To Zoo or Not to Zoo

in All Posts

We recently took Henry to the zoo. It was a wonderful family experience, as Henry had just learned the names of a dozen wild animals and really loved seeing “effephants,” “zeebahs,” “gee-raffs,” and “roarrrrs” in real life.



There are actually two zoos (NC Zoo and Riverbanks Zoo) within two hours of Charlotte, which meant that I had to decide which zoo to attend. As an animal lover, my first thought was, “I’d like to go to the most humane zoo.” So I did some quick Googling and discovered that the NC Zoo is actually a walk-through zoo – the largest of its kind in America. The NC Zoo has over 5,000 acres of land, including large roaming pastures for many African species.




Of course, this style of zoo means that it is not as easy to see the animals. They could be hiding behind a tree. They may be too far away. A toddler may not even notice that there’s a rhino over there.


We didn’t mind the setup of the NC Zoo at all.  I felt that the ‘trade-offs’ were small in comparison to what the animals got out of the deal. I’m not going to complain that a zebra has space to roam!


I was feeling really good about the NC Zoo until we got to the ‘North America’ section of the zoo (in a zoo this large, there is a lot of walking – we walked almost five miles!).  The North America section was still nice, but the enclosures weren’t as generous – and I saw a few of the animals displaying what PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) calls “zoochosis.” Boredom and loneliness causes some animals in captivity to exhibit behaviors such as rocking, swaying, pacing, and self-harming.  For example, the grizzly bear was pacing back and forth in front of his enclosure’s door, which made me sad (but maybe it was just nearing dinnertime…).  No one was trapped in cages with creepy metal bars, however, and I could see lots of opportunities for entertainment in every enclosure.


I left the NC Zoo with mixed feelings.  As I said, we had a really great family experience.  Henry truly enjoyed seeing all the animals.  All the zookeepers seemed kind and knowledgeable and – overall – the facilities were so superior to anything that I’d ever seen before.


I came home and ended up doing hours upon hours of research into zoos. I wanted to share a bit about what I’ve learned; however, I do feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface.   In writing this post, I tried hard to double check all my facts, but as you can imagine, with so many federal and state laws, it’s complicated.  But I’m hoping that we can have an interesting discussion!


If you search for the ‘pros’ of zoos, you come up with lists like:


  • Zoos provide education to the public and foster a love of animals.
  • Zoos promote research and assist with conservation efforts.
  • Zoos rehabilitate injured wildlife or exotic pets. 
  • Zoos often seek to preserve endangered species.
  • Zoos help support local economies.


If you search for the ‘cons’ of zoos, you’ll read about:


  • Zoos violate animal rights by capturing, confining, and breeding animals.
  • Animals in captivity can suffer from stress, unhappiness, abuse, and loneliness.
  • Surplus zoo animals are sold to other zoos, circuses, canned hunting facilities, or are put down.
  • Zoos don’t have the right to take away the freedom of an individual to protect a species.
  • Many animals in zoos do not live as long as they would in the wild.
  • PETA argues that there is “no excuse for keeping intelligent, social animals in cages for our fleeting distraction and amusement. Habitat loss and other perils of the wild are not prevented by confining animals in cramped conditions and depriving them of everything that is natural and important to them.” (Source)


Like many things, the zoo issue is complicated.  Although I know some people will vehemently disagree with me, I look at the lists above and think, “Wow, this is an issue where neither side is completely right or wrong. Zoos can do great things for animals, but they can also do bad things for animals.”


The first thing that I learned through my research is that there are over 2,000 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but according to The Humane Society, “most of these zoos are no more than prisons” (in fact, about 10% are probably decent – for more info on that, keep reading).  The 1,800-odd ‘zoos’ that are more like prisons are usually roadside animal attractions, not large city zoos. We’re talking animals in small enclosures with little to no stimulation.  So having a USDA license doesn’t mean the facility is a good place for the animals to live.


I read through the USDA Animal Welfare Act and Requirement and was struck by how LITTLE it actually requires (especially for such a long document!).  For example, when it comes to the minimum size of enclosures for big cats or elephants, there are no specific numbers, just this boiler-plate language:


Enclosures shall 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.


We all know that paragraphs like that mean basically NOTHING.


So we can’t rely on the USDA to tell us what facilities are “good” and which are “bad.”  If we’re going to go to the zoo, how do we figure out which ones are more humane?


Eventually, I stumbled across the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA has an intense accreditation process that evaluates each applying zoo to ensure it meets the standards for living environments, social groups, health, and nutrition. The AZA also ensures that the animals are provided with enrichment to stimulate their natural behaviors and make their everyday experiences more engaging and interesting. The Commission evaluates other aspects of the zoo as well, including conservation and research efforts. As of September 2013, the total number of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums is 223.


You can search for a AZA accredited zoo or aquarium on this page.


I spent some time reading through the AZA Animal Care Manuals.  While a lot of the information means very little to me since I’m not a zookeeper or a vet, I was looking for the AZA’s outdoor and indoor recommended space requirements to compare it to USDA requirements.  For primates, the USDA minimum standards for larger primates is 25 square feet per primate.  The AZA recommends small groups of less than five chimps be provided with at least 2000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space.  The AZA recommends that larger groups have an additional 1000 square feet for every chimp over five chimps (so 10 chimps would need 7000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space).  (Source)  Either way you slice it, the USDA standards are much, much lower than the AZA standards.


For lions, the AZA holds a minimum requirement of 10,000 square feet for new exhibits that will hold three or fewer lions.  Only half of AZA facilities ‘lock up’ their lions overnight, usually for safety concerns.  (Source)  I didn’t find any specific size requirements for lions in the USDA Animal Welfare Act (but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – I just couldn’t find it); that means that the federal minimum is that wonky, boilerplate, mean-nothing paragraph I quoted above.


Of course, after learning about the AZA and browsing their website, I checked out what PETA (a staunch protestor of all zoos) had to say about the AZA.  I found this article on the PETA site that is specifically about elephants.  The article states:


The elephant standards adopted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are woefully inadequate, and many AZA zoos that display elephants do not meet even these meager requirements. The AZA’s indoor space requirements can be satisfied with a stall that is only 20 feet by 20 feet (400 square feet) in area; this means extreme confinement for elephants who are kept indoors overnight and during inclement weather. Outdoor enclosures need measure only 40 feet by 45 feet (1800 square feet)—about the size of a three-car garage.


I reviewed this information against the AZA elephant guidelines and found that, yes, the minimum indoor space is 20 feet X 20 feet for females – but it’s 600 square feet for males or females with calves.  And the outdoor minimum is 5400 square feet – not 1800 – and that’s per elephant.  (Source)  I’m not sure where PETA is getting their 40 by 45 feet number from (and the PETA article isn’t dated, so it could simply be old information, not purposefully misleading).  Again, the USDA doesn’t set forth any specific minimum size requirements for elephants.


I don’t think AZA accreditation means the zoo is perfect.  For example, the Toldeo Zoo accidentally starved a bear to death but is accredited by the AZA.  And if you believe that animals should not be kept in captivity regardless of how nice or big their enclosure is, AZA accreditation will really mean nothing to you.  But, from my layperson’s perspective, it seems that the AZA has good standards for humane animal care.  Both of the zoos near Charlotte – Riverbanks and the NC Zoo – are accredited. 


Of course, all this research got me thinking about marine parks.  If you’ve been reading for years, you know that we used to be annual passholders to Sea World.  I’ll be honest – we were really annual passholders because that’s when Sea World was partnered with Anheuser Busch and gave away unlimited (!!!) free beer.  The free beer was amazing for us humans.  However, I don’t think Kristien or I ever really put much thought into how Sea World’s animals felt, which I feel ashamed of now.


Have you seen trailers for the the Blackfish documentary?  I really want to watch it.

Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry. This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals.


Food for thought: Sea World is an AZA accredited facility.


