to the same people while they are looking at a live polar bear at the zoo, I bet more people would take action.

Macklot's python at ethical zoo
Zoos are an opportunity for people to get close to animals. Even an ethical zoo will let you touch some. This is a Macklots’ python ambassador animal that we were allowed to gently touch at the North Carolina Zoo.

Many of our actions directly affect wildlife that are even thousands of miles away! A the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, keepers talk about how palm oil destroys the habitats of endangered orangutans.

Hopefully, by seeing animals, people will be motivated to either (1) change their own behavior to alleviate the problem that is impacting animals in the wild or (2) donate money to conservation programs that help protect the species in the wild.

Children touching a Macklot's python at an ethical zoo.
When you are able to touch animals at ethical zoos, it is heavily monitored. In this case, we were only allowed to use two fingers to touch this Macklot’s python and were instructed to do it gently.

A lot of factors outside of our direct control, such as habitat loss and poaching, threaten many species. African forest elephants, the species I studied for my Ph.D., are poached so badly for ivory right now that it could very well lead to their extinction. Donations to organizations like the Wildlife Conservation Society (which is affiliated with the Bronx Zoo) pay for rangers’ salaries to patrol parks and reduce the poaching.

However, it is hard to change people’s behaviors. Purchasing products or gifts at an ethical zoo supports conservation efforts, but it is unlikely that many zoo guests will be inspired enough to contribute regularly to conservation programs. One promising study found an increase in visiter’s understanding of biodiversity and actions to help protect biodiversity across 26 zoos and aquariums from 19 countries.

Captive Breeding Programs

Scientists and animal professionals agree that taking animals from the wild is no longer acceptable for captivity. Taking animals from the wild is considered unethical and a threat to conservation. The rare exception is when a species’ population is so small that the animals need to be put into captivity to breed for a reintroduction program.

Zoos therefore need captive breeding to persist. Ethical zoos document and regulate these breedings through studbooks. Professionals choose specific animals to mate with one another based on their history and genetics. Ethical zoos often transport animals to other zoos for mating purposes to increase the genetic diversity of the captive species.

IMPORTANT: Just because a zoo breeds endangered species does not mean they are contributing to conservation. If there are plenty of individuals of that species in captivity (like tigers and lions), breeding more of them in captivity does absolutely NOTHING to help them in the wild. There are more captive tigers in Texas alone than in the wild.

Some animals reproduce so well in captivity that they are given contraceptives. Professionals make these decisions based on the species’ captive population size, not the wild population size. For example, cotton-top tamarins are a critically endangered species. However, when I worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we administered contraceptives to the cotton-tops because there was a healthy captive population size. Each anticipated animal needs a place to live once it is born.

Collecting poop from a cotton-top tamarin at an ethical zoo
Me collecting poop from a cotton-top tamarin at Disney’s Animal Kingdom when I worked there. We used the poop as a source of information for the cotton-tops’ hormones. Cotton-tops breed well in captivity so we put ours on contraceptives. We needed to make sure they were working. Ethical zoos do not let their animals breed uncontrollably.

The overpopulation of some captive species is a problem for all zoos, even ethical ones. Zoos need a lot of money and space to support a large collection of animals. If an unexpected pregnancy happens or an animal does not have the right genetics, zoos will sometimes euthanize the animal. In 2014, people were outraged at the Copenhagen Zoo for euthanizing a healthy giraffe that was not genetically diverse enough to help reduce inbreeding in the captive population.

Species Reintroduction Programs

In addition to captive breeding, zoos play a role in species conservation through reintroduction programs. Captive bred exotic animals are unlikely to survive in the wild without many considerations in their husbandry. Zoos work with scientists and vets to develop programs to increase the odds that animals bred for reintroductions to the wild will actually survive.

One of the ways that ethical zoos help conserve animals in the wild is through species reintroduction program. Zoo captive breed animals like this black-footed ferret to make sure the species does not become extinct.
One of the ways that ethical zoos help conserve animals in the wild is through species reintroduction program. Zoo captive breed animals like this black-footed ferret to make sure the species does not become extinct. Photo from Image by PublicDomainImages from Pixabay

Scientists design reintroduction programs so captive-bred will know how to eat, mate, and survive in the wild. Many endangered species are threatened by poaching and therefore scientists want to keep animals fearful of humans. Therefore, keepers do not handle animals directly or use disguises so the animals do not see them as human. Even with such precautions in place, the survival rates can be low.

