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Entertainment Animals - Zoos

elephants aza wild elephant

The word "zoo" is short for zoological garden. The term, taken from the Greek word zoion, meaning "animal," first came into English usage in the mid-1800s. The London Zoological Society established a garden around 1828 to display its collection of wild animals. At first the garden was private, accessible only to members who paid a subscription fee. The society wanted to distinguish itself from the common animal exhibits of the time, but the need for funds drove the society to open the garden to the public in 1846. The new zoo was hugely popular, receiving more than 100,000 visitors during its first year. The royal menagerie at the Tower of London was closed around this time and its animals were presented to the zoo.

In 1874 the first American zoo opened to the public in Philadelphia. It featured animals from around the world, as well as elaborate gardens, architecture, and art. Early zoos kept wild animals in cages, but during the mid-1800s, a German exhibitor named Carl Hagenbeck, Jr., advocated the use of natural settings for zoo animals. In 1907 he opened a zoo in which the animals were exhibited on "artificial islands" that resembled their natural habitats. He felt that this approach was better for the animals and for the spectators. Hagenbeck was ahead of his time. Although few other zookeepers adopted his ideas at the time, they were one of the hallmarks of a top zoo by the end of the twentieth century.

Accredited Zoos

In 1924 the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums was founded. Today it is called the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA). It is a nonprofit organization that works to advance conservation, education, science, and recreation at zoos and aquariums. The AZA's stated goal is "to work cooperatively to save and protect the wonders of the living natural world." Zoos and aquariums that meet AZA's professional standards can be accredited by the organization. In 2005 there were more than 200 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, located mostly in North America, housing more than 750,000 animals.

The AZA Web site notes that as of 2000 accredited zoos and aquariums provide the following services on an annual basis:

  • Receive 134 million visitors (more than attend major league football, basketball, and baseball games combined)
  • Receive more than $96 million in financial support and millions of volunteer work-hours from patrons
  • Dedicate $52 million to educational programs
  • Educate more than twelve million people, including more than nine million students and nearly 85,000 teachers
  • Participate in about 2,000 conservation projects all over the world
  • Publish thousands of publications on animal issues
  • Employ more than 45,000 workers

The AZA also works to ensure the long-term breeding and conservation of a variety of species. As of 2005, more than 100 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates were protected under its Species Survival Plan.

The zoos accredited by the AZA in the United States are generally well respected by the public and even by many animal welfarists. For example, the HSUS acknowledges that large zoos educate the public about wildlife and help to conserve, preserve, and restore endangered species. However, this does not spare accredited zoos from some criticisms.

In February 1999 the San Jose Mercury News published a series of articles by Linda Goldstein entitled "Zoo Animals to Go," which made these allegations about major U.S. zoos:

  • Zoo overbreeding has led to thousands of surplus exotic animals in the United States.
  • Zoos purposely overbreed some animals to produce babies that are popular with the public and bring in crowds.
  • Older and less popular animals are quietly discarded and often end up at rundown roadside zoos and exotic animal auctions.
  • Unwanted but healthy animals were euthanized at the Detroit Zoo during the 1990s.
  • A handful of dealers preferred by the major zoos have become wealthy from the sales of unwanted exotics given or sold to them by the zoos.
  • Some surplus zoo animals wind up on the black market, where they are killed for their valuable hides or parts.

In August 2002 a journalist with U.S. News and World Report wrote about the animal disposal practices of some major U.S. zoos (Michael Satchell, "Cruel and Usual," August 5, 2002). The reporter tracked down a dozen primates, birds, and other exotic animals that had left the prestigious Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York, for a menagerie in Texas. He found the animals living in filthy cages alongside an interstate highway amid trash and weeds. The menagerie had gone out of business.

The executive director of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, which is accredited by the AZA, said that she had relied on references and information supplied by the Texas facility to make her decision. Satchell, however, pointed out that if the director had checked with the USDA she would have found that unfavorable inspection reports had been issued for the menagerie.