To sum up this post, as an animal-adoring vegetarian (who feels that there is inherently gray areas for all vegans, vegetarians, and animal lovers <—good post that I refer back to all the time), I have very complicated feelings about zoos.  On one hand, I *love* the zoo experience.  On the other hand, I wish that no animal ever had to suffer in a zoo, whether it’s an AZA zoo or a roadside animal trap.


I recognize that nothing speaks louder than my dollar. When I choose to take my family to a zoo or a marine park, I am saying, “I feel that this facility is okay.”  When considering the moral and ethical implications of zoos, we all have to make decisions for ourselves on whether or not we will attend. When I do choose to go to a zoo, I will – at a minimum – choose an AZA zoo.  Although the accreditation doesn’t mean the facility is perfect, I do feel that it means something significant, at least when compared to federal standards.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this very complicated issue (and if you feel passionately about your opinion, please keep it friendly – after all, that’s how you ultimately sway hearts and minds!).  How do you feel about the issue? Do you have a ‘line in the sand’ about certain facilities or attractions?  Have you seen Blackfish?  What did you think?



  • Erica December 17, 2013, 2:25 pm

    Blackfish was SO sad…I will never take Kay to Sea World. We go to our local aquarium often, but they focus on rehabilitating and releasing animals back into the wild whenever possible. I do want to take Kay to the zoo…

  • Erin December 17, 2013, 2:32 pm

    I’ve clearly not given as much thought or research into the matter as you, but I basically feel the same way. Going to the zoo has always made me feel a little sad, even at a young age. But now I have an 18 month old who looooves the zoo.

  • Tara December 17, 2013, 2:43 pm

    I just watched Blackfish this past weekend and I never thought I’d be crying during a documentary about orcas, but I did and multiple times. After watching it, I would never go back to Sea World (I went once when I was six on vacation). To me there was no redeeming quality to anything about Sea World, but I do have an entirely new love and respect for whales. They are truly amazing creatures.

    Zoos are definitely more complicated for me. I do think they can do amazing things for rehabilitating animals and protecting certain ones. We actually have a zoo membership to our local zoo and the joy it brings to my kids is pretty amazing to see. I do feel like it’s one of the better ones I’ve been to and they always seem to be working on ways to improve the animals’ habitats within the zoo. However, I still have some exhibits I go by and feel pretty bad about after looking at the animals inside. I try to look at the positive and our membership fees go towards research and improving the zoo and that is a really good thing. I don’t like the idea of animals that could be safely roaming free in their natural habitat in a zoo, so that is a huge downside. Definitely mixed feelings!

  • Jackie December 17, 2013, 3:05 pm

    It would be interesting if you reached out to a zoologist to interview (one who does or does not work at a zoo) to get a professional’s opinion. One of the things I thought was crazy about Blackfish was that the trainers don’t have to have any background in animal biology. It’s been a few months since I saw it, but if I recall, I could apply to work at Sea World (with my English and Business background) and eventually be a “trainer” of the animals.

    As far as moral, touchy issues and raising kids, I sort of think as parents we have to choose the issue(s) we think are MOST IMPORTANT and really focus on those. While I love and respect animals and of course wouldn’t want to see them harmed (as most humane people wouldn’t), there are other things that mean more to me, and thus, the zoo will not be on our “do not go” list.

  • Anne December 17, 2013, 3:09 pm

    I have mixed feelings as well. About 6 years ago, we were visiting friends in Charlotte and went to a nearby animal park named “Hollywild”. I absolutely hated it. One of the attractions is a “safari” in which customers take truck ride through an open field where many animals are roaming. Everyone is provided with slices of bread (store bought processed bread) and encouraged to feed the animals. Not only does this allow the animals to gorge themselves on processed carbohydrates that they don’t need, but it also encourages them to essentially beg for food and follow the truck around. It was absolutely terrible.

    I didn’t really know much about it prior to going (our friends had made the plans), and didn’t want to rock the boat too much during the visit since it was my first time meeting my now husband’s friends. But I would never, ever go back. Plus a duck bit me on the foot and I was attacked by fire ants.

    I found an article by PETA regarding this facility’s inability to comply with USDA’s requirements, especially not providing adequate veterinary care for the animals. I’m not surprised. I should do more research prior to visiting facilities.

  • Katie D. December 17, 2013, 3:14 pm

    I really don’t like zoos at all! I spend most of the time feeling bad for the animals and don’t think that my curiosity is a a good enough reason for them to be trapped.

    However, I have visited some rescues (including a bear rescue). These were more free roaming areas, most “pens” had a perimeter of over a mile and they kept males/females seperate, because they are not allowed to breed. These were orphaned or injured bears that couldn’t live in the wild. We saw maybe 8 of the 20 bears there – most were too deep into their enclosure, or laying in shady areas to see!

    • Caitlin December 17, 2013, 3:16 pm

      That sounds awesome – where was it located?

      • Katie D. December 17, 2013, 3:17 pm

        Oswald’s Bear Ranch in Newberry, MI.

  • Katie D. December 17, 2013, 3:16 pm

    At least living in a rural area, there are no zoos close to us, so the temptation to bring a future child there is minimum!

  • Michelle @ A Healthy Mrs December 17, 2013, 3:27 pm

    I have mixed feelings about zoos as well — I love being able to see animals in real life, but I don’t necessarily like the way some zoos treat their animals.

    As others have said, I try to support a local zoo facility that focuses on saving & rehabilitating injured animals, and provide safe environments for those animals that cannot be released back into the wild.

  • Samantha December 17, 2013, 3:27 pm

    I agree with all of the commenters with mixed feelings. I love animals and going to the zoo. I remember going to zoo camp at the Philadelphia zoo as a child, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. We learned the animals names, what they ate, and how the zookeepers cared for them. My favorite part was roaming the zoo before it opened and seeing how the animals acted before they were on display (they often were much more visible before opening hours). When I went to Montreal’s Biodome a few months ago I was brought to tears watching the baby lynx cubs- I just felt so lucky to be able to see them.
    On the other hand I completely agree with the unethical side of zoos, so I don’t know what the right thing to do is. It makes me sad to think about animals in captivity, unable to live their lives as they were meant to (and canned hunting facilities??? What is wrong with people?) I am on board with never supporting a non-AZA zoo, and I’ve never been to a circus with animals or Sea World, but with large city zoos it gets a little bit more complicated.

  • Rachel December 17, 2013, 3:29 pm

    Thanks for being so honest about your internal conflict here…my husband and I are both vegetarian as well, and expecting our first child, so I was thinking about this the other day. I certainly have some good memories of visiting the zoo in the past–as a child it was neat to actually see animals in person that I had been reading and learning about in my Ranger Rick magazine. That being said, I’ve been to the zoo on a couple of occasions as an adult (my city has a free one) and felt REALLY uncomfortable and sad about the experience. I’m not sure what decision we’ll make with our child, but like you described, it’s definitely not going to be a black-and-white easy decision.

  • Rachel December 17, 2013, 3:31 pm

    I know it’s fiction, but I really liked the discussion of zoos at the beginning of the Life of Pi– I found it to be really good food for thought. No answers one way or the other, but good to think about.

    “I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.” — Yann Martel, Life of Pi

    • Caitlin December 17, 2013, 3:33 pm

      good quote!

  • Kelly December 17, 2013, 3:34 pm

    Like you, I have very mixed feelings on zoos. I love the zoo because I love animals, and I enjoy seeing so many of them that normally the average person will never have the chance to see in real life. But after reading Thomas French’s book called “Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives” I realized just how badly most of these animals are treated…not only by their handlers, but also in the very way they are held captive. It was also an eye opener on just how POLITICAL zoos are, especially if they are non-profit. Humans have even made the zoo a “look at how rich I am” spectacle. It’s pretty sad. I think it’s great that you’ve brought up this discussion because I think it’s one that a lot of people don’t even consider.

