Zoos and similar facilities that publicly exhibit wild animals have existed throughout history, beginning as far back as Ancient Egypt. The animals were kept in small cages and used by rulers to display their wealth. Over many centuries, society’s views regarding zoos have changed. No longer is the public willing to view animals pacing nervously back and forth on cement floors behind bars. Instead, the public has begun to express concern for the welfare of the animals within zoos, preferring aesthetically pleasing and more natural habitats for zoo enclosures. Zoo proponents now claim the exhibitions exist for education, conservation, science, and recreation. The imprisoned animals are the property of the zoo and laws are in place to regulate and protect them. Unfortunately, the current laws lack effective protections and enforcement to ensure the welfare of animals kept in captivity.
Laws pertaining to zoo animals exist on international, federal, and state and local levels. On the international level, the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) regulates the trade and movement of roughly 5,000 types of endangered animal species. The species are listed in three appendices (listings at the end of the Convention); those animals included in Appendix I are afforded the most protection, whereas species in Appendix III receive the least protection. Membership of nation states is completely voluntary – a country can join or drop out at any time. Additionally, all animals housed in zoos prior to the signing of the treaty in 1973 are exempt from its provisions. In addition to CITES, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) regulates the majority of airlines; however, membership in this Association is also voluntary. Member airlines must meet the IATA industry standards for shipping live animals, whether pets or zoo animals, to ensure their safe transport.
On the federal level, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the only statute that protects the welfare of individual zoo animals. Under the AWA, animals, in the custody of a dealer or exhibitor are protected by regulations governing their care, handling, and transport. All cold-blooded animals are excluded from the Act’s definition of animal. The Act gives power to the Secretary of Agriculture, whose power is further delegated to the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), to administer and enforce the Act. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) applies only to animals designated as “endangered” or “threatened” by the Secretary of the Interior, or the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who administers the Act. The ESA prohibits “taking” or harassing listed animals, but the regulations exempt normal animal husbandry, including exhibition of animals. Therefore, exhibiting an endangered species alone is not a violation of the Act. Finally, at the federal level, there are acts that protect specific species, including the African elephant, Asian elephant, great apes, tigers and rhinoceros. The most important part of these statutes is the money allocated toward conservation of the protected species, but they have little application to zoo animals in general.
Every state has animal anti-cruelty laws and the majority of states have provisions allowing for felony charges. Six states, however, wholly exempt exhibited animals from the scope of their statutes. State laws vary greatly both in the scope of coverage and sentencing provisions. Inadequate enforcement makes many state laws ineffective. In most areas, only local law enforcement will enforce the anti-cruelty laws and most agencies lack resources.
Finally, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) regulates the zoo industry through voluntary standards, that their members must abide by. AZA membership is highly regarded within the industry. The standards regulate everything from the movement of zoo animals to the image the zoo must set forth to the public.
Unfortunately, there are few statutes to actually protect the welfare of an individual animal; instead many regulations exist to safeguard the species as a whole and the surrounding industry. Some types of animals are given much more protection than others, and some species are wholly excluded from protection at all. The real problem lies in the fact the enforcement provisions of these laws are lacking.
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