As posted on its Web site in 2005, the AZA's code of ethics requires accredited institutions to acquire animals from and dispose of animals to other AZA institutions or to non-AZA members with "the expertise, records management capabilities, financial stability, and facilities required to properly care for and maintain the animals." The U.S. News and World Report article claimed that this procedure is often violated by AZA zoos that "loan" or "donate" unwanted animals to unaccredited roadside zoos and animal parks. These facilities are frequently substandard and provide poor care. The article quoted a HSUS spokesperson as saying that the practice is "the dirty little secret" of the respectable zoos.

Satchell based his accusations on a review of database records from the International Species Information System (ISIS), as well as interviews with government, zoo, and animal rights personnel. ISIS is used by major zoos to track animal transfers. The article concluded that large zoos in New York, California, Hawaii, Tennessee, Georgia, Colorado, Arizona, Alabama, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., have transferred unwanted animals to substandard facilities and to dealers with alleged links to the exotic animal trade.


Elephants are perennially popular zoo attractions. (See Figure 7.3.) However, some major zoos are increasingly under fire for their elephant care policies. In particular, they have been criticized for importing wild elephants from Africa and Asia to replenish the diminishing captive population in the United States and for keeping solitary elephants in zoos. Elephants in the wild form strong social bonds and live in groups. Critics say that keeping an elephant alone in a zoo is cruel.

In May 2003 the San Diego Wild Animal Park came under intense criticism from animal welfare groups when it decided to transfer all of its older African elephants to other facilities and import young elephants from the African country of Swaziland. Three groups—Born Free, In Defense of Animals, and Elephant Alliance—filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to try to stop the process.

The groups criticized the park for subjecting the existing herd of older elephants to the trauma of moving. The groups also argued that the young elephants would be better off at one of the multi-acre elephant preserves that offered to take them, rather than at the one-acre facility at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

The Wild Animal Park argued that the elephants that would be imported were subject to culling (killing) due to overcrowding and drought in their Swaziland habitat. Legal maneuvers by animal protection groups were ultimately overturned in court, and the park was allowed to import new elephants. Three of its elder elephants (Peaches, Tatima, and Wankie) were transferred to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, and became that zoo's only elephants. Animal welfarists condemned the move, noting that the elephants would be forced to live in concrete enclosures during the cold Midwestern winters. In October 2004 Tatima died at the age of thirty-four. The normal life span for an elephant in the wild is seventy years. In January 2005 Peaches also died in Chicago. She was believed to be the oldest African elephant in captivity. An HSUS spokeswoman said "it was negligent and idiotic to move a geriatric elephant to a hostile climate." Wankie collapsed while being transported by truck from Chicago to the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was euthanized there May 1, 2005.

Another zoo under fire for its elephant policy is the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, Alaska. The zoo is not AZA-accredited, and it has, in fact, attracted the AZA's criticism because it keeps a solitary African elephant named Maggie. The AZA recommends that female elephants be kept in groups of at least three. Maggie has lived at the zoo since 1983, when she arrived as a baby. Her only companion, Annabelle, died in 1997 from a foot infection.

Zoo patrons watch an elephant in Providence, Rhode Island. Jim McElhom.

In January 2005 the New York Times reported that the Alaska Zoo decided to keep Maggie in Alaska and build a treadmill for her to keep her entertained (Sarah Kershaw, "A 9,000 Pound Fish out of Water, Alone in Alaska," January 9, 2005). The decision was made after the zoo's board of directors decided it would be too traumatic for Maggie to move to a sanctuary or zoo in a warmer climate with other elephants to keep her company. National animal protection groups and a local group "Friends of Maggie" have called the zoo's decision inhumane. A spokesperson for the AZA questioned the educational value of zoo visitors seeing an elephant on a treadmill. The New York Times reported that major zoos in Detroit and San Francisco decided to close their elephant exhibits due to concerns about lack of space. Both zoos retired their elephants to sanctuaries in warm climates.

According to the U.K. animal organization Born Free, the U.S. captive elephant herd will die out within a few decades. Although the organization admits that wild elephants face many manmade dangers in the wild, it does not believe that captivity in zoos is the answer. Instead Born Free advocates a focus on conservation and protection efforts for wild elephants in their natural habitats. Zoo proponents argue that keeping elephants in captivity raises public awareness about their plight and will help their cause in the long run.