  • Morgan December 17, 2013, 3:41 pm

    Thank you so much for doing this research! I too am on the fence about zoos…..
    Sadly, the Lincoln Park Zoo is on the AZA’s list (their large cats are in really small enclosures), so I don’t know how much I want to trust an association who accredits the Lincoln Park Zoo along with Sea World (COME ON, those “tanks” are NO WHERE NEAR big enough for a whale!).

    I’ve second the animal sanctuary idea-the only downfall is that they aren’t “convenient”-probably more of a destination place.
    There is a cat rescue sanctuary in the middle of Arkansas-I learned SO much about lions and tigers there…they rescue big cats who were once pets.
    There is an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee-however I think they may only be open to the public once a year!
    I’ve also seen dolphins in the wild through a research group…
    Both of these experiences offered me more education and even close up encounters than any zoo ever will.
    Again, thanks for this info Caitlin!

    • Caitlin December 17, 2013, 3:52 pm

      I wonder if the AZA Animal Care Manuals are more like suggested best practices than minimum standards that they strongly enforce for accreditation…. I’m thinking yes.

    • Kelly December 17, 2013, 3:54 pm

      I think it’s also important to note that sometimes even “sanctuaries” have zoo-like qualities. The animals are still not in their natural habitats, and are confined to spaces they shouldn’t be. The back end handling may be better in these cases, but if you’re staying true to the rights of the animals, some of the arguments for zoos will apply to sanctuaries as well.

  • Olivia December 17, 2013, 3:45 pm

    We have a zoo membership to an AZA accredited zoo. My son adores the animals and I enjoy the experience. I try to focus on the positives that zoos can accomplish — both for the animals and for our communities.

  • Rachel @ LouLouBelle December 17, 2013, 3:51 pm

    Fantastic read! Thank you for putting this together! I am emotionally torn when it comes to zoos and learning this type of information. The NC Zoo is the best zoo I’ve ever been to! We all must support with our dollars!

  • Liza December 17, 2013, 3:52 pm

    I am also conflicted. I think connections that children make with these animals can be important, but so often the animals are poorly treated. Have you seen The Cove? It really changed the way I thought about marine parks, zoos, the way I eat, and a lot of other issues in my everyday life.

  • Brittney December 17, 2013, 3:59 pm

    That’s crazy- I watched Blackfish last night and when I started reading this post I was going to suggest you watch it. It confirms a lot of what you probably already suspect about Seaworld (and similar places) but is depressing to watch. This post has prompted me to research my local zoos (I’m in Denver so I’m hoping it meets all the standards). Watch Blackfish. you will enjoy it.

  • Kathleen Ojo @ My Ojos December 17, 2013, 4:12 pm

    Interesting post! I am not comfortable with zoos, but the reality is, this is the ONLY connection most of us in cities have with these animals. Therefore I think zoos are important – they educate people, and might make some of us more aware of the impact we are having on the lives and ecosystems of some of these species.

    I will never hold an annual pass to an zoo, and prefer places like the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Living Desert in Palm Springs that focus more on education and conservation, rather than making the animals perform for our entertainment. With that said, I will absolutely be taking my daughter to a zoo when she is old enough to really understand what she is seeing and learn from it. I guess I don’t see zoos as a place to go for entertainment… it should be a place to go and be amazed and the wonder of nature and the magnificent creatures that exist on our planet, while seriously reflecting on how our actions impact the environment.

    Total buzzkill, right? 🙂

  • Caitlin December 17, 2013, 4:18 pm

    Thanks for bringing up this issue. Not sure if you follow the blog Bonzai Aphrodite, but she recently posted on the same topic. I found her notes very insightful.

  • Suzy December 17, 2013, 4:20 pm

    I grew up in California and Arizona where the weather is great all year long. That meant for the zoos to allow nice open spaces for the animals. I never really felt that bad. When we went to the Bronx Zoo in New York a few years ago, most of the animals were in buildings and you viewed them through the glass. That really bothered me. I felt like that the zoo should care for animals that are meant to live in that sort of weather.

    We went to Columbia Zoo a few months ago. Overall, it was a nice zoo and most of the animals were outside. The gorilla looks bored, which had me feeling sad as I walked away. And the botanical garden next to the zoo is lovely and has a great wooded trail that takes you back to the entrance of the garden.

  • Jennifer December 17, 2013, 4:23 pm

    I go back and forth as well, but am probably more pro zoos and sea world. My kids love going to the zoos and have learned the animals so I feel they are educational. We went to sea world this past summer and the joy and excitement on their faces when ‘shamu’ jumped out of the water was just wonderful as a mother. I just watched Blackfish because I wanted to be informed on making a decision. I did think it was really sad when they would capture the orcas in the wild and don’t agree with that. I would rather see them born into captivity. And I didn’t really understand what they wanted to do with Tilikum, can you really set the orcas back into the wild and then be able to survive? They are use to being hand fed. Also in the movie they say that each pod is a family and has different languages, so how can you make sure each orca gets to the right family? I think it would be just as bad to let them loose back in the ocean where they have never been before. Another thing I always wonder is people don’t like seeing animals in zoo cages but have no problems having dogs or cats. How come these are ok to be caged up or in a small backyard? How do you know they wouldn’t like to run free? Oh and then Blackfish suggested going on boat tours to see the orcas in the wild. But to me that is still harassing the orcas, you are following them trying to get as close as allowed to get a good picture.

    • Alexandra December 17, 2013, 5:29 pm

      Personally, I don’t think captive animals in zoos and pets are comparable. The pets we have in our homes are domesticated breeds, not exactly the same as packs of dogs in the wild. They have some of the same instincts of course but that’s why responsible pet owners have to give their pets enough exercise, outside exposure, etc. Just my 2 cents 🙂

      • Suzie December 17, 2013, 5:47 pm

        I’ve thought about this issue alot actually because as an ethical vegan I think all “ownership” of animals is wrong, but yet of course dogs and cats need homes and love. as do other animals like guinea pigs, some birds, rabbits, etc. I think its actually the result of however many years ago someone start domesticating these animals and made it impossible for them to live in the wild. I guess I came to the conclusion that ideally we wouldn’t have any domesticated animals, but since we do there is nothing wrong with having them as pets

        • Alexandra December 18, 2013, 12:57 am

          I agree. I love animals and love my dog so much, but Ive always had reservations when it comes to the concept of pet “ownership”. Like you said, Ideally cats and dogs and whatever other pets should exist as free animals to do their own thing, but now that theyre domesticated and flooding shelters to the point where million are euthanized I think now they have more freedom as companions than being in a kennel for who knows how long. I guess theres always going to be that gray area.

          • Q September 11, 2015, 2:22 pm

            I was thinking the same thing about pets. It’s a catch 22. Ideally we shouldn’t have any animals in captivity, including pet. But what would happen to all the pets if no one adopted them. As far as zoos, I think the focus should be on improving zoos and their requirements for the animal enclosures and treatments. My daughter loves animals so much and seeing them in person was priceless to her:)

    • Emily December 17, 2013, 5:45 pm

      You bring up some great points, most of which I agree with. However, dogs and cats are domesticated animals. That process happened over thousands of years. Animals in captivity is nowhere near the same thing.

    • Amber December 17, 2013, 5:47 pm

      Whatever they do with Tilikum I cannot believe he is still doing shows and interacting with trainers. I feel so bad for him because I know what he did was based on frustration from being caged up but he KILLED THREE PEOPLE.

    • Newlyweds on a Budget December 17, 2013, 7:09 pm

      while i agree with people on the dogs and cats being domesticated animals, there are still plenty of animals that people keep as pets that have not been domesticated. One of the saddest things to me is seeing a caged bird. I can’t imagine a bird that wants to live in a cage and yet people have birds as pets a lot.

