Full Title Name:  Detailed Discussion of Welfare Standards for Animals Used in Zoos and Exhibition

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Tala M. DiBenedetto Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2020 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center 1 Country of Origin:  United States
Summary: This paper will discuss federal, state, and private regulation of zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries. It highlights the ways in which these regulatory mechanisms fail to adequately protect captive wildlife, whether they be held at larger, accreditor facilities or small, roadside zoos. It also highlights meaningful distinctions separating credible zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries from problematic roadside zoos through compliance with government standards or those set through voluntary, private accreditation.

I. Introduction

Humans have shared a fascination with wild animals since time immemorial. While the modern American lifestyle has placed a barrier between most humans and wild animals, many still strive to see and interact with animals in a controlled environment. Unfortunately, due to high demand and insufficient regulation, it is all too easy to realize these desires. This fascination with getting up close and personal with wild animals comes at a significant price. One does not need to travel a far distance to view lions and tigers in relatively large enclosures somewhat resembling the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa or the lowland forests of Malaysia. Rather, for less hassle and less money, you can pay to see tigers pace around in small cages with concrete floors off the side of the highway, where they will likely spend their entire lives. For more money, you can even hold and have your picture taken with a baby tiger.

Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness began to scratch the surface of some of the pressing welfare and conservation issues associated with roadside zoos. Advocates contend that it failed to fully address the extent of suffering and mistreatment prevalent not only at "Joe Exotic's" roadside zoo, but at countless roadside zoos across the country. It did, however, bring to light some of the issues associated with the regulation of roadside zoos and the difficulty with enforcement. Viewers witnessed Joe Exotic removing newborn baby tigers from their mothers, his rough handling of tigers, and his practice feeding animals expired meat.

Although there are welfare concerns associated with all forms of captivity, there are meaningful differences impacting animal welfare between larger accredited zoos and sanctuaries and small, private, unaccredited ones. Small, unaccredited zoos, often referred to as “roadside zoos,” are often operated for profit and focus primarily on entertainment, rather than conservation and education. Larger, more reputable facilities will try to replicate the animal’s natural environment and will only have animals in enclosures for only part of the day, whereas roadside zoos will keep animals in the same cage or smaller enclosure with limited access to physical and psychological enrichment or opportunities for socializing.

This paper will discuss federal, state, and private regulation of zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries. It highlights the ways in which these regulatory mechanisms fail to adequately protect captive wildlife, whether they be held at larger, accreditor facilities or small, roadside zoos. It also highlights meaningful distinctions separating credible zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries from problematic roadside zoos through compliance with government standards or those set through voluntary, private accreditation. Part II lays out a historical overview of the laws and trends pertaining to exhibition of animals in the United States. Part III discusses the two primary federal laws regulation the welfare and exhibition of animals; the Animal Welfare Act (“AWA”), which provides minimal welfare and licensing requirements for all animal exhibitors, and Endangered Species Act (“ESA”), which prohibits certain forms of harm and harassment to species listed under the Act, including those at exhibited to the public. Part IV details the gaps and shortfalls of state laws pertaining to welfare of animals used for exhibition, many of which rely on the AWA or private accreditation to regulate exhibitors. Part V examines private accreditation as a form of self-regulation by animal exhibition industry, which sets out higher welfare standards than those required by state and federal law, but only comprises a small percentage of exhibitors and have proven to fall short in certain respects. Part VI explores the topic of sanctuaries, which are distinct from traditional zoos and aquariums in their approach to housing and exhibiting animals in captivity. Because the term “sanctuary” is relatively unregulated, some roadside zoos have utilized the name to attract customers and create an illusion of strict compliance with welfare standards. True sanctuaries have private accrediting standards that only accept organizations that adhere to stricter welfare standards, which exclude exhibition and breeding of animals. Part VI highlights the distinction between roadside zoos and larger, more credible zoos and sanctuaries while pointing out significant gaps in state and federal regulation. Finally, Part VII concludes that, because states have failed to adequately regulate and the industry is too self-interested, further federal regulation limiting the existence and conditions at roadside zoos is necessary to begin to tackle the pervasive issue of animal neglect and mistreatment at captive wildlife facilities.

II. History of Animal Exhibition in the United States

Viewing wild animals in captivity has long been a part of American culture. The United States saw its first chartered zoos and professional zoological organizations pop up in the late 1800s. History of Zoos in Parks, NYC Parks, available at https://www.nycgovparks.org/ about/history/zoos.  According to zoo historian Bernard Livingston, “the zoo (or menagerie, its original name) has since earliest times been a social phenomenon, a saga of man's inhumanity—or humanity, if you will—to beast, whether for idle pleasure, civic enlightenment or ecological good. The zoo story, accordingly, is a story not only of animals but of the human species as well, and every bit as fascinating as the world of man.” Id.

Despite this long-standing history of animal exhibition, there has been a shift in consciousness regarding the treatment of animals in captivity, as patrons became increasingly concerned with the welfare of animals used for entertainment. Concern for animal welfare has not necessarily been reflected in legislation for exhibitors. In 1966, Congress adopted the federal Animal Welfare Act (“AWA”), which for the first time regulated captive wild animals used for exhibition in zoos, aquariums, and circuses. 7 U.S.C. § 2131 et seq. (1966). Then, in 1977, the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) was signed into law, which provided protection for certain species listed as “endangered” or “threatened” under the Act, including those held captive in zoos and aquariums. 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq. (1973). Beyond these federal statutes, there have been the enactment of species-specific legislation protecting certain animals and States have adopted their own laws further regulating possession and exhibition of wild animals. In addition to increased regulation, there have been a number of organizations offering accreditation for exhibiting facilities, holding these facilities to a higher standard of animal welfare than the minimum requirements set out by the AWA.

