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Working to improve zoo conditions and promote natural habitats

The Humane Society of the United States

Zoos engender strong feelings from both advocates and opponents. Because of the complexity of the issues surrounding them, it is problematic to characterize zoos and similar exhibitions of wild animals as a homogenous entity. One basic standard, however, can and must be applied to these institutions: If they are unable to provide animals with appropriate and humane care, they should not have those animals in their facilities.

The Humane Society of the United States believes that under most circumstances wild animals should ideally be permitted to exist undisturbed in their natural environments. Zoos are, however, a currently established part of our society and a fact of life. Some of them provide benefits for animals, such as financially supporting conservation programs and the preservation and restoration of threatened and endangered species, as well as promoting the education of people to the needs of wild animals and their role in ecosystems.

Sadly, though, the antiquated zoo of yesteryear did not disappear with the advent of state-of-the-art exhibits that now dominate publicity about modern zoos. The dark side of the story is that thousands of wild animals, many endangered, continue to languish in roadside zoos and menageries. Often the care for these creatures barely meets even the minimal federal requirements for exhibiting animals. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of the more than 2,000 animal exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are also accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Even some AZA-accredited zoos contain forgotten and outdated exhibits. These inadequate displays are often obscured by the multimillion-dollar exhibits that tend to focus on the more glamorous species and habitats.

Instead of being focused only on entertainment and profits, zoos and other facilities housing captive wild animals should be organized around a core mission that educates the public about the needs of the animals and the threats they face. Such zoos should maintain animals in conditions simulating their natural habitats as closely as possible, and treat the animals in their care with the highest degree of humaneness and professionalism. Achieving these requirements is imperative not only for the welfare of the animals, but also because inhumane or inappropriate conditions when viewed by an impressionable public, especially children, provide a negative learning experience by seeming to condone indifference or cruelty toward animals. And they do not teach anything about the lives of these magnificent creatures in the wild.

The HSUS works with zoos desiring to improve and having the capability to do so. We also urge zoos to act as sanctuaries for wild animals, providing facilities for animals in need rather than breeding them for exhibition purposes or acquiring them from the wild or from exotic animal dealers.