Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about captivity of animals and whether it is a good or a bad thing. With the instant reach of social media, people can be quick to jump on the bandwagon of “All zoos are bad” and “free all of the animals”. However, many people do not take the time to educate themselves on the issues, the reasons for captive animals and the good that the best of these institutions can do. Yes, there are many poorly run zoos/aquariums/sanctuaries, but there are also those who fight hard against extinction, reintroduce species on the brink of extinction, work with governments and communities to protect species and house animals during rehabilitation and recovery. Such institutions can have a critical role in helping preserving our planet, saving some species, recovering habitats and educating our youth about the ecosystem and its importance in our plight for survival. So, how do we recognize which is which?

About Our Guest Author: Samantha Sullivan

sam-logoSam is currently studying for a master in Biology with a wildlife conservation focus at the Miami University in partnership with San Diego Zoo Global. Sam’s interest is to work within communities to inspire coexistence with wildlife through education and awareness. She is passionate about conservation which we’ve witnessed first hand when we met her in 2015 in the context of a conservation volunteering project in Costa Rica.

Here Sam shares with us few comments about zoos in our modern world, and how to recognize the good from the bad institutions. Remember that when it comes to animals in captivity, the picture is rarely all black or white. The key is to understand the shades of gray,  identify the definite bad ones, and help the well-intended ones to do the right thing. At the end, we are all responsible and accountable for what happens in those institutions, because we are the ones visiting and therefore endorsing them. As concerned humans, we have the power to help zoo institutions get to better standards for the benefits of their non-human guests.


Tapir at the Belize Zoo

Tapir at the Belize Zoo

There are many ways to educate ourselves and make better-informed choices. A little research goes a long way and might help to answer some questions and provide clarity to our concerns around these institutions. Every zoo and aquarium are different from each other and just because one is smaller, or older, or ends up attracting media attention, it does not mean that they do not have the best interest of the species in mind. The knowledge in the animal world is constantly changing. Therefore the good zoos and aquariums are constantly changing. They make upgrades to better suit the artificial environment to the natural habitats of their guests; they change diets to better match their wild diet or to provide essential nutrients; they add new programs; under careful monitoring, they bring new animals in for the public to learn about. These changes may affect the appearance or marketing tactics of a zoo and this does not mean it is a bad place or only out to turn a profit. Again how do you know? There are few little things that we can do to better grasp if one institution is worth our visit and attention. And here are some helpful tips to get us started.  

What is the Zoo Accreditation?

An important way to learn about the legitimacy of a zoo or aquarium here in the United States is to ensure it is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). This accreditation process includes reviews and inspections to assess candidate and member institutions against mandated standards.  You can get a complete list of AZA-accredited institutions at www.aza.org. If they are not accredited, it may be best to stay away.  [If you are in another country you can check the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, that is the worldwide and unifying organization for the world zoo and aquarium community.]  

Is the Zoo a Nonprofit?

I am constantly hearing from people who claim that zoos just exist to make a profit. Let’s stop right there. Take a look and see what their status is. If it is a nonprofit, there must be (and please do check those) programs in place to benefit the animals, the community, and education. True non-profits are not there to make a profit and get rich. Many zoological institutions and aquariums are non-profit organizations. Not sure how to find this out? Just look for the institution online. If you are interested in learning more about their programs, which should be described on their website. There is a good chance that there are educational brochures and/or volunteers on site that can talk to you more about the different zoo programs that support the community, education, species reintroduction, and more.

What is the Zoo’s Mission?

This can get you started, but it is not as simple as whether or not they draw in a profit or not.  Now look deeper. What is their mission statement? What do they stand for?  Any zoo will (and should) state their mission, vision and current projects on their website. Read them, educate yourself. What do you think? Do they seem genuine? Do your values align with theirs? You may be surprised at just how many legitimate zoos out there are doing hard work to help save our planet and the amazing species we share it with. Additionally, check out the educational programs that the institution offers. Are there fun and educational ways –yet respectful towards the animals– to get your children involved in nature and excited about animal welfare and conservation? Are there programs for adults to bring awareness to serious conservation issues?

Are there Indicators of Good Welfare Practices?

San Diego Zoo Tiger (property of Samantha Sullivan)

San Diego Zoo Tiger

Another topic to consider is the state of the enclosures where the animals live. Of course, it is hard to have a sense just looking at their website, so this is more pertinent when you are on the premises. Then, what do the enclosures look like? Do they seem to mimic natural habitat (light, sound, substrates) with opportunities to hide away from the public eye? What about enrichment such as treats, activities, and other items to engage the animal? What about the size of the enclosure: does it seem fitting for the animal (if you don’t know then research the topic beforehand)?  Keep in mind many enclosures are actually much larger than what you can see; often a public enclosure is smaller so that the visitors can have the opportunity to see the animal (yet again they need to provide withdrawal areas), but the behind-the-scenes area may be larger. Having a conversation with a zookeeper or volunteer may answer some of your questions about the enclosures and the well-being of the animals, for instance, ask them about the private enclosure’s size and quality, as well as ask how it compares to the natural habitat of the animal.


By no means do these tips constitute an exhaustive list of the questions that we should ask ourselves before going to a zoo. But again they offer a good and minimal start. As concerned and responsible humans, we need to be able to identify reliably legitimate good zoos, praise those for what they do well, and call upon the bad instances so that we can push altogether for better standards. That comes with knowledge, and knowledge starts with us doing our homework…  

Editorial Note

Samantha’s Wild Q&A about zoos is a great introduction to the EwA Zoo Evaluation tool. The EwA Zoo Evaluation tool is a short and easy guide for visitors to help discerning animal welfare conditions in captive environments. That is, it enables zoogoers to deepen their understanding of (and therefore their ability to gauge and help) institutions exhibiting captive wildlife. By understanding what we are looking at, we can push and support better captive conditions. That’s the least we can do to the millions of animals that we forced into captivity.

And if you are planning to visit a facility with captive animals, please take the time to check our short Etiquette for the Zoogoer

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by Samantha Sullivansam-logo

The photos used in this article are the property of the author. 

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