While there has been increased regulation governing the possession and exhibition of wild animals, it is unclear whether the situation has improved for captive wildlife.  Today, there are approximately 2,400 zoos in the U.S. alone containing hundreds of thousands of animals, not all of which are afforded legal protection. Laura Fravel, Critics Question Zoos’ Commitment to Conservation, Nat. Geographic Nov. 13, 2003) https://www.nationalgeographic.com /animals/2003/11/news-zoo-commitment-conservation-critic/. One zoo alone can house over 30,000 animals. Home, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, available at http://www.omahazoo.com (noting that the zoo houses over 30,000 animals). While all exhibitors must obtain a license and adhere to welfare standards set forth in the AWA, these welfare standards have criticized as insufficient to adequately protect captive animals. See e.g. Justin Marceau, How the Animal Welfare Act Harms Animals, 69 Hastings L.J. 925 (2018); Carole Lynn Nowicki, The Animal Welfare Act: All Bark and No Bite, 23 Seton Hall Legis. J. 443 (1999). Additionally, there are several issues with inspection and enforcement of the Act, resulting in a number of repeat violators continuing to possess and exhibit animals despite their chronic noncompliance. Because State and local laws vary in their scope, stringency, and enforcement, these laws do not always rise to fill the gaps left by the AWA. Only a small percentage of exhibitors have obtained private accreditation, and even some of these private standards have been criticized as insufficient to adequately protect animal welfare.

III. Federal Law

Oversight of exhibiting facilities is limited under federal law. In addition to a few species-specific laws, the two primary federal statutes providing regulating the treatment of animals held captive at zoos and aquariums are the AWA, which provides minimal welfare and licensing requirements for all animal exhibitors, and ESA, which prohibits certain forms of harm and harassment to species listed under the Act, including those at exhibited to the public. These statutes only provide minimal welfare requirements and are limited in terms of scope and enforcement.

A. Animal Welfare Act (AWA)

The main statute governing the exhibition of animals is the federal AWA. The Act provides welfare, recordkeeping, and licensing requirements for the use, housing, sale, and transportation of animals in research and exhibition. 7 U.S.C. § 2134, 2140. It defines “exhibitor” as “any person (public or private) exhibiting any animals, which were purchased in commerce or the intended distribution of which affects commerce, or will affect commerce, to the public for compensation.” Id. § 2132(h). All exhibitors must be licensed  and comply with the provisions of the Act. Id§ 2134. “Animals” under the statute refer to “any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes[…].” Id§ 2132(g). It explicitly excludes birds, rats, mice, and animals commonly used for food. Id. The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to promulgate humane standards and recordkeeping requirements governing the purchase, handling, or sale of animals, by exhibitors. Id. § 2142. The Secretary has delegated his responsibilities under the Act to the Administrator of the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”). 9 C.F.R. § 1.1.

1. Licensing

Previously, there was a bifurcated approach to licensing. For initial applications, the individual would have to demonstrate compliance with all  relevant prescribed standards and regulations under the Act, pay an application fee, keep its facilities available for agency inspection, and pass an agency compliance inspection of its facilities before the license may be issued. 7 U.S.C. § 2133; 9 C.F.R. §§ 2.1-2.12. In order to renew an existing license, an applicant would have to submit an annual report, pay the appropriate application fee, certify compliance and agree to continue to comply with agency standards and regulations, and agree to keep its facilities available for inspection by the agency “to ascertain the applicant's compliance with the standards and regulations.” Id. § 2.3(a). Unlike the initial application process, license renewal was treated as procedural – meaning that if the requirements were met, the agency would issue a license renewal. Id. § 2.2(b).

The license renewal process was transformed in May of 2020 when APHIS amended AWA licensing requirements with the purported goal of “promot[ing] compliance, […] and strengthen[ing] safeguards that prevent individuals and businesses with a history of noncompliance from obtaining a license or working with regulated animals.” Animal Welfare; Amendments to Licensing Provisions and to Requirements for Dogs,  85 Fed. Reg. 28772 (May 13, 2020) (to be codified at 9 C.F.R. §1-2). These changes eliminate the annual license renewal process and replaces it with a system of issuing fixed-term (non-renewable) licenses for dealers and exhibitors that expire after three years, at which time they would be required to demonstrate compliance before obtaining another fixed-term license. Id. at 28795. The rule further amended the AWA to require licensees to affirmatively demonstrate compliance and obtain a new license when making changes to the number, type, or location of animals used in regulated activities. Id.

Applicants who plead nolo contendere (no contest) or any other findings of violation of Federal, State, or local laws or regulations pertaining to animal cruelty or the transportation, ownership, neglect, or welfare of animals within three years will be denied a license. Id. A license may also be denied for such violations after four years if APHIS determines that “the circumstances render the applicant unfit to be licensed.” Id. The amendments require applicants to disclose any such pleas or violations prior to obtaining a license. Animal Welfare; Amendments to Licensing Provisions and to Requirements for Dogs,  85 Fed. Reg. 28772, 28795 (May 13, 2020) (to be codified at 9 C.F.R. §1-2).

Finally, the new rule removes the phrases “intending to” or “intends to” operate from those who can apply for a license in order to prevent the issuance of licenses to those who do not operate as bona fide exhibitors (i.e., they never exhibit their animals to the public for compensation), but become licensed to circumvent State laws restricting animal ownership. Id.

2. Welfare Standards

APHIS has adopted and species-specific animal welfare requirements applicable to licensees. See 9 C.F.R. §§ 3.1-3.142. These requirements include providing potable water daily, keeping enclosures reasonably free of waste and regularly sanitized,  removing feces and food waste daily, assuring appropriate social grouping. Id. § 3.55, 3.11, 3.133. These standards are fairly general. For example, they require that food be “wholesome, palatable, and free from contamination and of sufficient quantity and nutritive value to maintain all animals in good health.” Id. § 3.129(a). It also requires that animals be housed with compatible animals that don’t negatively impact their health or discomfort. 9 C.F.R. § 3.133.

While many of welfare provisions for wild animals apply generally, the Act does single out nonhuman primates and provide for requirements regarding their psychological well-being. Id. § 3.81. Specifically, it requires that exhibitors develop, document, and follow an “appropriate plan for environment enhancement adequate to promote the psychological well-being of nonhuman primates.” Id. The plan must be in accordance with the currently accepted professional standards as cited in appropriate professional journals or reference guides, and as directed by the attending veterinarian.” Id. On the surface, the existence of welfare provisions implies the animals’ needs are met, but this is not necessarily true. In fact, these standards were challenged as insufficient by animal welfare group Animal Legal Defense Fund (“ALDF”), who argued that by permitting the regulated entities to develop their own environmental enhancement plans, the regulations failed to include “minimum requirements” as mandated by the AWA. Animal Legal Def. Fund, Inc. v. Glickman, 154 F.3d 426, 429 (D.C. Cir. 1998). In particular, plaintiffs were concerned about a chimpanzee living in isolation at a licensed facility in New York. Id. Despite the fact that certain primates like chimpanzees are highly social creatures that suffer in isolation, keeping chimpanzees in isolation is not strictly prohibited by the Act. Id. The Court ultimately upheld the regulation and held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. Animal Legal Def. Fund, Inc. v. Glickman, 204 F.3d 229 (D.C. Cir. 2000).

