How to Determine if a Zoo is Reputable

Ethical zoos contribute measurably to science and conservation, but poorly run roadside zoos exploit suffering animals for profit. How can one tell the difference?

Jul 6, 2023By Chelsea Pinkham
how to determine if zoo is reputable

Zoos are a polarizing topic. While some animal advocates denounce zoos entirely, others take a more complex approach. Roadside zoos cause a substantial amount of animal suffering, and some species fare better in captivity than others. Reputable zoos have contributed measurably to science and conservation; in fact, some species, including the California Condor, would likely be extinct today if not for the work of zoos. The average citizen is not an animal welfare expert. So how can you tell the difference between a roadside zoo and a reputable one?

What accreditations can the zoo show?

Image credit: Canva

Formal accreditations are an excellent starting point for judging the credibility of a zoo. In the United States, the governing body for zoos and aquariums is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. AZA-accredited facilities must go through a rigorous application process as well as a multi-day on-site inspection by qualified wildlife experts. AZA zoos and aquariums must meet minimum enclosure sizes specific to species. They must show measurable contributions to science and conservation. Animals must have access to appropriate veterinary care, and facilities must show strong animal care and welfare practices.

Of course, different people have different interpretations of what is ethical in a zoo setting. Many animal behavior experts disagree with breeding certain species in captivity, and AZA qualifications don’t necessarily reflect this. Large, roaming carnivores, great apes, elephants, and cetaceans are animals that pose controversy in captivity.

It’s important to carry out your own research and decide what you are comfortable with, but accreditation from the AZA or a similar governing body is a great place to start. You might not feel comfortable with the practices of every AZA-accredited facility, but you should not even consider visiting a facility that does not meet these minimum standards.

How does the zoo contribute to conservation?

California Condor
Image credit: Canva

“Conservation” has become a buzzword used by many animal attractions. But different zoos play different roles in real-world conservation efforts. Some people argue that simply displaying captive wildlife contributes to conservation because it creates an emotional connection between the public and wild animals. But many zoo visitors want to know that the zoo is actively contributing to science and conservation in a tangible way.

There are countless examples of reputable zoos contributing to real-world conservation. The Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium breeds critically endangered Red Wolves for release into the wild. The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park pioneered the first-ever California Condor captive breeding program. This spurred the movement to save these majestic birds, and their population has been brought from just 22 individuals in 1982 to over 500 individuals today. Without this program, these birds (pictured) would surely have gone extinct.

When assessing a zoo to visit, be sure to research how it actively contributes to wildlife conservation. Are the zoo animals simply providing amusement for humans, or are they helping save their wild counterparts? How are they doing so?

Does the zoo offer pay-to-play interactions?

Tiger cub petting
Image credit: Canva

Some types of interactions between zoo animals and guests can be appropriate. For example, interpretive shows showcasing natural animal behavior and enrichment can provide an educational experience for visitors. Some well-socialized animals can be safe for guests to handle, without causing stress to the animal. Reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, barnyard animals, and birds are some examples of animals that can interact with guests in an appropriate context.

When this becomes problematic is when guests’ desire to interact with animals outweighs the animals’ welfare. Cub petting is a classic example of this. Facilities that offer cub petting experiences often breed big cats exclusively for pay-to-play programs. Cubs are separated from their mothers at a young age. When the cub should be learning from her mother, she will instead spend her time being handled constantly by guests. Worse yet, cub petting facilities often sell cubs once they become too large to be handled safely. Unwanted big cats can end up in roadside zoos, circus attractions, private collections, or even euthanized. While snuggling a tiger cub might sound adorable, think of the implications this has on animal welfare and choose to make the humane choice by skipping the attraction.

Elephant rides and circus-style performances without educational value are also forms of harmful pay-to-play interactions between animals and guests.

How does the zoo provide species-specific enrichment?

Giraffe food puzzle
Image credit: Canva

Animal welfare isn’t just about large enclosures. Because no enclosure can realistically replicate the size of an animal’s habitat in the wild, enrichment provides the mental stimulation that all animals need. Enrichment can replicate many aspects of life in the wild, including exploring, hunting, chasing, foraging, problem-solving, and so much more.

Hanging meat from trees can require carnivores to use their teeth and claws to get to their meal, replicating a chase and killing of prey in the wild. Food puzzles and slow feeders can encourage animals to use their brains and put their wits to the test when foraging for snacks. Scent enrichment, play items (for some animals, this can be as simple as a rubber ball), and incorporating novelties into the enclosure can help create a change of scenery for animals that would otherwise grow bored.

Not all enrichment comes in the form of activities. Some forms of enrichment need to be permanently incorporated into animal habitats. For semi-aquatic animals, access to water is vital for health and well-being. Ample hiding places decrease stress in animals sensitive to human visitors. For animals who enjoy digging, access to fresh, soft dirt is a necessity. Browse the zoo’s website and social media for examples of animals receiving enrichment onsite. This is such a necessary part of animal welfare!

Are animals showing stereotypical behaviors?

Image credit: We Animals Media

“Zoochosis” is a condition that captive animals develop from frustration or a lack of stimulation. It manifests itself in stereotypical behaviors- monotonous, obsessive, repetitive actions that serve no purpose. Elephants often display these symptoms through repetitive head swaying or swinging back and forth. Animals can also pace, self-mutilate, or remain immobile in one location.

It’s important to note that not all stereotypic behaviors are black-and-white. For example, animals might pace in anticipation just before feeding time or a scheduled enrichment time. Nocturnal animals may appear lethargic or “bored” during the day.

But multiple different animals showing stereotypic behaviors for extended amounts of time is a likely indicator of poor emotional health. If animals are actively exhibiting these symptoms and sticking to one part of their enclosure for hours on end, this is a sign of a less-than-reputable facility. You can browse videos and photos uploaded using social media Geotags or zoo reviews to try to determine this before you visit.

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!