Often the public does not see the animals involved in captive breeding for species reintroduction programs. Frequently, these are smaller animals like frogs, salamanders, and even insects.

Conservation Programs in the Field

Many zoos have their own conservation programs on threatened and endangered species in the wild. They fund the direct research of threatened and endangered species. Ethical zoos also provide resources to protect threatened and endangered species such as anti-poaching rangers. Perhaps the zoo that contributes the most to conservation field programs is the Bronx Zoo run by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Some zoos (like the Oklahoma City Zoo) even award grants to individuals or organizations to conduct research and conservation on species in the wild.

Who Runs Zoos?

To determine if a zoo is ethical, it’s really important to look at how many people own/run the zoo. Zoos owned by organizations have a board of directors and multiple parties responsible for making decisions about the welfare of animals.

Zoos can be run by:

Government zoos also have a nonprofit side, called “Friends of the (zoo name)” that allow for fundraising. Nonprofit zoos can also receive government funding.

rhino at the north carolina zoo
At the North Carolina Zoo, we were allowed behind the scenes and able to touch the rhinos, but only if they came to us. This one chose to stay away.

Government and nonprofit zoos are thereby run by groups of people which includes a board of members or tiered directorship. Many of these types of zoos have accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA, defined in the next part).

Government and nonprofit zoos use public money and are therefore transparent about their finances (example here).

Individuals almost always own private zoos. They do not need to consult a board of directors or veterinarians. Privately-owned zoos do not have to have any financial transparency.

Rhino at the North Carolina Zoo
This rhino was more interested in visiting us. At ethical zoos, animals are not forced to be touched or there are limited times when you can touch them.

Types of Zoos

AZA Accredited Zoos

For a very long time, zoos and the public did not care about animal welfare. We didn’t know as much as we know about animals and their requirements. Zoos designed enclosures with only the zoo guests in mind and housed animals barren in cement cages. Animals in cages frequently show signs of stress and boredom through stereotypic behavior like pacing and head bobbing.

Over the years, scientific knowledge about animals increased in addition to public demands for better exhibits. Zoos improved their enclosures by making them look more like the species natural habitats. As a result, many animals reduced their stereotypic behaviors (although not completely – this is still a problem even at ethical zoos).

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is an independent non-profit that awards accreditation to zoos that meet the highest standards in animal care and welfare. To receive accreditation, zoos must meet guidelines in regard to animals’ enclosures, social behavior, health, and nutrition. The AZA guidelines are set by animal care experts, scientists, and veterinarians with decades of experience and are constantly evolving.

Scientists and animal experts constantly debate the minimum requirements for animals in captivity. Elephants are an especially controversial topic. Due to their large space requirements, high intelligence, and sophisticated social structure some professionals think that elephants should not be in captivity at all. Few zoos are able to meet elephants’ needs.

Roadside Zoos

Most privately-owned zoos are called “roadside zoos” because they are often advertised on the highway with billboards to encourage people to pull over and visit. Roadside zoos are largely considered unethical and do not have AZA accreditation.

What is an Ethical Zoo? (Good Zoos)

Ethical zoos are those that prioritize animal welfare, education, and conservation efforts above profits. They are run by non-profits or the government (at least in the United States, this might not apply to other countries) and have AZA accreditation. According to the AZA website, “less than 10 percent of the 2,800 wildlife exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act meet the more comprehensive standards of AZA accreditation.”

At ethical zoos, exhibit specialists design animal enclosures to encourage animals to behave as they would in the wild. Keepers frequently provide their animals with enrichment activities like treats or scents to encourage these behavior. For example, zoo keeper will fill a ball with holes in it with food. Getting all of the yummy food out of the ball becomes a fun activity for the animal.

Ethical zoos create more realistic enclosures for their animals and allow young to stay with the mother.
Ethical zoos create more realistic enclosures for their animals and allow young to stay with the mother. Photo by Photo by Blue Ox Studio from Canva.

Ethical zoos hire professionals including skilled animal keepers, scientists, and veterinarians. They often conduct their own research on the captive animals housed at their zoo to ensure they are reducing or eliminating any stereotypical behavior.