The AWA merely provides survival standards, many of which are insufficient to adequately protect captive animals. The broad language of these requirements leave a great deal of deference to the government in enforcing compliance with the Act.

3. Enforcement

To enforce compliance with welfare and recordkeeping requirements under the Act, exhibitors undergo inspections and at all reasonable times, provide access to the places of business and the facilities, animals, and those records. 7 U.S.C. § 2146(a). If upon inspection there is any “reason to believe that any person licensed as a[n] ... exhibitor ... has violated or is violating any provision of [the Act], or any of the rules or regulations or standards … [t]hereunder,” a licensee may have their license temporarily suspended. Id. § 2149(a). After notice and opportunity for hearing APHIS determines a violation has occurred, the license may be revoked or further suspended for a specified period of time, or revoked altogether. Id. Violation of the AWA may also result civil and criminal penalties. Id. § 2149(b), (d).

There are a number of obstacles to enforcement of the AWA. First, there is a lack of political will to adequately enforce the Act. The Animal Care division of APHIS along the Investigative and Enforcement Services investigate, review, and process violation cases. Investigative and Enforcement Services (IES), USDA APHIS, available at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/business-services/ies. New investigations into captive-animal welfare and safety issues dropped by 92 percent between 2016 and 2018, from 239 to just 19. Administration Persists with Deconstruction of Animal Welfare Act, Animal Welfare Institute, available at https://awionline.org/awi-quarterly/summer-2019/administration-persists-deconstruction-animal-welfare-act. APHIS also issued fewer citations, issuing 1,716 citations in 2018, compared with 4,944 in 2016. As of 2019, APHIS reported that Animal Care, consisting of only 157 employees, conducted 9,326AWA site inspections, assessing the health, care, and treatment of more than one millionanimals. U.S. Dep’t of Agric. Animal and Health Inspection Service 2019 Impact Report, available at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/ aphis_general/rpt-aphis-impact-2019.pdf. In addition to exhibitors, these inspections also cover animal breeders, sellers, and research facilities. Ultimately, only seventeen investigative cases were initiated for alleged AWA violations. Id.

Additionally, during these inspections, not all noncompliant items are properly documented in inspection reports. Noncompliant items that meet certain criteria have instead been deemed “teachable moments” and noted on a separate “Teachable Moments worksheet” that is not part of the inspection report and not readily available to the public. U.S. Dep’t of Agric. Animal Welfare Inspection Guide, available at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/downloads/Animal-Care-Inspection-Guide.pdf. A teachable moment is a minor non-compliant item that the facility is willing and able to correct quickly, is not causing noticeable pain or distress to an animal, is not likely to soon become a serious or repeat issue, and has not previously been cited as a teachable moment within the past two years. Id. The Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) noted that teachable moments are used inconsistently, largely because they are used at the discretion of the inspector. Office of Inspector Gen., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Audit Report No. 33601-0001-31, APHIS Animal Welfare Act – Marine Mammals (Cetaceans) 9-10 (May 2017) https://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/33601-0001-31.pdf. In a 2010 report on inspections of problematic dealers, the OIG found that AC’s enforcement process was ineffective against problematic dealers, and that APHIS misused guidelines to lower penalties for violators. Office of Inspector Gen., U.S. Dep’t of Agric., Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Animal Care Program Inspections of Problematic Dealers (May 2010) https://www.usda.gov /oig/webdocs/33002-4-SF.pdf.

It is difficult for citizens to enforce and promote compliance with the AWA. Unlike many other federal environmental statutes, the AWA lacks a citizen suit provision, meaning that citizens cannot bring suit to enforce violations of the Act. However, in 2017 the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that administrative law judges must consider advocates’ motions to intervene in pending enforcement actions against alleged violators of the AWA. Animal Legal Def. Fund, Inc. v. Vilsack, 237 F. Supp. 3d 15 (D.D.C. 2017). Individuals may also bring an action against the agency under circumstances where responsible officials fail to act  under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). 5 USC §551 et seq.  (““agency action” includes the whole or a part of an agency rule, order, license, sanction, relief, or the equivalent or denial thereof, or failure to act.” 5 U.S.C.A. § 551(13)). Individuals and organizations have brought lawsuits under the APA and for license renewal of noncompliant exhibitors. Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 789 F.3d 1206 (11th Cir. 2015); Animal Legal Def. Fund, Inc. v. Perdue, 872 F.3d 602 (D.C. Cir. 2017). However, standing under the APA is difficult to establish and the agency is granted a great deal of deference in determining what constitutes compliance with the AWA. See Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 789 F.3d 1206 (11th Cir. 2015); Animal Legal Def. Fund, Inc. v. Perdue, 872 F.3d 602 (D.C. Cir. 2017).

B. Endangered Species Act

The ESA is an additional legal tool used to protect the welfare of captive animals. The ESA provides for the protection of certain exhibited species listed as “endangered” or “threatened” under the Act. 16 U.S.C. § 1531(a) – (b). Among other things, the Act protects listed species, including those kept in zoos, sanctuaries, and aquariums, from being killed, harmed, or harassed, referred to as a “take” under the statute. 16 U.S.C. § 1532(19) (“Take” under the ESA means “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”).“Harass” is further defined in the regulations as “an intentional or negligent act or omission which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns, which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.” 50 C.F.R. §17.3.

There are several ways zoos can obtain endangered species. Many animals regularly observed at zoos are exotic, non-native species from areas in Asia, Africa, or South America. International smuggling, trafficking, and trade in endangered species is prohibited by  the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (“CITES”). Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, Mar. 3, 1973, 27 U.S.T. 1087, 993 U.N.T.S. 243 (hereinafter “CITES”). CITES is a multilateral treaty aimed at protecting threatened and endangered species through restrictions on international trade. Id. While the treaty is only legally binding on State-parties, it includes provisions and rules for trade with non-parties. Id. art. X. Currently, there are 183 Parties to CITES. List of Contracting Parties, CITES https://www.cites.org/eng/disc/parties/chronolo.php (last visited Jul. 25, 2020). The level of protection afforded a species is based on how it is listed under the appendices of the treaty. CITES art II. However, zoos are still able to procure endangered species through legal and illegal means.

