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New Report Reveals Inhumane and Unsafe Conditions at Maryland’s Roadside Zoos

Maryland’s Fatal Attractions,” a report detailing inhumane and unsafe conditions at Maryland’s roadside zoos, uncovered an extreme lack of basic care and filthy conditions at facilities housing dangerous animals such as big cats, bears and primates. The Humane Society of the United States commissioned two experts—Mel Richardson, DVM, and Richard Farinato—representing more than 80 years of collective experience with captive animals to visit and evaluate three roadside zoos in Maryland: Catoctin Zoo in Thurmont, Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun and Tri-State Zoo in Cumberland.

The experts found structures intended to contain large, powerful predators constructed with flimsy plastic netting and collapsing crossbeams in the roof, fences with wide gaps or of insufficient height, and a sagging fence next to a safety barrier that a child could easily penetrate. The report reveals tigers living in a crumbling, empty swimming pool, primates who lack adequate environmental enrichment living in crowded or isolated conditions, bears exhibiting neurotic behaviors, dangerous and outdated cages, and attacks and escapes.

Maryland law currently prohibits the private possession of certain wild animals including big cats, bears and primates, but the law is severely weakened by an exemption for any “exhibitor licensed under the federal Animal Welfare Act,” allowing exotic pet owners and unqualified facilities to circumvent the purpose of the state law by simply obtaining an exhibitor license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The HSUS encourages Maryland lawmakers to strengthen state law by eliminating this overbroad loophole and limit the exemption to professionally-run, accredited zoos and sanctuaries.

Dr. Richardson, a veterinarian with more than 40 years of experience providing care for captive wildlife, said: “These poorly run facilities were unhealthy for the animals--who can develop weakened immune systems and resort to neurotic and self-injurious behaviors when kept in stressful and substandard conditions--and potentially unsafe for the public.”

Farinato, retired senior director of The HSUS’ animal care centers with more than 40 years of professional expertise in the care of captive wild animals, said: “The conditions at these roadside zoos ranged from bad to worse and it’s only a matter of time before there’s another big cat attack or bear escape at one of these dilapidated menageries.”

Tami Santelli, Maryland state director for The HSUS said: “The possession of big cats, bears and primates needs to be restricted to qualified, professionally-run facilities, such as those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums or the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.”

Read the full report here.


  • There are more bears, big cats and primates at privately-run roadside facilities in Maryland than at the state’s professionally-run, fiscally-responsible AZA-accredited zoos.
  • An analysis of the zoos’ USDA inspection histories confirm chronic problems at all three zoos, yet these facilities continue to operate in a manner that undermines animal welfare and public safety, illustrating gaps in the federal Animal Welfare Act and Maryland’s Dangerous Wild Animal Act.
  • Federal licenses are easy to obtain, but difficult for the agency to revoke and are renewed every year, even when a licensee has had serious and repeated AWA violations.
  • USDA exhibitors can keep animals in unsafe and inhumane conditions, yet still be in compliance with the limited and inadequate standards of the AWA.
  • With only 136 inspectors responsible for inspecting more than 15,000 active sites, there are not nearly enough USDA inspectors to provide regular inspections and follow-up.
  • A 2010 USDA Office of the Inspector General audit criticized the agency for its failure to recognize safety-related violations or require corrective actions until an event–such as an escape or attack by a dangerous animal–has already occurred. And licensees are not required to report animal escapes or attacks by dangerous animals.
  • Since the USDA typically does not confiscate animals when a license is revoked, state and local agencies funded by Maryland taxpayers may be responsible for seizing, placing and transporting dangerous animals from noncompliant facilities.

Media Contact: Naseem Amini, 301-548-7793, namini@humanesociety.org

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