  • JS December 17, 2013, 4:36 pm

    As a fellow animal lover, I always question the ethical treatment of animals in zoos and wildlife reservations. I won’t even get started on the circuses, because I will never set foot in one again after growing up and learning that it may be fun and games for spectators, but these creatures do not deserve to be laughed at or enjoyed for entertainment purposes.
    Sadly, I tried to find an AZA accredited zoo in my area (I live in a fairly large urban city with numerous zoos visited by thousands of people annually) and there is only one, located 150 miles away!
    I really appreciate all of the time that you have taken to thoroughly research zoo facilities in your area, and also, how the standards differ amongst organizations, namely the USDA and AZA.
    [as an aside, I love your blog and thank you for being so open to us readers]

  • Amanda December 17, 2013, 4:56 pm

    Please visit animal sanctuaries instead. They are nonprofit based organizations where the welfare of the animals comes first, and where humans are guests and can actually interact with the animals. Also, you can find exotic sanctuaries. Near us is an Exotic Feline Animal Rescue. In a zoo, the for-profit nature of the business means that the dollar takes precedence over the animals. It’s just the way the system was designed. Natural history museums can also teach our children about animals. I once read this quote and it resonates with me: “A traditional zoo or petting zoo is a place that exists for human entertainment, and animals happen to live there. In contrast, a sanctuary is a place that exists for animals to enjoy their lives in safety, and humans happen to go there.”

  • Amanda December 17, 2013, 4:58 pm

    Oh, also I went to the Columbus Zoo and will never go to another zoo. Very sad experience. The gorillas were sad and turning their backs to the humans and the rhinos and elephants and large cats were pacing their gates. The “zoochosis” you mentioned. Major sad face.

  • Rebecca December 17, 2013, 5:19 pm

    I have not researched zoos. I’ve always assumed that some of the animals start off as needing a place to live because of habitat loss or injury or something. I guess I just don’t think about the fact that animals are stuck in an environment not quite like where they’re from, but I don’t let it keep me from visiting zoos (when I get the chance). Kind of like how I know where my food comes from but don’t think about the fact that some (not all) of the animals that become my food are not treated that great. I don’t let that keep me from eating meat. (My father works for a turkey, etc company. I have no problem with that. Turkey is delicious.) I try not to let the fact that *some people* do terrible things keep me from doing things that I enjoy. If I looked into every company or place I was visiting deeply enough, I would find things everywhere that might make me wary of buying anything from/visiting them and would possibly never leave my house. Which is lame.

    Sometimes I wish I lived in Montana and could go visit Animal Wonders. They aren’t huge, but they seem to have a good mission and some awesome animals to go see and learn more about. And maybe hold and play with and feed.

  • Maggie December 17, 2013, 5:20 pm

    Watch Blackfish..NOW!!! So, so good. And I will never go to Sea World again (or take any future children!)

  • Suzie December 17, 2013, 5:42 pm

    Zoos are terrible, awful places. any “pro” of a zoo regarding rehabilitation or preservation would mean that the place should be called a sanctuary, not a zoo. I am all for rehabilitating and raising an animal in captivity if the animal is injured or is born into captivity but otherwise there is absolutely NO EXCUSE to keep beautiful intelligent creatures in any type of space- even a large, “humane” space simply for our entertainment value. Now when I say born into captivity I am not promoting breeding the animals already in captivity, because that just worsens the problem- more animals being forced to live their lives like this. I dont think we would like being forced to live our whole lives in a tiny space while people stare at us.

    I like that blackfish got the issue some mainstream attention but I wish people would realize that the emotions Blackfish may raise applies to ALL ANIMALS we use for entertainment, including zoos and circuses (of course, deep down I hope it convinces people to go vegan but thats a stretch :). I REALLY recommend that you see the movie Lion ark- it’s a wonderful story about the rescue of 25 beautiful lions from Bolivia (where animals in circuses have been banned) it raises alot of the same issues but it mostly focuses on the rescue of the lions. here is the website: . I won’t go into details on the issues here since you seem to be pretty educated on it, but please save your money and never ever go to a zoo again and support an industry which enslaves animals against their will. And regarding “humane” standards, there is never a space big enough for these animals because THEY SHOULD NOT BE THERE. The same way that there is no “humane” way of raising an animal for food. The only benefit of zoos is the profit that the zoos make on these animals.

    and regarding animals that are already in captivity i am not suggesting that they simply be released, but we should not be either going out and capturing more of them nor should we continue breeding them. I’m so happy that you did this post, i really am. I hope this raises the attention on the issue for your readers. Please, don’t spend your money on zoos anymore. stop supporting this horrible industry.

    • Caitlin December 17, 2013, 5:45 pm

      Thank you for your feedback and that movie recommendations!!

  • Amber December 17, 2013, 5:45 pm

    Ugh, such a hard thing. I really enjoy going to zoo’s and seeing animals I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to see up close, and I do think it can be educational and also good for some animals that may not survive in the wild but yes there is something about caging wild animals that just feels cruel to me.

    Walk Blackfish immediately. I watched it the other night and will NEVER visit SeaWorld again. It’s awful.

  • Sara December 17, 2013, 5:47 pm

    Dear Caitlin,
    I don’t post often (and don’t have much to say about the zoo issue although than a huge thanks for the consciousness-raising and the research), but wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your blog because I find so many posts to be thoughtful and thought-provoking about many issues related to diet, exercise, family, and conscious living…it’s such a refreshing change from some of the lifestyle blogs that just seem to be about what I eat/exercised today and conspicuous consumption. I also really enjoy your empowerment slant about women’s bodies, activities, and lifestyles…and your balanced approach to the way you live your life in its aspects. (Especially as a working mother — I’m not there yet but it gives me a lot of food for thought.) Looking forward to continuing to follow the blog!

    • Caitlin December 17, 2013, 5:49 pm

      Thank you!!! I’m glad you enjoy these posts! I appreciate you reading

      • Whitney December 18, 2013, 9:04 am

        100% agree and was going to write the same comment! I get tired of reading what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner posts from other blogs all. the. time. I love that you had an experience with your family and from that stemmed a great topic to discuss. thank you thank you! 🙂

  • Marissa @ Barefoot Colorado December 17, 2013, 5:48 pm

    This is not what I was expecting when I first clicked on this post, but I’m so glad that you shared all of that information. Too often do we all get caught up in our own experiences (like going to the zoo) that we forget that animals are suffering for our own entertainment. I really want to watch Blackfish now! Thanks for sharing this info.

  • Cara December 17, 2013, 5:50 pm

    I have worked in a zoo with primates and now work in another animal related field. Accreditation is a demanding process that isn’t taken lightly. It can include a week or longer visit with in depth interviews, process reviews and record reviews. Small roadside non-accredited zoos are problems, but so are many backyard breeders. The “zoochosis” you mentioned is what we call stereotypic behavior and good keepers and caretakers work very hard to limit it. I think we also have to be careful to ascribe human emotions to animals. They have emotions of course but they often manifest themselves in very different ways in animals. For example, in non-human primates eye contact and “grinning” or showing teeth is an aggressive behavior. They aren’t smiling at you. And you doing the same to them, while you’re thinking you are being nice, is showing aggression back to them. I also appreciate you researching both sides because I am not a fan of PETA or HSUS. Zoos do a lot of good work as far as education and being part of species survival plans. For many kids, especially inner city kids, the zoos are a way for them to really connect to animals. Why would they care about saving the ones in the wild if they are only abstract concepts from TV?

    • Caitlin December 17, 2013, 5:56 pm

      I was SO hoping a zoo employee would comment!!! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I totally agree with you regarding the education aspect of zoos.

      Also – I am not a fan of PETA either. At all.