Larger, more reputable zoos acquire animals through a database created by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which allows exhibitors to exchange animals in accordance with a Species Survival Plan aimed at preserving the long-term survival of the species. John R. Platt, How Zoos Acquire Endangered Species, Sci. Am. (Mar. 30, 2015) https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/how-zoos-acquire-endangered-species1/. Exhibitors can take stock and exchange animals in situations where they have compatible individuals suitable for breeding. Id. The organization conducts an annual genetic analysis, it writes to the zoos with suggestions about which animals should be moved where. Less reputable zoos are not as careful. They have been found to import at-risk animals, breed their endangered species indiscriminately and sell animals back and forth, often in violation of the law. Id.

Unlike the AWA, there is a citizen suit provision within the ESA. 16 U.S.C. § 1540(g)(1)(A). This has allowed individuals and organizations to bring suit directly against zoos for practices that cause harm to species protected under the Act. For example, in People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Tri-State Zoological Park of W. Maryland, Inc., animal rights organizations brought suit against a zoo and its operators for violating the ESA in its provision of unsanitary living conditions, poor diets, substandard veterinary care, and inadequate shelter and enrichment to lions, tigers, and lemurs at the park. 424 F. Supp. 3d 404 (D. Md. 2019). The Court held that due to the substandard conditions, which included (among other things) “feces and filth” strewn in the animal enclosures, rotting carcasses left in the lion and tiger enclosures, employment of a veterinarian without any formal or informal training, education, or experience working with large cats or primates, and substandard enclosures with little to no psychological enrichment, the zoo in question violated the ESA. Id. at 412.

While the ESA seems like a promising avenue for protecting captive wildlife from harm resulting from harmful and substandard living conditions, the Act is ultimately limited in its scope. In addition to non-listed species, hybrids of listed species are often denied protection under the Act. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife website, hybrid offspring of animals bred or propagated in captivity are not protected by the ESA. Permits – Frequently Asked Questions, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., (last updated Dec. 11, 2018) https://www.fws.gov/endangered/permits/faq.html. However, this policy may be changing. In 2017, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”) brought a citizen suit against a roadside zoo for “violating the ESA by illegally taking tigers, lions, and hybrids thereof.” People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Wildlife in Need & Wildlife in Deed, Inc., No. 417CV00186RLYDML, 2018 WL 828461 (S.D. Ind. Feb. 12, 2018) (emphasis added). PETA alleged, inter alia, that the defendants violated ESA take prohibition by declawing of at least twenty wild felines, including lion-tiger hybrids. Complaint at 8, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Wildlife in Need & Wildlife in Deed, Inc., No. 417CV00186RLYDML, 2018 WL 828461 (S.D. Ind. filed Sep. 29, 2017). PETA successfully filed a motion for preliminary injunction to temporarily enjoin defendants from declawing any of their captive lions, tigers, and hybrids. Id. Without explicitly discussing whether the lion-tiger hybrids were covered, the Court held that “because Plaintiff has shown declawing harms, harasses, and wounds the Big Cats, the Court finds that Defendants have committed a “take” within the meaning of the ESA” and granted PETA’s motion for preliminary injunction. People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. v. Wildlife in Need & Wildlife in Deed, Inc., No. 417CV00186RLYDML, 2018 WL 828461, at 6 (S.D. Ind. Feb. 12, 2018).

IV. State Law

In addition to federal and private welfare standards, States have adopted their own laws pertaining to treatment, exhibition, and ownership of wild animals. While the AWA sets the minimum standards for welfare including housing, veterinary care, and nutritional requirements, state laws or regulations may set out more specific requirements for ownership, possession, and exhibition of certain wildlife. In fact, Many state laws regulating captive wildlife directly invoke the AWA. For example, Title 47, Chapter 2 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina prohibits the possession, purchase, breeding, custody, or sale of large wild cats , non-native bears, or great apes within the state, subject to several enumerated exemptions, including an exemption for AWA licensees who are in compliance with the Act. S.C. Code Ann. § 47-2-30(A).

States also provide legal protection in the form of animal cruelty laws. These laws vary significantly in terms of strength and scope of provisions. While some states expressly provide protection for all animals, including zoo animals, other states including Georgia, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington entirely exempt zoo animals and/or exhibition animals from its anti-cruelty provisions. Enforcement of state anti-cruelty laws is left up to state and local law enforcement. Unfortunately, state and local laws vary considerably, with some states having minimal regulation, oversight, and enforcement of exhibitors.

There are also a number of state laws that involve private accreditation or certification to possess certain animals. Ohio has outlawed the sale and possession of certain animals but exempts members of certain third-party accreditors, Association of Zoos and Aquariums (“AZA”), Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (“GFAS”), and Zoological Association of America (“ZAA”). Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 935.03(A), (B)(1). Under Colorado State law, except for wildlife sanctuaries, only AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited or certified facilities shall be permitted to possess animals from the families Canidae, Felidae and Ursidae, except that those animals lawfully in possession at such facilities before January 1, 2006. Colo. Code Regs § 406-11:1104(C)(1)(b)(4). Additionally, only wildlife sanctuaries accredited or certified by the AZA or accredited or verified by the GFAS can be licensed to possess any animals. Id.

V. Private Accreditation

Ultimately, the animal welfare standards of larger zoos that the public is most familiar with are dictated by private accreditation standards. In addition to standards set forth under the state laws and the AWA, exhibitors can opt to obtain certification through accrediting organizations. This is a form of self-regulation within the industry utilized by a small percentage of total exhibitors – usually larger, conservation-focused zoos and aquariums, and often sets more stringent standards for animal welfare. Private accreditation can serve to help the public distinguish between more credible zoos and roadside zoos. However, there are a number of accreditors that adopt varying standards and adopt different, sometimes conflicting missions. Thus, while accreditation can signify that the exhibitor holds itself to  higher welfare standards than non-accredit facilities, the inconsistency among accreditors can create confusion and send mixed messages to the public. Private accreditation is voluntary, and does not bear weight or relation to compliance with federal standards under the AWA. Hill v. Coggins, 423 F. Supp. 3d 209 (W.D.N.C. 2019).

