Can we do better by captive critters in North America? Parks, zoos, and animal sanctuaries

Happy Earth Day, Y’all!

For many folks in my generation, a large portion of our connections with wildlife were forged at zoos and theme parks. My personal love for the ocean was kindled just as much at SeaWorld as it was during my time on the beach with my family.  During high school, I spent two very inspiring years volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, where my love of all things conservation was born in earnest—I have no doubt that A Quill of Conservation exists today in large part because of my experience as a Volunteen.

This brings me to the question I’d like to discuss today: Is it possible to both value animal rights and support institutions that keep critters in captivity? My answer is a resounding yes. With the help of many brave, intelligent, and caring people, the way animals are cared for, especially in facilities that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), has improved by leaps and bounds over the last century. However, the more we learn about many of these creatures, the clearer it is that we’ve still got a long way to go.

For the purposes of today’s discussion, let’s specifically consider large, highly intelligent, and wide ranging species, such as elephants, primates, cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises,) and tigers. These animals are iconic for many institutions: think Sea World’s Shamu and Siegfried and Roy’s white tigers. Because they can draw large crowds of paying customers, captive (and often performing) animals became a staple of public zoos, theme parks, and circuses.

Today, many of the atrocities that these animals have suffered for the sake of bringing in money are widely known and deplored—the cramped conditions, non-nutritionally fit diets, and painful training methods, including bull hooks, are no longer secrets of the industry. While public pressures are finally beginning to push these practices out of fashion, the fact remains that here in North America, we have huge numbers of captive individuals from species that are not at all suited to life in captivity. But don’t take my word for it. Check out these two podcasts from Speak Up For Blue with marine mammal expert Dr. Lyne Morissette and Dr. Naomi Rose for info on captive marine mammals, this article from Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) President and Co-founder Ed Stewart for elephants, and this article, though a bit dated, from the Smithsonian Magazine about “generic tigers” in captivity in the United States. For those of you who don’t feel like reading the whole Smithsonian article, let me emphasize that it’s estimated there are between two and three times the number of tigers privately owned in the United States as there are living in the wild. Crazy, right?

So, with all of these animals here, in North America, who either would not be able to survive in the wild, or realistically can’t be transported to distant continents without causing stress and potential harm, what can we do to offer them the best possible lives while still maximizing contributions to scientific research and conservation? We’re forging into the realm of speculation here, but I believe well managed animal sanctuaries, with views toward a future that doesn’t depend on keeping individual animals in captivity simply for public viewing, are the key.

Now, what exactly is an animal sanctuary? Generally speaking, an animal sanctuary is a facility that aims to allow animals that cannot be returned to the wild for whatever reason to live out their lives in an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible (minus breeding, and plus top-notch nutritional and veterinary care). As there are currently no concrete policies in place to regulate what constitutes an animal sanctuary, many roadside zoos and less reputable facilities tack “sanctuary” onto the names of their businesses to take advantage of well-meaning patrons. However, with a little digging, there are some clear things that set the real-deal sanctuaries apart. The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries is a good place to start. When in doubt, the following criteria can also be helpful to figure out whether a facility deserves your money:

  • Large enclosures that mimic each species natural habitat as closely as possible (including vegetation to the greatest possible extent)
  • Enrichment programs to provide social and mental stimulation
  • No captive breeding programs
  • No “Pay to Play” options to hold, pet, or take pictures with animals
  • No performances
  • Generally closed to the public or only open for guided tours

Note: I still think AZA accredited zoos and aquariums are excellent options, as they offer excellent educational and conservation programs. Just make sure to read up on any facility before planning a visit.

Although most of my childhood encounters with wildlife were set in zoos aquariums, and some not-so-reputable roadside attractions, I’ve been fortunate enough in my adult life to go see some of these creatures out in the wild. Canoeing with manatees in the Florida sunshine, sailing out into the swells of the North Atlantic searching for whales, coming up on a mama-bear with her cubs on the trail in the Shenandoah valley. There’s no comparison between seeing these animals in captivity and encountering them in the wild—it’s easy to be brave when you’re feeding a bear marshmallows through a chain link fence (save your judgement: we know better now and the place that allowed this has been shut down), but when you come up on one in her own turf and she stands to size you up, you question your place on the food chain really, really quickly.

In an ideal world, we’d all have the financial means, leisure time, and physical ability to safely observe the wildlife that interests us in its natural habitat. But, as we’re all starkly aware, this is not a fantasy-land. Animal sanctuaries offer an experience as close to the real thing as many of us can get. For more information or to see about booking a tour, check out this list of reputable sanctuaries from Humane Decisions.

1 thought on “Can we do better by captive critters in North America? Parks, zoos, and animal sanctuaries”

  1. Loved your content, Kim! If you are one of the very few people concerned about wildlife conservation, one of the things that you can do is help animal sanctuaries. With so many heartbreaking news reports regarding animal exploitation, this blog The Best Animal Sanctuaries to Visit Around the World gathered the names of highly worthy sanctuaries from across the world for you to visit. These sanctuaries are doing incredible work all across the world to aid, protect, and care for endangered, neglected, and injured animals.

    The following areas provide a safe habitat for wildlife and are far more ethical than zoos; knowing these places exist will restore your faith in humankind, and going in person will be a memorable experience.


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