There are many more characteristics of ethical zoos. They include:

Characteristics of Ethical Zoos

  • AZA accreditation
  • More realistic enclosures mimicking natural habitat
  • Large enclosures, especially for larger species
  • Enrichment: Food sources or objects to encourage the natural behaviors of animals
  • Less stereotypic behavior (repeated movements, head bobbing in elephants, pacing)
  • No or extremely regulated exotic animal touching
  • Barriers between the animals and the public
  • Purposeful and regulated breeding of specific species
  • Babies are an infrequent occasion and are announced to the public
  • Baby animals stay with their mothers in exhibits
  • The animals do not perform tricks
  • Placards and other educational information about the animals in the wild
  • Research takes place at the zoo and/or on animals in the wild
  • Government or non-profit ownership with a board of directors
  • Scientists (people with masters or Ph.D.s) and veterinarians are part of the permanent staff
  • Many keepers have bachelor’s degrees

What is an Unethical Zoo? (Bad Zoos)

Unethical zoos exploit animals for profit. The individuals who own these zoos sacrifice animals’ wellbeing and welfare to make money. Making money is the primary objective and sole purpose of an unethical zoo.

Unethical zoos are largely run by private individuals and non-professionals. Therefore, usually one individual (e.g. In the Tiger King: Joe Exotic, Jeff Lowe, Doc Antle) makes decision about the animals and enclosures and they do not need to be approved by animal experts or professionals.

Owners frequently make decisions by determining what is most profitable, not by what is best for the animals. For example, in Tiger King, owner Joe Exotic allowed handlers with no veterinary experience to provide medical care to the tigers. In the series, they showed someone with no veterinary experience sewing up a wound on a tiger.

Animals are innately appealing and people love any opportunities to get close to them, especially baby animals. Unethical zoos allow you to get extremely close to the animals posing a danger to you and them.

Ethical zoos do not allow cub petting. These babies are taken from their moms immediately after birth to become tame. They can never be released to the wild for conservation.

To make this possible, they must make animals extremely used to people by taming them. They immediately take the babies from their mothers after birth (as seen in Tiger King). These types of zoos establish a relationship of human dominance between the handlers and the animals. In contrast, ethical zoos allow the mother and baby to stay together in their enclosure as would happen in nature.

Unethical zoos use photo opportunities with baby animals as a means to lure people. This in itself is a form of animal abuse because the adults are constantly being bred to produce babies all year long (like puppy mills). When the baby animals grow up, they are no longer useful to the unethical zoo and are sold to other private individuals, roadside zoos, or canned hunts (where people pay to hunt animals in captivity).

There are not enough zoos and sanctuaries to house excess baby animals that grow up. These animals cannot be released into the wild because they are hand-raised by humans and would not survive. It would also be extremely expensive and stressful to the animals to attempt to do this. The animals would need to shipped thousands of miles oversees to be released into their natural habitat. This is assuming there is habitat for the species. Most of these species are endangered because their habitat has been greatly reduced.

This is not conservation or educational.

Unethical zoos provide no or extremely little educational and conservation value. Yes, you can see the animals up close, but without information presented about threats to animals in the wild and how one can help, there is not a strong connection to conservation. These types of zoos do not have conservation programs (or have sham ones) and do not donate money to conservation projects in the field.

Characteristics of Unethical Zoos

  • Less or no consideration for habitat, often just cages and concrete
  • Small enclosures
  • Animals are dressed up like humans
  • More stereotypic behavior (pacing back and forth)
  • Heavy emphasis on touching or holding the animals
  • No barriers between the animals and the public or allowing the public to enter enclosures
  • Babies are always present and advertised to the public with photo opportunities
  • Baby animals are taken from their mothers to be raised by humans; mothers are simply breeders akin to puppy mills
  • Tricks and circus-like performances
  • Little or no educational information about the animals in the wild
  • Private ownership
  • No research takes place
  • There are no permanent scientists or veterinarians on staff
  • Most keepers have no higher education

As you can see, there are a lot of factors that you can use to evaluate zoos. There are A LOT of grey areas too. It’s not so easy to just look at a zoo and determine if it’s an ethical or unethical one unless they are at either extreme.

What should be obvious to you though, is that the zoos featured in Tiger King are all 100% unethical zoos. If cub breeding occurs year round, it is definitely an unethical zoo.