    • Elisabeth December 17, 2013, 9:45 pm

      I really appreciate the commentary from an actual zoo worker! I do very much enjoy visiting the zoo (of course an AZA zoo) and feel that zoos can do a lot of good in the world, in the form of animal research, preservation of endangered species, education & just making people care about animals in general. It’s good to get a little back up of that opinion from someone who works with animals 🙂

    • Jackie December 20, 2013, 5:36 pm

      This is my reasoning – zoo employees seem to be very passionate and we’ll educated people who care about animals. There are some bad zoos and those probably are older and existed before accreditation standards. I think a lot of issues people have involve those zoos. Not high quality ones. Of course there are those who will say no animal should be held captive. But that ignores the fact a lot of these animals are rescues and would have died in the wild.

      I love the San Diego zoo and can’t wait to take my kids there one day. It’s beautiful, fascinating, and educational. I live in Montana though so I don’t think there is a zoo or aquarium anywhere near me!

    • Q September 11, 2015, 2:24 pm

      Wonderful comment!

  • Elyse December 17, 2013, 6:01 pm

    Very well written! I agree wholeheartedly with your perspective of the issues.

  • Nikki December 17, 2013, 6:09 pm

    There have been some really good articles around how congressional budget cuts (or sequestration, or lack of a budget… etc etc etc jesus) affect zoos (in particular, the National Zoo in DC, which is completely free to the public and funded by congress, is not doing super hot).

  • Diana December 17, 2013, 6:52 pm

    When you do watch the Black Fin documentary, please watch it with a very open mind. I have not seen it myself, but I have a close friend who worked with the animals at Sea World for 7 years. She knew the trainer that was killed along with all the other trainers at Sea World. The general stance of those in the husbandry department is that the movie is not an accurate representation of what Sea World does for animals. She says she would personally never work for an organization that does all the things that movie claims Sea World does.

    As for zoos and other animal facilities in general. I do agree with you that your dollar speaks louder than any words can say. I don’t think all zoos are bad, as there are many zoos out there that save injured animals that couldn’t survive in the wild or were victims of exotic animal trades. I think it is important to understand the goals of the zoos you go to. It is all about research.

    • mollie December 19, 2013, 11:23 pm

      The “trainers” at Sea World are not educated in animal husbandry. They are not marine biologists. I could walk in there right now with a background in Political Science and soon be working with orcas.
      If you don’t agree with the movie, just do your own research on what amazing creatures orcas are. There is no place on Earth they should be held captive- not for research, entertainment, or anything else.

  • Laura Ann December 17, 2013, 7:01 pm

    GREAT post. Very thought-provoking. My feelings are also mixed on this topic, but finally feel at least a little more informed, thanks to your research. I really want to watch that movie, but that trailer had me bawling! Actually, the trailer alone may have turned me off of zoos (and the like) for good. Heart-wrenching.

  • Jennifer December 17, 2013, 7:08 pm

    It was a process to domesticate dogs and cats, so why is the process of getting animals use to a zoo or sea world not ok but the other process is? Not arguing, just like to ponder these things 🙂

    And dogs have attacked people, yet we still have them.

    • Suzie December 18, 2013, 9:41 pm

      i dont think it was ever okay to domesticate dogs and cats, but it happened and keeping them now is the result of it. I’m not sure who decided to do that however long ago but it would be just as bad back then as it is for us to try and use animals for entertainment.

      and most dog bites can go back to aggression the dog learned from its owner or as a result of the treatment from the owner.

      • mollie December 19, 2013, 11:24 pm

        Dogs and cats have pretty much domesticated themselves- they figured out long ago that being around humans meant that they would be fed scraps. Humans didn’t intentionally domesticate them- what purpose would that serve?

  • Mary December 17, 2013, 7:28 pm

    Watch Blackfish. Tonight. I just rented it on Amazon and cried multiple times watching it. You just can’t argue with multiple former Seaworld trainers and orca biologists. Someone commented above that it may not be accurate, but even if only half of what is shown in Blackfish is true, I still will NEVER visit Seaworld again.

  • Sarah December 17, 2013, 7:50 pm

    Ughhh. My hometown area has two zoos: The Minnesota Zoo (Minnesota Zoological Garden) and the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. Both have AZA accreditation according to the AZA website. The MN Zoo is phenomenal; it has many wide range exhibits like the ones you describe and mostly keeps animals from similar climates as Minnesota, something I really admire about them.

    The Como Park Zoo is very sad. They keep “flashy” species like lions, giraffes, and polar bears which bring in visitors, but DO NOT belong in Minnesota (we have 90+ degree summers and <0 degree winters). The zoo is also small and the exhibit sizes for those species in particular (and others) are not adequate at all. The behavior of the polar bears and lions exhibit the boredom or pacing behaviors you highlight. Knowing this zoo is accredited lessens my opinion of the AZA.

    If you are in the twin cities area, I highly recommend driving 20 minutes into the suburbs to see the MN zoo (acres and acres of space!). Please do not support the Como Zoo in its current state.

    • Ellen December 18, 2013, 9:21 pm

      I live in the twin cities too, and I was going to say something similar. MN zoo is pretty good, while the Como zoo is depressing and small. It’s also free/donation based, which I’m sure is part of it. I don’t know, maybe they would be able to give the animals better enclosures if it wasn’t donation based? They did recently expand, but I haven’t been since the addition. Like Caitlin, I have pretty mixed feelings about zoos in general.

  • Sarah December 17, 2013, 7:58 pm

    Oh! I meant to add that there is this great sanctuary in northern MN (Ely, MN) called the International Wolf Center. It has a large living space for the wolves with plenty of woods for them to live in a natural habitat. They are fed road kill, which seems like a really humane way to feed them a healthy and natural diet. It’s very education-focused as well.

    Also in the twin cities, the University of Minnesota has the Raptor Center at their College of Veterinary Medicine. They rehabilitate injured raptors for release into the wild and give a permanent home to birds that are permanently disabled. Visitors who go there are supporting a “zoo” which RETURNS animals to the wild. People get see animals up close in probably the most humane situation possible.

  • Liza December 17, 2013, 8:47 pm

    My father said after going on safari in Africa he can never go back to a zoo.

  • Kerrie December 17, 2013, 9:18 pm

    Thank you for this post. I recently watched Blackfish and decided I would never bring my child to sea world and was wondering about zoos and aquariums. You gave me a place to start. As a mother, it was truly heartbreaking to watch about baby orcas being taken from their mothers. Be ready for a tear jerker.

  • Julie @ RDelicious Kitchen December 17, 2013, 9:27 pm

    I have mixed feelings as well. I love animals so I definitely see the pros/cons to both sides. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing

  • Heather December 17, 2013, 9:35 pm

    I’m so glad you did this post. As a vegetarian and animal lover, I also find the zoo a complicated issue. I love the educational part but hate the confinement/abuse/neglect part. Thank you for all the research.

    I did watch Blackfish and it’s very eye opening and truly so sad. You should definitely watch it. Another good documentary is The Cove, which documents the driving of dolphins by “banger boats” to a holding area where they are sorted. They are called banger boats because they bang a metal pole on the side of the boat which stresses the dolphins and they try to swim away. What they are actually doing is driving them into a holding area. “Pretty” ones, go to places like Sea World or other aquariums. The “ugly” ones are taken to the cove where they are slaughtered. I’m currently living in Japan and it, as well as the illegal whale fishing by Japanese fishermen in the southern ocean, is what I hate the most about this country.

    The biggest thing is to bring awareness to these issues. This post is a great example of that. Thank you!

  • Lizz December 17, 2013, 9:36 pm

    Great post!

    I’ve been having a harder time going to zoos in the past few years.