A. Association of Zoos and Aquariums

The most notable private accreditor for exhibitors is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (“AZA”).  There are currently 240 AZA accredited zoos and aquariums. Currently Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, Am. Zoological Ass’n, available at https://www.aza.org/current-accreditation-list. In order to receive accreditation, facilities must apply, undergo inspection, and be evaluated on its compliance with AZA standards for animal management in care. Its mission is to “help[] its members and the animals in their care thrive by providing services advancing animal welfare, public engagement and the conservation of wildlife.” Strategic Plan, Am. Zoological Ass’n, available at https://www.aza.org/strategic-plan.

AZA selects experts in zoo and aquarium operations, animal management, and veterinary medicine to its Accreditation Commission. Accreditation Commission, Am. Zoological Ass’n, available at https://www.aza.org/accreditation_commission. The Commission evaluates each zoo and aquarium to assure they meet the AZA standards for animal management and care. Id. Inspectors are responsible for inspecting each facility, preparing a report and recommendations, which is then provided to the Accreditation Commission. Inspectors, Am. Zoological Ass’n, https://www.aza.org/inspectors. The Commission then provides list of concerns to provide institution with a clear outline of items that must be successfully addressed before accreditation can be considered. Id. Inspectors do not weigh in on whether a facility will ultimately be accredited. Inspectors consist of volunteers that professionals in the field. Id.

The Accreditation Commission meets twice a year to consider all candidates for accreditation. Id. They examine the application, the supporting documents submitted by the zoo or aquarium, the inspection team's report, and any information and comments received from outside organizations and individuals. Id. Then the Accreditation Commission decides whether or not to grant accreditation. Id. Whether a facility was previously accredited bears no weight on whether they will be accredited again. Accreditation standards are regularly changing, thus currently facilities must be able to meet new standards when seeking accreditation every five years. Accreditation Basics, Am. Zoological Ass’n, available at https://www.aza.org/becoming-accredited.

AZA publishes Animal Care Manuals (“ACMs”), which provide animal care and management guidance compiled from a number of sources, including AZA Taxon Advisory Groups, Species Survival Plan (“SSP”) Programs, biologists, veterinarians, nutritionists, reproduction physiologists, behaviorists and researchers. Animal Care Manuals, Am. Zoological Ass’n, available at https://www.aza.org/animal-care-manuals. The development of each ACM is coordinated by the AZA Animal Welfare Committee, which is comprised of representatives from zoos across the country, and managed by AZA's Conservation & Science Department. Animal Welfare Committee, Am. Zoological Ass’n, available at https://www.aza.org/animal_welfare_committee.

ACMs are species-specific, and contain detailed guidelines on the ambient environment, habitat, transport, social environment, nutrition, veterinary care, reproduction, and behavior management. Id. ACMs also detail guidelines for research and use of animals in presentations, referred to as “program animals.” Id. Animals used in presentations are referred to as “program animals.” Id. According to the ACMs, a program animal is an animal presented either within or outside of its normal exhibit or holding area that is intended to have regular proximity to or physical contact with trainers, handlers, the public, or will be part of an ongoing conservation education/outreach program. Id.

According to the AZA, an animal typically experiences good welfare when healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, able to develop and express species-typical relationships, behaviors, and cognitive abilities, and not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, or distress. Id.

B. Zoological Association of America

The Zoological Association of America (“ZAA”) offers accreditation with a focus on zoos as conservation, education, and wildlife management organizations. Accreditation, Zoological Ass’n of Am., available at https://www.aza.org/becoming-accredited. In addition to “[e]ncourag[ing] responsible conservation of genetics through cooperative propagation programs including both privately funded and publicly funded facilities[,]” the ZAA states its purpose as to “[s]upport our accredited facilities and provide resources to defend against false allegations and mischaracterizations.” Mission Statement, Zoological Ass’n of Am., available at https://zaa.org/mission-statement. The organization also seeks to “[e]ducate the media, policy-makers and the public through advocacy and adherence of best practices.” Id.

Accreditation is obtained through an application and site inspection process. Each facility must undergo the complete process every five years to maintain the accredited status. The ZAA publishes Accreditation Standards, Related Policies, and Husbandry Guidelines that provide guidance in best practices to ZAA accredited facilities. Zoological Ass’n of America, Animal Care & Enclosure Standards and Related Policies (last updated 2016) https://zaa.org/resources /Documents/membership%20and%20applications/ZAA%20Accreditation%20Standards%202016.pdf. These standards include (among other things) species-specific facility and cage size requirements; sanitary requirements; a prohibition on public contact with wildlife unless “evaluated by the exhibitor to insure compatibility with the uses intended” and done in a manner that prevents injuries to the public and the wildlife; and psychological enrichment for certain species (like primates). Id.

Accreditation can be a useful tool for larger zoos that have the resources like additional funds, staff, and academic expertise, to comply with the requirements of private accreditation. However, due to these standards, accredited facility make up a very small percentage of exhibitors nationwide. Thus, the existence of private accreditation does not address the issue of roadside zoos. Additionally, accreditors are limited in enforcing welfare standards against facilities that are not up to snuff. If a facility fails to meet accreditation standards, the only consequence is that they are denied accreditation. They are still subject to the same laxed, insufficient welfare laws as roadside zoos, and are thus no more accountable for their failures to maintain adequate standards for animal welfare in any realistic sense.

VI. Sanctuaries

Certain animal sanctuaries exhibit animals to the public, subjecting themselves to regulation under the AWA. Unlike zoos and aquariums, legitimate sanctuaries aim to rescue and rehabilitate injured or captured animals and give them a lifelong home, and do not focus on research or entertainment. However, the term ‘sanctuary’ is generally unregulated, and any exhibitor can call itself a sanctuary without sharing these goals or maintaining the highest standards for animal welfare. With increasing public concern for animal welfare, many exhibitors that fail to meet even the minimum requirements set out under the AWA utilize unregulated terms like ‘sanctuary’ or ‘refuge’ to attract customers. See Delcianna J. Winders, Captive Wildlife at a Crossroads – Sanctuaries, Accreditation, and Humane-Washing, 6 Animal Stud. J. 161 (2017).