Unaccredited Zoos

Approximately 90% of U.S. zoos are not accredited by the AZA. There are thousands of these small "road-side zoos," petting zoos, animal parks, and similar exhibits that display animals to the public. The HSUS says that these small zoos often barely meet minimal federal standards for animal care. Most of these facilities include exotic animals, such as lions and tigers. Many are run by entrepreneurs with little experience in the proper care of exotic animals and with limited financial resources. Some call themselves animal preserves and achieve tax-exempt status so that they can solicit donations for their "conservation" work.

All licensed animal exhibits are subject to USDA inspection, but animal welfare groups say that poorly run facilities often receive bad inspection reports for years and are still not closed down. The Gentry Wild Wilderness Safari in Gentry, Arkansas, is an excellent example. The park's questionable past was described by a local newspaper in June 2002 (Robin Mero, "Wilmoth Settles," The Morning News [Springdale, AR], June 28, 2002).

According to the article, the owner of the 200-acre drive-through park was ticketed and fined numerous times for animal violations since 1988. In 1995 he paid an $8,000 civil penalty in an out-of-court settlement as a result of charges based on violations from 1992 to 1994. USDA inspections conducted in 1999–2000 resulted in a host of new charges that the facility violated AWA requirements for proper veterinary care, recordkeeping, housekeeping, and housing of its animals. This resulted in a $10,000 civil penalty that was also settled out of court. Half of the penalty is a fine. The other half must be spent upgrading the facility and training employees. In January 2005 the park was sued by a worker who claimed that two of her fingers were bitten off by a chimpanzee in the park in October 2004.

In February 2005 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on alleged problems at the Wesa-A-Geh-Ya zoo in Warren County, Missouri (Brad Urban, "USDA Files Complaint against Zoo," February 2, 2005). The zoo houses numerous wild animals, including big cats, wolves, and a bear. According to the article, the USDA alleges that the park has committed "numerous violations" of the Animal Welfare Act, including "repeated instances" in which the facility failed to meet minimum standards of veterinary care. The violations were noted during eleven inspections that occurred between July 2001 and October 2003. Most of the violations involved housing and veterinary care for the zoo's lions and tigers. In 2005 the zoo's Web site said the name Wesa-A-Geh-Ya means "Cat Lady" in the Cherokee language. The zoo's owners insist that they are trying to correct the violations and that the facility engages in the "rescue and survival of endangered species," particularly exotic animals. The owners claim the facility is being persecuted because the animal rights group PETA publishes negative publicity about the zoo on its Web site.

Another roadside zoo in legal trouble was located in Colton, California. It called itself Tiger Rescue and operated a nonprofit sanctuary for big cats. However, an article in the Los Angeles Times noted that the sanctuary had been charging visitors to tour the facility and have their photos taken with tiger cubs. State and county wild-life authorities found the corpses of thirty adult tigers and sixty-one cubs when they raided the facility in 2003. The owners were charged with seventeen felony counts related to allegations of animal cruelty and child endangerment. At trial in 2005, one of the owners pleaded guilty in return for a shortened sentence, while the other was found guilty by a jury. For more information on the Tiger Rescue case, see Chapter 3.

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over 11 years ago

I live next to the Wesa-a-geh-ya in Warren County. In 2006 the USDA permanently revoked their license and they can no long legally exhibit animals. The USDA left 84 animals in inhumane conditions. The owner was required to report all the animals to the local Sheriff. In 2004 he reported 84 animals. The prosecutor refused to allow the Sheriff to count the animals when new animals were reported. With the help of the MO Conservation the Sheriff was able to do an inventory. In June 2007 new animals were found and 25 animals were missing. Without a USDA breeder license they cannot legally sell animals. It took a year to get them in court on MO Statute 578.023 Failure to register dangers animals. The owner now claimed he was refuge and did not need to report. The Judge declared they are not a refuge and he was charged with a misdemeanor and sentencing was postponed to 6/3. These people have bred the majority of the animals and since 2007 seven more are missing. They are the worse of the roadside zoos and still have a nonprofit to "acquire animals to care for and educate". With 35 violations of the AWA it is obvious they do not care for the animals. Check the website for the news stories and charges.

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over 7 years ago