    My bf got me a “beluga experience” at the aquarium for Christmas last year. Being in the water with the whales was really amazing, but the experience taught me how naive I was about the whole zoo concept. I had never really put a lot of thought into where the animals came from, so when I asked where the belugas were from, I expected to hear that they were all injured, endangered, or bread in captivity. Unfortunately, they were mostly fished from the wild. It broke my heart thinking of the young whales being taken away from their social circle and dumped into a tank for our enjoyment. Sure, some zoo may have well established breading programs for some animals that are self sustaining, but I imagine most of them are acquired in the same way : (

  • Beks December 17, 2013, 10:02 pm

    I don’t believe there’s ever a completely black or white issue. Everything is gray. THere’s good and bad in everything, because there’s good and bad in everyone.
    That being said, I was actually relieved that the two zoos in the Omaha area (The Henry Doorly Zoo, which is famous and a walk-through zoo, and the Lee G. Simmons Conservation and Wildlife Safari) are two of my favorite places in my area. Especially Henry Doorly. Since I was a kid, I’ve seen them build up the zoo in such a way that it really is a habitat for its animals (Our Gorilla house is humongous, and all of the gorillas, apes, monkeys and chimps have a pretty amazing run-through). Their docents are all about teaching human responsibility in nature.
    The worst Zoo memory I have actually isn’t from my zoo, but the St. Louis zoo. I was watching the sleeping hyenas with some friend when I was in college, and some little brat kid threw rocks at one to get him to wake up. The poor thing got hit in the head several times, but there was no one around to stop the kid, and his mother wasn’t telling him to stop. It was horrible.

  • Jess December 17, 2013, 10:09 pm

    An emotional post for many reasons…how anyone can fault Tilikum in those deaths is beyond me. Animals are not meant to be kept in captivity. I fully believe they develop psychosis, just as Tilikum did. I cried watching the trailer of Blackfish, I would never watch the film. I’d rather watch humans being killed then animals being abused. Graphic, horrifying and blunt but humans abuse and take advantage of animals who cannot speak for themselves. The only instinctual way they know how is to be physical. Tilikum killed once and the message was not understood nor accepted. He attacked a second time, yet he still was kept in captivity. The third time and everyone’s upset and blaming him. Seriously? Use your brain. Or better yet, listen to and use your heart people. (Not you Caitlin!! 🙂 you just got me fired up!)

  • Megan December 17, 2013, 10:24 pm

    Haven’t read all of the comments yet- but I do feel sad for the animals at some zoos. I grew up near Kansas City and that is the zoo that I grew up knowing and loving- was very pleased to see it is on the AZA list. In fact, my only “complaint” with the zoo is that it is so spread out that you can’t really see the whole thing in one day with a toddler. But I have always realized that is not a complaint at all!

    I was surprised to see that some of the bigger and more well known zoos and aquariums were not AZA accredited- St. Louis Zoo and the Shedd Aquarium were two specific ones I searched and did not see. (although I was not surprised about the Shedd really- the whales do not have much room really. Even though it is a beautiful facility).

    There is a “drive thru wildlife safari” about an hour away and I went with my 3rd grader on a field trip this fall. It made me so sad. The animals that were in the wild looked happy-ish but dirty and needed some love/fur brushing/etc. the animals in the cages were just AWFUL. I thought about reporting but didn’t look into it, and it sounds like they probably were up to “standards” anyway.

    • Anna December 18, 2013, 10:49 am

      I don’t know what list you looked at, but the St. Louis Zoo and The Butterfly House are both on the AZA list. I searched using the state search and both came up.

    • mollie December 19, 2013, 11:28 pm

      The Shedd Aquarium is accredited through March 2014.

  • Ashley December 17, 2013, 10:36 pm

    Definitely a complicated manner. I’ve studied anthropology and primatology (just got my Ph.D., so above regular bachelor’s education) and one thing I’d say is that it’s a generally well-known fact that animals in captivity actually live longer than in the wild (in contradiction to what you stated above). The caveat, is that the “captivity” statistic includes all captive populations (including well-funded, huge, wildlife refuges), so maybe the # is different if you just strictly compare zoos vs. wild….but I’m a little suspicious that the #s might be off, particularly if they were provided by PITA.

    • Ashley December 17, 2013, 10:38 pm

      Ugh, meant PETA…wish there was a way to edit posts, lol!

  • Amy I. December 17, 2013, 10:47 pm

    Thank you for putting such time and effort into this research. I recently watched, and was horrified, by Blackfish. I will never go to a Sea World again. Living in San Diego, I have always had conflicting emotions about our two zoos. I agree that it is not a black or white issue and I continue to read about the topic too.

  • Amber December 17, 2013, 11:07 pm

    Blackfish was a great film, I immediately told my husband that “I was saving the whales!” I really had never given much thought to zoos or aquariums, but will never take my kids to a place where the animals are on display for entertainment again.
    Our town has a zoo sanctuary which is a wonderful place to take my kids. They don’t have African animals, only local animals that have been injured and cannot be returned to the wild. We have bears, mountain lions, lots of large hawks/birds, and even some feral kitties 🙂 My kids love it and I love giving my money to a cause that is actually at the animals best interest.

  • Steph December 18, 2013, 6:30 am

    I do not go to zoos, and side with PETA on the issue. With that said, it’s refreshing to hear that you thought about which zoo is more humane before visiting. I wish more people would do that, rather than going blindly. Great post!

  • MK December 18, 2013, 7:32 am

    So grateful you brought this up for discussion. Thank you! This essay sums up my thoughts on the topic:

  • Allison December 18, 2013, 8:24 am

    Awesome post, thanks for the research. I’m a vegan and a strict (some might say militant…) animal rights supporter, and the thought of any wild animal in captivity really depresses me. I think the idea that zoos “provide education to the public and foster a love of animals” is a little bit of a stretch–people can educate themselves about and develop a love of science and astronomy without having to actually go to the moon. Also, if this is the purpose of zoos, then I’m not sure I’d say it’s been very successful given how terribly animals are treated everywhere in the US. I get the appeal of zoos and remember having fun going to one when I was a kid, but I can’t rationalize how a few hours of satisfaction in my life is a good trade-off for an animal who has to spend their life in captivity.

    Anyway clearly as you can see by this comment, I am a hit a dinner parties and people love going to restaurants with me (…kidding). And don’t get me started about circuses!

    • Tricia December 19, 2013, 1:11 pm

      Well said! I completely agree. Not to be harsh, but exchanging an animal’s lifetime of captivity for a good family experience or a child’s enjoyment just sounds selfish. I’m a mother, and I’ve always looked forward to sharing this experience with my 2 children, but this discussion has really brought me full circle on this issue.

  • Allison S. December 18, 2013, 8:37 am

    You MUST watch Blackfish. It is such a disturbing but brilliantly put together documentary.

  • Melanie December 18, 2013, 8:40 am

    I’m not fond of zoos or circuses! My son will never go to the circus! I think my husband would like to take him when he’s older (he’s one now) but I just can’t support it. I’ll take him to Cirque du Soleil but no other circus.

    There is a farm sanctuary near where we live (in MD) so I do hope to take him there when he’s older – they have a vegan Thanksgiving every year so you can meet the turkeys who live there!

    There’s a larger farm sanctuary in NY & CA too that’s great –

  • Alyssa December 18, 2013, 9:00 am

    Great post! Really got me thinking and doing my own research, it is definitely a grey area topic to say the least

  • eliza December 18, 2013, 9:08 am

    Blackfish was SO sad. IT was veryyyyy interesting though and I would definitely recomend it.

  • Sara December 18, 2013, 9:17 am

    Our local zoo made me sad. I felt like the animals were in tiny cages and they didn’t look very clean. I don’t think I’d take my son there (but my husband may have a different opinion and it is something we’ll have to discuss). And now I know what Blackfish is! A friend posted she had to stop watching Blackfish because she didn’t want her son to see her in tears. Well now I know why!

