There are hundreds of substandard wildlife attractions throughout the
U.S., ranging from backyard menageries to so-called "sanctuaries" to
drive-through parks. Masquerading as conservation, education, or rescue
facilities, roadside and traveling zoos are among the worst abusers of
captive wildlife and fuel the multibillion-dollar-a-year trade in
exotic, rare, and endangered species.
With zoological institutions
accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA)
carelessly unloading surplus animals and with little regulation from
authorities, the private zoo business has exploded over the last 30
The animals are kept in grotesquely inadequate conditions and
suffer myriad problems, such as neglect, abuse, malnutrition,
incompatible social groupings, unsuitable climate, and insufficient
veterinary care. With little opportunity for mental stimulation or
physical exercise, animals often become despondent and develop abnormal
and self-destructive behaviors, called zoochosis.
These behavioral disturbances include pacing, rocking, swaying,
bar-biting, pulling out hair and feathers, and biting themselves.
Profit-hungry zoo operators perpetually breed animals so that they will
have an endless supply of "cute babies" in order to draw crowds. The
older, unmanageable animals are left to languish in small cages or
disposed of when they have exhausted their "usefulness." Exotic animal
auctions, frequented by unscrupulous dealers, are a popular method of
discarding unwanted "display" animals, who ultimately end up in the pet
trade, on breeding farms, killed for their skins and other organs, or used for canned hunts.
Some animals, such as tigers, lions, and bears—both cubs and adults—are
worth more dead than alive. Hides alone can fetch $2,000 to $20,000 or
more. Entire families are slaughtered and stuffed for mounts that sell
for $10,000. To avoid damaging pelts, animals are killed by the most
gruesome methods imaginable, such as shoving ice picks through their
ears and into their brains, suffocating them by wrapping plastic bags
around their heads, and drowning.
Baby animals are exploited from the day they are born. Newborns are
prematurely removed from their mothers, which denies them proper
nutrition and the natural socialization process required for normal
development. Tigers, lions, and cougars are torn from their mothers
when they are just 5 days old and declawed at 2 weeks of age. Mothers
spend weeks calling frantically for their missing babies.
In the wild,
tiger cubs stay with their mothers for three years. Primate mothers,
who passionately protect their babies, often are sedated so that their
1-day-old infants can be taken, diapered, and bottle-fed. Bear cubs
naturally remain at their mothers' sides for the first two years of
life, but breeders take them after only a month. These frightened,
helpless infants are often crated and shipped across the country to
buyers or hauled around for exhibition. Some do not survive the stress.
Zoological expert and wildlife consultant Sue Pressman says that people
in the exotic animal trade "are to wildlife education what
pornographers are to sex education." Self-proclaimed authorities with
no formal training in wildlife issues or care frequently operate these pitiful attractions. Many start out as hobbyists who purchase their first few exotics on a whim as a means of impressing people.
In an attempt to clean up the sleazy image long associated with
roadside zoos, operators of these facilities now declare themselves
"conservationists." They in fact do nothing to protect wildlife or
preserve habitat, and they breed animals indiscriminately, without
regard for genetic diversity and with nowhere suitable for them to go.
What people learn from these exhibitors is how animals act in captivity
and that it is acceptable to cause wild animals to be bored, cramped,
lonely, and kept far from their natural homes.
Wildlife exhibitors mislead the public with impressive-sounding but
meaningless credentials, such as "federally licensed by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of the Interior."
Federal permits to exhibit, breed, or sell regulated animals are
required and issued to nearly anyone who fills out an application and
sends in a fee.
The USDA exhibitor application is a 3/4-page-long form
that asks for a person's name, address, and animal inventory but
nothing that pertains to qualifications. The Animal Welfare Act, which
the USDA enforces, sets only minimum standards of care and rarely
addresses an animal’s psychological needs. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service (USFWS), the branch of the Department of the Interior that
issues permits to buy and sell threatened and endangered species,
considers non-native wildlife a low priority.
Breeding mills have so
saturated the market with "generic tigers" of unknown lineage that
USFWS exempts these animals from full regulation. Some exhibitors even
retain their licenses despite incidents of deadly animal attacks,
dangerous animal escapes, serious violations of the Animal Welfare Act,
and illegal wildlife trafficking.
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