Next up on people’s minds is Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue. Is this sanctuary just as bad as an unethical zoo?

Also check out my podcast episode on animals in captivity.

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56 thoughts on “Ethical Zoos: How to Determine the Good from the Bad

  1. This is quite honestly the most informative article I’ve ever seen about zoos and ethics. It seems like these roadside zoos are a big problem that have not been getting enough public scrutiny.

    1. Thank you very much! Yes, they are. Although I was disappointed that Tiger King didn’t include any conservation experts, it did bring attention to the issue.

  2. Hi, what you are speaking of here is actually just ‘zoo elitism’ and has nothing to do with ethical zoos vs. unethical zoos, nor does it prove there is something wrong with so-called “roadside zoos” (ironically there is a billboard for an AZA-accredited aquarium right outside my neighborhood).

    Let’s start with this claim:

    “Ethical zoos are those that prioritizes animal welfare, education, and conservation efforts above profits.”

    Wrong. Ethical zoos are zoos that have adequate welfare standards for their animals…that’s it. Lack of conservation promotion, lack of education to the public, and making profits doesn’t inherently harm the animal welfare of the animals. In fact, profit-making is essential for zoos because animal care costs money. Some what you might consider “ethical” zoos around the world are considering putting their animals down right now because they can’t afford them during this covid-19 crisis.

    Speaking of euthanasia, you brought up the Marius giraffe controversy. Why is it “ethical” to breed animals that might have to be put down because they don’t fit into a breeding program that is probably useless? Most breeding programs will not result in animals being introduced into the wild, as I’m sure you know. Don’t think people haven’t noticed AZA zoos resorting to the same song and dance, bringing up these same animals: black-footed ferret, California condor, Przewalski’s horse, Kihansi spray toad, golden lion tamarin, and some other small animals/invertebrates no one cares about nor do they get adequate representation as “ambassadors”. They bring these same animals up because they are some of the extremely few and limited examples of effective zoo reintroduction programs. I haven’t heard of too many examples of the “charismatic” animals that people are paying to see being re-wilded. So while AZA might feel high and mighty for their fancy SSPs, who cares, if they’re probably useless? furthermore, these fancy zoos can just re-home their unwanted animals to private zoos and owners, but they would rather ETHICALLY kill them because other facilities are supposed to be THAT bad.

    Face it, ALL zoos are about entertainment. It is not only a part of their history, it is etched within zoo DNA. 99% of the animals in zoos are there for guest satisfaction. Speaking of that, the AZA’s standards are NOT just about animal welfare, but also aspects not at all related to that, such as the aforementioned educational requirements with unproven efficacy, and dumb things like restaurants. I read the manual. How the heck are zoos to be labeled “unethical” just because they don’t have the means to look as pleasant as the big government zoos? And if a zoo does things their own way and it dare defies the People’s Republic of AZA it is inherently unethical? No. The AZA made that up. They decided it’s their way or the highway. That doesn’t make it true.

    Some zoos have “practical enclosures”…you know, like the facilities where ‘off-exhibit’ animals are hidden in the back from public view at AZA zoos. Hiding cage bars doesn’t enhance animal welfare, it just creates fake illusions for people. This is actually part of the reason Big Cat Rescue is getting backlash. They don’t have fancy nice enclosures like the Bronx Zoo in view of the public and it’s entirely due to VISIBLE cage bars. This is wrong although I hate BCR and enjoy the backlash they are getting, it’s well-deserved.

    Big Cat Rescue would never achieve AZA-accreditation due to their “rough” appearance alone, and if animal rights nut GFAS didn’t exist, they’d be considered a “roadside zoo”.

    “Tricks and circus-like performances”

    So you worked at Disney’s Animal Kingdom? What do you call this?

    I actually watched the entire show just for you. I saw performing animals, including a parrot singing “Old Mc.Donald” and no “education” about the bird. Is singing human songs a natural behavior? Also check out the Cincinnati Zoo, they do keeper interactions with Cheetahs and have shows as well, including a ‘cheetah runs’ and trained serval pre-show. What about SEAWORLD?
    Doing entertainment shows is wrong unless the AZA says otherwise? You might be thinking these things can be enriching for captive animals. Exactly! Trained animals benefit from performing, even if, believe it or not, they are performing an “unnatural” behavior.