While the term “animal sanctuary” is relatively undefined under federal or state law, all sanctuaries that exhibit animals to the public are subject to licensing and welfare requirements under the AWA, whereas sanctuaries that do not exhibit their animals may be exempt. Animal Care Factsheet, APHIS (Feb. 2012), available at http://animallawsource.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/APHIS-Animal-Exhibitors.pdf (nothing that “[a]nimal preserves, or sanctuaries that maintain exotic or wild animals, are exempt from regulation provided they do not exhibit or use the animals for promotional purposes, including fundraising, or sell animals.”). Because the AWA only sets out minimum requirements, many reputable sanctuaries opt for private accreditation specifically geared towards animal sanctuaries. In addition to more stringent welfare requirements, sanctuary accreditors often include criteria for eligibility relating to the organizational purpose and practices that align with the intent and spirit of a true sanctuary, including strict prohibition of breeding and sale of animals, as well as limitations on exhibition and other forms of public contact with the facilities’ animals.

A. Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries

The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (“GFAS”) offers accreditation for animal sanctuaries and rescues around the globe. GFAS accreditation is available solely for sanctuaries and rescues, rather than zoos and aquariums.

GFAS supplements its stringent Animal Care Standards specific to various animal groups with equally stringent Operations Standards, containing guidelines for governance, finance, staffing, safety and outreach. Standards of Excellence, Global Fed. Of Animal Sanctuaries https://www.sanctuaryfederation.org/accreditation/standards/. GFAS recognizes that “animal care is a poorly regulated industry, and thousands of organizations worldwide which describe themselves as “sanctuaries” or “rescues” do not provide quality or humane care for their animals.” Accreditation, Global Fed. Of Animal Sanctuaries, available at https://www.sanctuaryfederation.org/accreditation/. The organization seeks to use accreditation to differentiate “true sanctuaries” from those that use the label disingenuously while not maintaining sufficient quality of animal care or use animals for exploitative purposes. Id.

In order to be considered a sanctuary eligible for GFAS accreditation, a facility must adhere to a set of strict standards, including

(1) no captive breeding (with a potential exception for only those organizations having a bona fide release/ reintroduction program to return wildlife to their native habitat);

(2) no commercial trade in animals or animal parts;

(3) no tours that are not guided and conducted in a careful manner that minimizes the impact on the animals and their environment, does not cause them stress, and gives them the ability to seek undisturbed privacy and quiet;

(4) animals are not exhibited or taken from the sanctuary or enclosures/habitats for non-medical reasons (with some limited exceptions for certain animal species under approved circumstances);

(5) the public does not have direct contact with wildlife (with some limited exceptions as outlined in the Standards for some birds and small reptiles);

(6) adherence to standards of animal care including housing, veterinary care, nutrition, animal well-being and handling policies, as well as standards on physical facilities, records and staff safety, confirmed by an extensive questionnaire, site visit, and interviews;

(7) ethical practices in fundraising;

(8) ethical acquisition and disposition of animals;

(9) restrictions on research – limited to non-invasive projects that provide a health, welfare or conservation benefit to the individual animal and/or captive animal management and/or population conservation; and

(10) the existence of a contingency plan. 

Who Can Apply, Global Fed. Of Animal Sanctuaries, available at https://www.sanctuaryfederation.org/accreditation/definitions/.

B. American Sanctuary Association

Like GFAS, the American Sanctuary Association (“ASA”) offers accreditation only for sanctuaries. Its mission is to “assure the humane and compassionate care for […] animals by setting standards for their care, [helping] accrediting sanctuaries that meet these standards, networking with member sanctuaries, assisting in the rescue and placement of homeless animals, supporting legislation that protects animals, educating the public, and reaching out to other segments of the rescue community.” About American Sanctuary Association (ASA), Am. Sanctuary Ass’n, available at http://www.asaanimalsanctuaries.org/about_ASA.htm. Unlike GFAS, the ASA states that “there is NO EASY way of separating the organizations that truly exist to help animals, from those that are using animals for personal or commercial gain” and strives to “avoid inadvertently alienating those that can participate by allowing case by case evaluations instead of creating unconditional statements in [their] policies and guidelines.” Id.

In order to qualify for accreditation, the facility must not engage in captive breeding; cannot use of animals for commercial activity that is “exploitative in nature” (this includes allowing free roaming public access to animals or the sanctuary, using sanctuary animals for exhibition or entertainment, or buying/selling/trading/auctioning any animals or their body parts); requiring that the facility obtain and maintain all permits and licenses required under city, county, state, federal, and international laws and statutes; maintenance of individual organizational policies that will outline and provide acceptable responsibility for the lifetime care and welfare of animals in their custody (or if the animal can be rehabilitated, until they are released in the wild); proper veterinary care; and a humane euthanasia policy for animals who are severally injured, terminally. Sanctuary Criteria, Am. Sanctuary Ass’n, available at http://www.asaanimalsanctuaries.org/sanctuary_criteria.htm. There are three exceptions to the above criteria. sanctuary can engage in breeding “for the right reasons” and if there exists a “viable plan for wild release.” Id. Additionally, some animals may be a “valuable asset” as to allow free roaming public access to resident animals and guided educational presentations are permitted if they emphasize the injustices of keeping wild animals as pets. Id.

While credible sanctuaries serve an important purpose in providing long term care for animals who cannot survive in the wild, lack of regulation surrounding what constitutes a reputable sanctuary can make it incredibly difficult to distinguish between facilities that genuinely prioritize the care and welfare of its animals that need to engage in limited public exhibition to raise enough money to continue to provide the best care for the animals, versus for-profit exhibitors trying to capitalize on "humane-washing."

VII. The Rise of Under-Regulated Roadside Zoos

While the Joe Exotic’s GW Zoo in Oklahoma is arguably the most famous roadside zoo it is by no means unique. Some estimate that there are upwards of 3,000 roadside zoos in the US (see https://www.tigersinamerica.org/roadside.htm). But what is the difference between a traditional city zoo and a road side zoo? There are a number of factors that set credible sanctuaries, zoos, and aquariums apart from small roadside zoos and menageries. First, it is important to note how and from where an exhibitor procures and disposes of its animals, including  animals it no longer wants, can no longer care for. Many roadside zoos engage in breeding of exotic animals under the guise of conservation, where in reality breeding is often for profit. Lack of regulation and oversight for breeding coupled with the demand for encounters with young wild animals that are much more expensive and energy intensive as adults has led to a large numbers of captive bred animals that zoos cannot care for, some of which are illegally killed or sold for private possession. See Christina M. Russo, Tiger Selfies Aren't Just Stupid, They're Cruel. Here's Why, The Dodo (Jun. 9, 2015) https://www.thedodo.com/tiger-cub-captivity-selfies-1191868858.html.

