an Zoos, aquariums, and animal sanctuaries are really important because they support animal conservation, species survival, insightful animal research, and educational programs. However, there’s a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about zoos and animal sanctuaries that animal activists, such as PETA, use in order to deter people from enjoying, learning from, and supporting facilities that house wild animals. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to spot whether a facility that houses and cares for animals is a legitimate source for conservation, research, and animal care, or, if the animals are being exploited for money.
1. In the US, both public and private animal care facilities can apply to be AZA accredited
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is an organization that is “dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.” In order for facilities to become accredited by AZA they must meet the “highest standards of animal care and welfare.” The AZA has detailed care manuals for every potential type of animal housed at an AZA facility. These care manuals provide detailed protocols to ensure that animals have plenty of space and ability to move (akin to how they would in their natural habitats), and diets as close as possible to their wild counterparts. They also include guides for adequate physical and mental stimulation, and training for the animal to voluntarily participate in welfare (health and happiness), husbandry (care and breeding), and veterinarian checks. The AZA organization oversees over 200 facilities throughout the US and internationally, and you can easily find an accredited facility to visit near you on their website. Animals at AZA facilities are either born in human care (and therefore never learned the skills necessary to survive in the wild) or are rescues from the wild that have some disadvantage or disability that would make it unsafe for them to be released back into the wild after rehabilitation. Instead, these animals are ambassadors for their wild populations, so that researchers and the public can learn more about these animals and their native habitats.
2. Even if a facility is not AZA accredited, they can still be reputable based on how they care for their animals.
Indications that suggest animals are well taken care of include: lots of options for both physical and mental enrichment, clear safety protocols for both the animals and visitors, knowledgeable staff on the animals’ captive and wild behaviors, and the animals demonstrating minimal to no behavioral stereotypies (i.e., behaviors that indicate stress, excessive boredom, and possibly unmanaged pain). These behavioral stereotypies can look very different from animal to animal, but common ones include excessive pacing, hyperfixation, or excessive repetitive behaviors with no obvious purpose. It’s important for keepers to be familiar with their animals’ wild behavior because to an untrained eye, natural patrolling behaviors can look like excessive pacing.
There are two main types of enclosure designs that reflect good care. One enclosure type directly mimics an animal’s wild environment, while the other allows for natural behaviors but often appears more abstract and less natural. For example, with primate enclosures, a natural exhibit would often include fruiting trees, plenty of space to climb, and vegetation to make nests. These types of enclosures are expensive and difficult to maintain, so many facilities have opted to include climbing structures instead of trees, puzzle enrichments to replace searching for fruit, and blankets, hay, or wood shavings for nest building. While this latter enclosure type does not visually reflect their wild environment, it still allows for animals to participate in natural behaviors, while remaining easier for keepers to maintain and clean.
3. Animals who are born in captivity are a part of their Species Survival Program (SSP)
In the United States, the AZA organization serves as a primary facilitator of wild animals’ SSPs. This means that the AZA collects a large amount of data from facilities across the country (and in many cases the world), in addition to data on the wild population, to match potential animals for mating. This important work includes maintaining genetic diversity, watching for key mating behaviors to increase likelihood of conception, noting behavior and animal preferences, in addition to much much more! Now, you might be wondering how animals born under human care may inform our understanding of animals in the wild population. Maintaining genetic diversity within the population under human care means that wild populations are not disrupted in order to continue the lineages at zoos and sanctuaries, and in some cases animals born in human care are released back into the wild to participate in the growth of the wild population. This allows the wild population to thrive, and populations under human care can continue to represent their species as ambassadors for education and conservation.
4. New animals are only rescued, not bought.
Reputable facilities will not buy or actively seek out wild-caught animals. Instead, their animals will either be rehabilitated rescues from the wild, or rescued from an unreputable facility or residential ownership. Animals born into human care through an SSP plan may also be exchanged between facilities for breeding purposes. When animals are brought in from the wild, the goal will be to rehabilitate them for release back into the wild. However, some animals do not recover enough from the injury or disease that brought them into human care; therefore, they are more likely to have a better quality of life and higher likelihood of survival when remaining under human care.
Here are a handful of reputable facilities in the US that not only do a great job caring for their animals, but are also incredibly skilled at social media science communication:
Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, IL
Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL
Denver Zoo in Denver, CO
Ape Initiative in Des Moines, IA
Georgia Aquarium, in Atlanta, GA
Indianapolis Zoo, Indianapolis, IN
Black Pine Animal Sanctuary, Albion, IN
Wolf Park, West Lafayette, IN
You can follow these facilities on almost all social media platforms for information about the animals they care for, where these animals come from, what they can teach us about their habitats, and updates on programs or events sponsored by the facilities. This is just a small handful of the accounts and facilities you can follow and potentially visit across the country–you can find many more on the AZA website. Zoos and aquariums are great places to visit to learn more about animals and the world they live in. So, next time you’re at one, take a little extra time to look around their enclosures and to see how they’re spending time, or chat with a zookeeper to learn about the animals’ favorite activities!