  • Irene December 18, 2013, 10:45 am

    Omg, the canned hunting facilities page made me sick to my stomach. What kind of person/monster would do this?? 🙁

  • WildcatAdvocate December 18, 2013, 10:53 am

    Wow! You’re amazing!! How I wish every parent would stop and do the research to become as well informed as you have. I started out like you did, wanting to do the right thing for my grandchildren/children as well as the animals. Once I started volunteering at a big cat rescue sanctuary, I began to learn more and more – and wanted to know all I could. Like you, I realized that where I spent my dollars was the greatest advocacy there is. I HIGHLY recommend you order this book by Alan Green: “Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species” It changed my life! It’s not how well the cages/habitats look or even how happy the animals seem in captivity. It’s how short a period of time they’re really there. They spend so much of their time in nighthouses that the public rarely sees in most zoos. They’re not free roaming as you’d like to believe. And, when a newer, more popular species that will bring in more guests is available, that means someone’s got to go. Finite amount of exhibit space so its used to bring in the most revenue. Zoo animals end up at exotic animal auctions all the time. Their destination can be a canned hunting facility or a backyard cage, you never know. Also, when the animals age or are no longer breedable, guess what happens? They also end up being sold off, transferred, traded, fate usually unknown since no one really keeps track. Bottom line is that looks can be deceiving. It’s not WHAT you see at the zoo, it’s what you DON’T see that’s the real issue for the animals.

  • Chloe Baker December 18, 2013, 11:00 am

    Damn that trailer for blackfish looks very interesting. I’m terrible when it comes to these things though, I’ll probably be crying so much that I won’t even be able to finish it…

  • Cheryl December 18, 2013, 11:30 am

    This is only sort of related but I stumbled upon this article a little while back

  • Dayna December 18, 2013, 11:38 am

    I feel almost exactly the same about zoos- it depends on the specific zoo for me. The fact that many zoos are doing their best to keep species from going extinct is the biggest factor in the “pros” category for me… however, when I go to a zoo and the animals are in tiny little boxes, it’s heartbreaking to me. I think the best zoos are the ones that put species conservation and research and individual happiness and health above entertainment.

    I don’t like to reference PETA as a credible source for animal welfare, however, as many of their articles are skewed (like the elephant article’s numbers) in order to gain followers. There are much, much better sources for animal welfare news that don’t resort to propaganda and scare-tactics.

  • Kim December 18, 2013, 12:05 pm

    My sister and I were just talking about this, as she just took her little ones to a circus and got a ton of criticism on her blog. She was actually very ignorant about the circus thing and ended up doing a lot of disturbing research and regretting going. After seeing Blackfish, I won’t go to SeaWorld again, and I probably won’t go to a regular, animals-behind-bars zoo either. It makes me so sad. And what’s really sad is that most people (like my sister) are totally clueless about the impact on animals…or, they are aware and don’t really care. I’m not a judge-y vegetarian either, but I do wonder how people can eat meat without thinking at all about the animals. It seems like a direct correlation to me.

    • Caitlin December 18, 2013, 1:44 pm

      I feel very conflicted about circuses because my fondest childhood memories involve going to the circus every single year with DadHTP. We were huge fans of Ringling Brothers and we still have all the memorabilia cups from every year that we went. That being said, I have done a ton of research into circuses, especially Ringling, and you can’t deny the video footage of them beating the elephants with bullhooks. It’s really and truly heartbreaking.

      I agree with you re: the meat thing, but that kind of falls into my ‘gray area’ theory. No one can do everything. Some people don’t want to give up meat but will give money to animal rescue leagues, etc. It’s a hard issue but I try to never judge people because I know that I’m NOT the ‘perfect’ vegetarian in the slightest.

  • Laura December 18, 2013, 12:52 pm

    Really interesting article, thank you for writing this! I saw Blackfish and my husband and I both decided we will never patronize Sea World now, nor when we have children. Those poor animals. There was segment about them taking a baby away from it’s mother and how the mother stayed in one corner of her aquarium freaking out and making terrible crying noises that had never been recorded before-she was in terrible distress. Completely heartbreaking.

    My sister took me to the Carolina Tiger Rescue a few years ago and I really like the facility. They rescue big cats and while you can go on tours, they are very un-zoo like. You know those baby tigers you can have your picture taken with at fairs, etc? Well, they are only useful to the owners for 6-9 months until they are dangerous and too large. What happens to them then? Either they are killed, receive terrible care, or other awful options. Carolina Tiger Rescue takes in many of these tigers and gives them a good life. They live for up to 20 some years so the number of tigers adds up when you figure one baby tiger operation goes through an average of two tiger babies a year!

  • Ravyn December 18, 2013, 2:46 pm

    What a wonderful post, thank you for sharing. With our first little one on the way, I’ve been so torn about the zoo thing. On one hand, like you, I’m a passionate vegetarian, and I hate that we use animals for entertainment. On the other hand, I know how much I LOVED my zoo growing up (in Indianapolis, I’d be interested to research what kind of rating it has). It exposes children to so many animals they’d likely never see in real life.

    We’re now trying to decide between zoos and animal sanctuaries, and I’m think the animal sanctuary is the route for us. Our kids can volunteer & get one-on-one exposure to these beautiful animals (granted, they won’t see a rhino).

    I know we’ll NEVER visit the circus, and I have a hard time thinking we’d ever go to Sea World … I think, like you said, your money speaks, and it’s about each person making the best (informed) decision for their family.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  • Keri December 18, 2013, 3:31 pm

    This is such a great post & mirrors my thoughts on zoos.

    I think there are some benefits to zoos–some of the animals have been harmed in the wild & have been rehabilitated for educational purposes at the zoo. I also think they can foster a relationship with animals that we might never see in North America, and perhaps this relationship will make people care more about the destruction of the habitat those animals live in naturally. At least I hope.

    As an animal lover, I enjoy watching the animals at the zoo…until I see one displaying the signs of stress, loneliness, sadness that any living thing in captivity would. After our son gets here, I’m sure that we will take him to the zoo. I’m also sure that we will do our best to educate our child about the habitats those animals REALLY live in, and that they are much happier there. I wish we had the money to go to Africa and the Amazon to see many of them in the wild, but we will have to settle for the deer, elk, coyotes, black bears, and mountain lions that live around here. And we will spend more time and more money in the National Parks where these animals live instead of the zoo.

  • Sarah December 18, 2013, 9:30 pm

    Great topic.
    I choose not to support zoos. I went when I was little and recognized even then the sadness in their eyes. Good to know about the AZA.

  • Anna December 18, 2013, 10:47 pm

    I don’t know if you have Netflix…but Blackfish is one of their recent adds. I’m planning on watching after writing this comment.

  • Katie December 19, 2013, 12:35 am

    No zoos for my family. I am sure my daughter would love it but I have an obligation to teach her about what is right and wrong. Animals are not put on this earth and then into zoos for our childrens pleasure. All my friends take their children to our local zoo but for me, I vote with my dollars by not attending. Our hope is to take our daughter to places to see wild animals, which by they way need not be an expensive or daunting task. We have seen fox, bald eagles and coyotes right in Minneapolis proper. This was a great post, very balanced. I appreciate your research on this topic and hope others will think twice about zoos.

  • Cate December 19, 2013, 10:20 pm

    Thank you for writing this post and some of the research you put into it! It is great to read the discussion happening in the comments section too.

    I have mixed feelings about zoos and aquariums… I understand the educational and rehabilition side, but the space of an enclousure, no matter how big, cannot compare to what the the real wild is like for those animals.
    My family and I have gone to zoos in the past, but I’m not sure I can really bring myself to go back to one. We have talked about these same issues as family. I’m going to share some of this info with them.
    Again, really interesting post.

  • Alice December 20, 2013, 2:04 pm

    After reading this post, I noticed that Blackfish was on Netflix, and I watched it immediately. Wow. It is a powerful documentary. I can’t stop thinking about it, and I’ve talked about it with several of my friends. I highly recommend it. I went to SeaWorld a few times with school trips, but I can never go again.