To add to welfare concerns of such exhibitors, a number of roadside zoos allow public contact with certain wild animals in exchange for an additional fee. This practice is particularly common with lions, tigers and bears. At an Idaho roadside zoo, visitors pay $45 to bottle feed baby bears. Bottle Feeding, Yellowstone Bear World, available at https://yellowstonebearworld.com/experiences/bottle-feeding. At Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina, patrons can pay from $339 to $689 a person in exchange to play with and have their photos taken with tiger cubs. Sharon Guynup, Captive Tigers in the U.S. Outnumber Those in the Wild. It's a Problem., Nat. Geographic (Nov. 14, 2019) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/11/tigers-in-the-united-states-outnumber-those-in-the-wild-feature/.Tiger cubs can only be used for these encounters until they are about twelve weeks old, at which point there are considered too big and too dangerous for tourists to pet, thus tigers must be steadily bred to create a constant supply of profitable cubs for these encounters. Id. Cubs are often taken from their mothers shortly after birth, causing stress to both the mother and the cub. Id. These encounters also cause considerable stress to cubs that spend long periods of time passed between tourists. Id. After cubs grow too large for encounters, they are very expensive to maintain, resulting in many animals being sold illegally or even killed. Id.

By contrast, accredited zoos and aquariums are required heightened standards and recordkeeping requirements for breeding, acquisition, transfer, and disposal of its animals. Facilities interested in AZA accreditation must actively support and participate in AZA animal programs on breeding, acquisition, and disposal of animals. Ass’n of Zoos & Aquariums, The
Accreditation Standards & Related Policies
(2020) https://assets.speakcdn.com/assets/2332/aza-accreditation-standards.pdf. They must cooperate in providing requested information regarding its animals in a timely fashion, and follow agreed upon recommendations for breeding and transfer plans; acquisitions, transfers, and transitions. Id. Accredited facilities must also keep up with AZA policies on animal acquisition, transfer, and euthanasia. Id.

AZA accredited facilities have access to the AZA Animal Exchange, where facilities can post animals they are looking to procure, sell, or use for loan or breeding. The website offers animal exchange codes that allow members to distinguish between types of animals, such as those that are wild caught, captive born, confiscated, breeding pairs, or “imperfect.” Animal Exchange Codes, Am. Zoological Ass’n, available at https://www.aza.org/animal-exchange-codes. AZA accredited facilities may sell or transfer animals to non-AZA accredited facilities, but they must provide documentation noting that the receiving institution is willing and able to provide proper care and welfare for the animals and that the transfer is done in accordance with AZA’s Responsible Population Management (“RPM”) Policy. Ass’n of Zoos & Aquariums, The
Accreditation Standards & Related Policies
(2020) https://assets.speakcdn.com/assets/2332/aza-accreditation-standards.pdf.  When such information does not exist (the institution's maintenance of confiscated wildlife) an explanation must be provided regarding those animals. Id.

While AZA accredited facilities allow some contact with animals including touch tanks, these areas must be supervised by trained, paid and/or unpaid staff. AZA accredited facilities may also use “Ambassador Animals,” which are “an animal whose role includes handling and/or training by staff or volunteers for interaction with the public and in support of institutional education and conservation goals”. AZA Ambassador Animal Policy, Am. Zoological Ass’n, available at https://www.aza.org/aza-ambassador-animal-policy. However, use of Ambassador Animals “should address the specific messages related to the use of ambassador animals, as well as the need to be cautious about hidden or conflicting messages (e.g., "petting" an animal while stating verbally that it makes a poor pet).” Id. AZA accredited facilities may not engage in tiger cub petting or photos. Other accreditors such as the ZAA do allow cub encounters, and several ZAA facilities engage in the practice. ZAA facilities have been cited by USDA for incidents relating to public contact with wildlife. In 2014, Tanganyika Wildlife Park, a ZAA accredited exhibitor, was cited for allowing a juvenile ring-tailed lemur to have contact with a human infant. Another ZAA accredited facility, Oswald’s Bear Ranch, was found in violation of Michigan’s Large Carnivores Act for allowing cub encounters and photo ops with bear cubs (see note of this violation at  http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/2013-2014/billanalysis/House/htm/2013-HLA-0048-16582DDA.htm​).

Accredited Sanctuaries have even stricter standards pertaining to for breeding, acquisition, transfer, and disposal of its animals. GFAS and ASA accredited sanctuaries prohibit captive breeding (with exceptions for facilities having a for release and reintroduction), prohibit commercial trade in animals or animal parts, and require acquisition through ethical means, made in the best interest of the animal (and not the result of intentional breeding for the sanctuary).

There are also meaningful differences in housing and enrichment requirements between accredited and unaccredited zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries. The AWA sets out broad requirements for housing and enrichment. It requires that housing facilities be kept clean,  maintain a temperature suitable for the animal, and shelter from excess sunlight and inclement weather that may cause the animal discomfort. 9 C.F.R. § 3.125, 3.126(a), 3.127(a)-(b). For special requirements, the Act merely notes that enclosures be

constructed and maintained so as to provide sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement. Inadequate space may be indicated by evidence of malnutrition, poor condition, debility, stress, or abnormal behavior patterns. Id. § 3.128.

Accredited zoos typically go beyond these “survival standards” and provide physical and psychological enrichment based on species.

Since the AWA provides only minimal federal oversight and accreditation is irrelevant for small scale exhibitors, it would be assumed state laws would fill the gap for roadside zoos. State laws are few and far between, but will sometimes expand on these requirements and provide more specific standards for housing and enclosures. For example, Alabama state law provides minimum housing requirements for various exotic animals including Lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, cheetahs, cougars and bears. Ala. Admin. Code r. 220-2-.154(10).  For tigers, one to two individuals require a cage that is at least 480 square feet large and eight feet high. Id. The law further requires that

outdoor cages tigers over 1,000 square feet (uncovered) shall have vertical jump walls at least 10 feet high, with a 2-foot, 45 degree, inward angle overhang or jump walls at least 12 feet high, without an overhang. Vertical walls shall be constructed with a minimum of 9 gauge chain link or equivalent strength material. The inward angle fencing shall be constructed with a minimum of 11 ½ gauge chain link or equivalent strength material. Id. 220-2-.154(10)(a)(1).