    What you are doing here is helping zoos be hated, actually. By suggesting that zoos are “unethical” because they don’t meet standards like ‘not having “circus” or performing animals’ or education and conservation is required, you suggest there is something wrong with keeping captive animals. If you believe that captive animals need to be JUSTIFIED, you are saying it is a “necessary evil”. The only problem is, captive animals aren’t “necessary” and people will find this out. They will realize that zoos are mostly about entertainment and they sprinkle in the conservation message while exhibiting the same charismatic species and touting their useless breeding programs that produce animals that will permanently live in captivity. They will see that animal ambassadors are a joke because they don’t represent their species well, actually, tame exotic animals make their species appear to be excellent pets and make people want to keep exotic animals as pets (I’m living proof).
    AZA zoos are going to keep dazzling visitors with the mere illusion that the animals are ‘in the wild’ because there is a water moat or glass wall instead of cage bars, and it might work for a while, but it won’t take much for people to realize that is BS once the AR nuts get to them. Please see AR nut scientist Lori Marino and her work against AZA zoos.

    1. Thank you for your comment Melissa. My opinion is that zoos must justify animals being in captivity through conservation and education. I do not believe in keeping animals in captivity purely for profit or entertainment. I also do not think it is right to breed animals just to be put down. I am not sure how Marius the giraffe came about, but many of the zoos I am familiar with purposely put animals together to breed, or separate or contracept them so they don’t. I disagree with you about the reintroduction programs. There are many reintroduction programs, but they do not get public attention because they are not charismatic species. The people don’t pay to see these animals – these animals are off-site or behind the scenes. It would not be good for the animal to be that exposed to humans if it is being released into the wild. Zoos also help out wild endangered species, for example, here in NC, the aquarium and Museum of Natural Sciences (an AZA affiliated zoo) takes in cold-shocked sea turtles and puts them back into the wild. I do agree with you that zoos are mostly for entertainment, and it is my hope that we can push them to be more educational and conservation-focused. I did not intend to mean that any zoo that doesn’t meet AZA-standards is not ethical. I meant to provide guidelines for people to make their own decisions. I will adjust the post to reflect that more. I’m disappointed to see a show like that at Animal Kingdom. I am against these types of shows. Yes, someone else brought up the Cincinnati Zoo to me and I also think that is wrong. I do not agree with all AZA guidelines and I think many are not strict enough. I also don’t think that being AZA-affiliated absolves the zoo from doing anything wrong. There are a lot of grey areas for animals in captivity and it varies according to animals. I especially have a hard time with elephants and chimpanzees in captivity no matter how nice the facility is. I disagree with you that captive animals aren’t necessary. I believe it is important to have genetic reservoirs of species, especially those that are endangered or threatened. I also think they are important for educating the public about conservation given that we are in the sixth mass extinction on Earth. This study of 6,000 visitors does show that zoos improve evidence of biodiversity understanding.

      1. I apologize for getting so irritated, I thought I saw you reply to others. That’s fair enough, I definitely don’t agree exotic animals need to be justified and I understand that people think there is a difference between domesticated animals and non-domesticated animals, I just haven’t seen even one good reason why. I also see no reason why “circus tricks” are bad. At least we can agree zoos are mostly about entertaining people, otherwise they would be more like museums with limited captive animals on display. It would be interesting (and I’m sure animal rights nuts are pursuing this right now) to see how the zoo education in that study compares to animal-free education.

        1. No worries Melissa! I am just a little slow because I am getting lots of emails. I personally don’t like circus-like tricks because historically animals have been trained with direct abuse to get them to do these tricks. This still takes place in a lot of areas around the world, including the US. It’s too hard to tell the differences between those that are done purely with positive reinforcement (which is hard to do, probably impossible with some species) and with physical abuse. I also think it sends the wrong message to the audience – that exotic animals are pets. For instance, the chimps at Myrtle Beach Safari wear clothes, make chocolate chip cookies (for real), etc. I believe this encourages people to have them as pets. In the wild, chimps are still poached and the babies are sold illegally as pets.

  3. The other day, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested
    to see if it can survive a forty foot drop, just so she can be a youtube
    sensation. My apple ipad is now destroyed and she has 83 views.
    I know this is totally off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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