Animal Rights
Animal Rights

The Truth About Wildlife Attractions and Pet Trade in U.S.

| by PETA
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 years.

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.