It also requires that tigers be given a four by six foot pool that is two feet deep or a 100 gallon tub (or larger) pool for each individual in the enclosure. Id. 220-2-.154(10)(a)(5).

In addition to housing and enclosure requirements under federal and state law, there are species-specific enclosure requirements required for accreditation. These requirements vary among different accrediting organizations. For tigers, AZA recommends 40 by 40 foot enclosures (1,600 square feet), increasing by fifty percent per additional animal, whereas the ZAA only recommends 24 by 15 foot enclosures, increasing only 25 percent for each additional animal.  Ass’n of Zoos & Aquariums, Tiger (Panthera tigris) Care Manual at 12, available at https://assets.speakcdn.com/assets/2332/tiger_care_manual_2016.pdf;  Zoological Ass’n of Am., Animal Care & Enclosure Standards and Related Policies at 18, available at https://zaa.org/resources/Documents/membership%20and%20applications/ZAA%20Accreditation%20Standards%202016.pdf. AZA also requires that the enclosure have a water feature (pools, moats, and/or running streams) and natural vegetation, whereas ZAA does not require either. Id.

In an effort to protect captive wildlife, some states have enacted laws banning private possession of certain exotic animals like bears and tigers, meaning that only licensed facilities could be in possession of these animals. See, e.g. N.Y. Envtl. Conserv. Law § 11-0512; N.J. Stat. Ann. § 23:4-63.3; Or. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 609.205. States have also undertaken to limit certain harmful forms of exhibition like public encounters and exhibition of animals in traveling animal acts. See, e.g., N.Y. Envtl. Conserv. Law § 11-0538 (prohibiting direct physical contact between the public and big cats like lions and tigers); N.J. Stat. Ann. § 23:2A-16(b) (prohibiting the use of wild or exotic animals in a traveling animal act). However, there have not been any direct efforts on the part of states to curb or limit the existence of roadside zoos. While some states have more laxed laws, establishing themselves as havens for bad faith exhibitors, even states with the strongest anticruelty laws like Illinois, Oregon, and Colorado continue to allow roadside zoos to operate.

VIII. Conclusion

Although zoos and aquariums continue to attract millions of visitors in the United States (over 183 million annually according to the AZA, https://www.aza.org/partnerships-visitor-demographics), it is important to recognize that not all zoos and aquariums are built equal. There are several important distinctions separating reputable zoos and sanctuaries from roadside zoos. These differences have real consequences for the welfare of the millions of animals confined in these facilities.

While all operating exhibitors must comply with the standards set out under the AWA, the Act provides minimal requirements insufficient to adequately protect animals. Despite this low bar, many facilities fail to comply with the baseline requirements under the Act, but nevertheless continue to operate due to insufficient enforcement of the Act. Due to limited resources and leniency by federal inspectors, repeat violators tend to face minimal (if any) penalties and few obstacles to operation. While recent amendments to the Act have made it more difficult to exploit loopholes for license renewal and private ownership, these changes do not remedy the larger issues impacting animal welfare. State legislatures have not made animal welfare a priority by filling the gap left in federal enforcement. Additionally, varying standards means that animals might suffer or thrive based simply on the state in which they live.

Private accreditation can be an important tool for those that wish to view wild animals who are concerned about animal welfare at exhibiting facilities. Because accreditation requires additional heightened welfare standards and inspection of facilities, they can be an important tool to separate roadside zoos and fake sanctuaries from more credible ones. However, because there are various accrediting organizations with conflicting missions and varied welfare standards, accreditation can also confuse patrons and lure them into a false sense of security regarding the quality of care at a facility.

Ultimately, while many zoos and aquariums engage in important conservation work and many sanctuaries provide much needed homes for animals that cannot survive outside of captivity, many scientists and advocates argue that it is important to recognize that animals belong in the wild. These facilities may keep animals alive, and perhaps give them a better quality of life than the animal could have in a roadside zoo, but they cannot maintain all of the behavioral and social aspects of life.

Even among more credible exhibitors, such as large state-funded institutions, there are serious ethical issues with keeping certain animals in captivity. Biologists at Oxford have concluded that certain species such as polar bears, lions, tigers, cheetahs and other wide-ranging carnivores do so poorly in captivity that zoos should either drastically improve their conditions or stop keeping them altogether. Mark Derr, Zoos are Too Small for Some Species, Biologists Report, N.Y. Times (Oct. 1, 2003) https://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/01/science/zoos-are-too-small-for-some-species-biologists-report.html. Unfortunately, both state and federal laws currently fall short in regulating animal exhibitors both small and large in a way that adequately protects animal welfare.

It is also important to be critical of the role zoos play in conservation. While many roadside zoos claim to educate the public and inspire conservation through exhibition or contact with wildlife, there is some evidence to the contrary. Some believe that seeing animals in captivity may lead to erroneous public perceptions that species are not endangered. Carney Anne Nasser, Welcome to the Jungle: How Loopholes in the Federal Endangered Species Act and Animal Welfare Act Are Feeding a Tiger Crisis in America, 9 Albany Gov’t L. Rev. 194, 205 n.66 (2016); Stephen R. Ross et al., Specific Image Characteristics Influence Attitudes About Chimpanzee Conservation and Use as Pets, 6 PLOS One 1, 3 (Jul. 13, 2011). While tigers are a regular fixture in countless reputable and roadside zoos alike, there are only 3,900 tigers in the wild versus an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 in captivity. Sharon Guynup, Captive Tigers in the U.S. Outnumber Those in the Wild. It's a Problem., Nat. Geographic (Nov. 14, 2019) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/11/tigers-in-the-united-states-outnumber-those-in-the-wild-feature/.

In addition to looking into the credibility of an exhibitor through its practices and whether it is accredited, it is important to also call for further legislation to heighten welfare standards for all exhibiting facilities. One such example is the Big Cat Safety Act, which would place restriction direct public contact with big cats (like tigers). H.R. 1380, 116th Cong. (2020). Supporting this and similar legislation can address some of the most pressing welfare concerns associated with roadside zoos and provide more robust protection for countless animals.

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