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July 2000
Telling it Like it is: A View From a Former Zoo Staffer

By Richard H. Farinato


Primarily, zoos still serve to entertain the public, providing basic family amusement for their visitors. Despite the pronouncements of the AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association, the self-regulating organization of accredited zoos) about conservation, research, and education, there is little hard evidence to prove that zoos do any more than entertain.

There is one basic premise that must be taken into account when looking at the whole zoo issue. In the U.S., the Department of Agriculture licenses more than 1,800 exhibitors of wild animals. AZA-accredited facilities make up no more than 10 percent of this group. It is misleading to say that the relatively few AZA facilities represent the actual state of zoos in the U.S. Even within that 180-member group, the varying quality of exhibits and care is incredible and sometimes appalling. Accreditation by the AZA does not guarantee a consistent level of quality among zoos.

AZA and AZA-accredited zoos have held themselves up to the public as the norm, or the reality of zoos. This is far from the case. The norm is the underfunded municipal zoo, or the roadside attraction, or the private collection that is open to the public. The small handful of high-end zoos that may in fact engage in conservation programs benefiting wild animals in the field are not typical of American zoos; they are the rare exception. When you look closely at the actual participation of the majority of accredited zoos in "conservation", what you are likely to find are donations of crayons and coloring books or used reptile cages to zoos abroad, or sponsorship of keeper training courses. Such minor activities are then called cooperative efforts in conservation and education. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Another highly touted conservation effort are the SSPs (Species Survival Programs). If a zoo simply exhibits surplus males or retired breeders of an SSP species, it is thereby said to be participating in the "conservation" of that species. It is situations like these that make people and organizations skeptical about the claims of the AZA and its member zoos. Much effort goes into marketing and public relations, for the purpose of laying a veneer of science and education on what is basically the business of buying, displaying, breeding, and selling exotic animals.

Zoos won’t Disappear, so...
Zoos are not going to disappear. The animals in them are not, in general, candidates for release, and in many cases there is no habitat to use as reintroduction areas. Zoos must become the centers of education about animals and their role in the environment that they claim to be. They must stop the frivolous production of animals that will later be unwanted by them and disposed of without a care. They should accept that some species (including marine mammals, polar bears, great apes and elephants) are unsuitable display animals whose physical and mental needs cannot be met in captivity, and fundamentally change the way those animals are kept. Zoos should make the commitment to phasing out their captive populations for display and redirecting their funds and expertise to the conservation of wild populations and their natural habitats.

It is only public pressure that will change zoos. Visitors need to focus on the bottom line issue of any zoo: animal care. Forget the hype about conservation, and the Christmas light extravaganza, and the boa constrictor at the birthday party at the zoo. Look at the animals. Are cages large enough for what lives in them? Do the elephants spend 16 hours a day in chains? Is the food of good quality? Does the staff show care and compassion? Look for the commonsense indicators of good care. If they’re not obvious, find out why. In many cases, zoos are tax-supported. They literally belong to the public, and the public can demand that their animals be treated correctly and humanely.

Richard H. Farinato is Director of the Captive Wildlife Protection Program of the Humane Society of the United States. He is a former assistant zoo director and has extensive professional experience in the management of wild animals, including 15 years working in zoos. He now serves as a spokesperson for the protection of captive wildlife. For information visit or call (301) 258-3150.


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