  • Jacqui December 20, 2013, 6:37 pm

    This is a wonderfully thoughtful and thought-provoking post. What a wonderful world it would be if all parents were half as conscientious as you! I reviewed Blackfish in advance of its national release, if you would like to read it:

  • Catie December 23, 2013, 11:45 am

    I work at an architecture firm that has a studio with a specialty in Zoos, the architect that heads the studio is very involved with AZA and has been designing zoos for over 15 years. I 100% agree that an AZA accreditation is a must for any zoo I visit. A lot of the grey area is going to fall into the older zoos and private zoos that just can’t get funding to update their facilities. I’m not saying that’s an excuse, I just know that some zoos have issues getting to where they want and need to be for the safety and overall well-being of the animals due to lack of funding. Absolutely NOTHING speaks louder than the public’s dollar, and if you spend it on good quality zoos, they will be able to continue to be updated and maintain their accreditation .

  • Kim January 2, 2014, 11:32 am

    Hi there, pro-zoo here. Let’s talk. Accredited facilities aren’t perfect, but neither is life in the wild. Animals starve and are killed and die of disease every day. Life expectancies of captive animals are more often than not much longer than in the wild. Plus I think what zoos bring to people is a chance to experience animals up close, which is what leads people to care so much about wild animals in the first place. Most folks have never seen wild bears, lions, or elephants, but they feel a connection to them and they want to help them because of an experience at a zoo. The fact that you and many commenters source PETA throughout makes this article a little less credible to me though. PETA is a well-intentioned but ultimately ridiculous organization. I work at an AZA-accredited facility, and we have received letters from PETA stating that we should be feeding all of our animals vegetable products, even carnivorous species. Also just a quick note about Blackfish. Sea World had a rocky start, like all zoos. Tilikum has a sad story, there is no denying that. But what do you think is the solution? Stop going to Sea World, and they will lose funds, funds they use to care for the animals. Then what? Release them? Animals that have been born and raised in captivity their whole lives will not last in the wild, they just won’t. You can’t coach an animal like that to adapt to the wild. They are highly intelligent, so people often say if you can rehabilitate a human you can rehabilitate a whale, which makes sense if you know of any orcas willing to serve as mentors to the whales who will be going out into the wild one day. Humans have developed ways to communicate with the whales, but facilities who successfully rehabilitate animals to the wild use denying intimate human contact as a sole principle, so that won’t do much good. I know everyone here loves animals and just thinks they are looking out for them. That’s what working at a zoo is all about for me, getting people to care more about animals in the wild- the captive animals are their ambassadors. But please try to think with the more logical part of your brain, not just your emotions.

    • Kim January 2, 2014, 11:44 am

      I’m sorry, I should take my own advice and not get so emotional. I want to add that I really respect that you did some research before and after your zoo visit, a step that most people skip. Even though you went to PETA for answers, but they are an organization that has done a good job of making their information very easily accessible, so I can’t blame you for that.

  • Lindsay February 7, 2014, 9:25 am

    As a marine scientist the issue of aquariums comes up a lot. I also do not think there is a clear “right” vs “wrong”. The people who work at aquariums are there because they genuinely care about those animals and want to learn about them and teach others. However, we have all seen the trauma that can be caused by captivity (insert Blackfish). I think moving forward we shouldn’t have to choose sides but find a happy medium with better living conditions at the sacrifice of some of the “closeness” or showcasing of the animals. I also think we have to accept that some animals do better than others in captivity and that should be taken into consideration.

    On another note, it is important that scientists (myself included) present facts and let others make decisions based on these facts, not trying to sway opinion. I’m looking at you Blackfish, which was not a completely accurate portrayal of the story and wreaked havoc on SeaWorld. Since then SeaWorld has fought back and discredited some of their “facts”. It is hard to make informed decisions as a consumer if you aren’t being presented with all the facts. I’m glad that you did as much research as you did, it is important to be knowledgeable about the things you throw your money at and hopefully scientists will make these decisions easier in the future by presenting unbiased information.

  • Cari Johnson April 9, 2014, 3:50 pm

    I did see Blackfish, as well as The Cove and will NEVER go to an aquarium or “swimming with the dolphins” again. Very good movies. I am also a veg and animal lover my whole life and have always been against zoos. I now have young children and it is very tempting to partake in these family outings for something to do. Thanks for all your research on this issue. I came upon your blog while hunting for information on a public zoo in the city of St Paul MN. I have been concerned all polar vortex Minnesota winter long how there African giraffes and rain forest gorillas have lived? Indoors?! Augh! I have come to the conclusion that I will share with my kids a quote that a regrettable past trainer of sea world said in Blackfish, “I hope there will be a day that our society will look back on our zoos and sea worlds and say how were we ok with such barbaric behavior for entertainment ” My kids can look at photographs, go on safari, and scuba dive in the ocean to look at animals. The trade off of zoos is not worth it.

  • Jacob July 20, 2014, 10:23 am

    Thanks! It is a well written and very balanced piece. While I have fairly views about zoos (i havent visited one for over a decade), it was interesting to read about your reflective journey and learn abput aza.

  • Tracy March 23, 2015, 4:13 pm

    No mixed feelings here. While I understand that it’s “fun” to see the animals, that is a very selfish perspective. It is certainly not fun for the animals. How is a zoo educational? The animals are not going to act the same as they do in their natural habitat and it’s just cruel. Also, no one has ever seen a dinosaur, but we teach children about them through books and pictures. Why can’t we do the same with monkeys and lions? I do believe in animal sanctuaries for animals that cannot be returned to the wild, though.

  • Andrea March 23, 2015, 4:34 pm

    Thank you for this, very thoughtful and well written.

    You should really really watch the documentary, as someone who grew up in Florida and has been to SeaWorld several times, I was horrified and extremely upset after watching it. I will never ever go back. I personally really hope that those orcas can be released into partial wild habitats that are much much larger so that they can end out their lives in the ocean as opposed to big bathtubs.

    I agree though that there are positives, and zoos can really teach children about respecting animals and their habitats. I really like your point about making sure that if you go, you know how they treat their animals.

  • Jessica Vera May 12, 2015, 1:04 pm

    I really enjoyed your posting on this matter. I have been feeling the same way, and I recently wrote about my visit to my local zoo, .

    I still have mixed feelings about zoos and which are good and which not so much, so reading about your research has been really insightful!

    I did see Blackfish a while back with my brother and I must say I have never been to Sea World and don’t feel the need to ever go after watching it. I think we as humans sometimes forget that we share this planet with other living things who also feel pain and joy, have emotions just like us.

    Anyway, don’t want to rant. Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it.

  • Alysa June 17, 2015, 11:00 pm

    I was so happy to come across this post! I love going to the zoo but I am constantly torn about whether or not I should be supporting such institutions. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who finds gray areas! I was also happy to learn that my local zoo was a member of the AZA. Thanks!

  • Linda August 29, 2015, 5:53 pm

    Thank you for your thoughts and for doing the research behind zoo quality and care. I recently went to the Omaha Zoo and was horrified when I saw the size of the habitats for the primates and large cats. I couldn’t believe how small the cages were for the large cats. When I was in the primate house, a complete stranger and I were commenting on how sad the gorillas looked. It’s been years since I’ve been to a zoo, and this experience has confirmed previously ambivalent feelings about zoos. I certainly felt uncomfortable and just sad going through the zoo. It made me wonder about if there was any kind of regulation or monitoring out there. Thank you for you article as is this was a really nice introduction to finding out more information, and I appreciated your thoughts especially considering the limitations of even those zoos that are AZA accredited.

  • Alley November 9, 2015, 9:28 am

    Fantastic work you’ve done. I wanted to add that you might want to look into the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) — a Northern CA group that has been rescuing circus and performing animals for decades. Kim Basinger, Lily Tomlin, and Bob Barker support PAWS. They’re one of the first that went up against the Ringling Brothers for their treatment of animals: especially elephants. Awesome people:

    Again, amazing job you’ve done with this post!

    Thank you for your diligent work!


Previous post:

Next post:

Healthy Tipping Point