19 Secrets Zoos Don't Want You to Know

Despite their consistent popularity, zoos are pretty controversial. But why? Well, the answer is simple - wild animals are best served in their natural environments. 

What role does a zoo play in the 21st century? What are the pros and cons of animals in captivity? What’s the difference between a roadside zoo and an accredited one? Many groups have done research and discovered several secrets zoos don’t want you know. Some of this stuff can be pretty surprising, but isn't it better to be informed about the cool creatures you see at the zoo and get a behind the scenes look at these institutions? Whether you think zoos are good or bad, there are plenty of interesting things to know about them.

  • Beware The Roadside Zoo

    Chances are, the animals at a roadside zoo are treated even less humanely than those at regular zoos. Animals are often kept in concrete pens, with nothing more than an old tire or a log to stimulate their minds. The objective of roadside zoos are to attracted passersby on busy roads, and often go to great lengths to entice travelers inside - sometimes to the detriment of the animals. These zoos are not accredited.

  • Some Sanctuaries Aren't What They Seem

    Sanctuaries may seem like a humane place for animals in need of a home to go, but not all sanctuaries are the non-profit operations they claim to be. If a sanctuary breeds outside of conservation efforts, it isn’t really a sanctuary. Rehabilitation centers and sanctuaries should never breed animals for display. The biggest issue with fake animal sanctuaries is there are no regulations over the word sanctuary, meaning any operation can say it is one without actually giving quality care to the animals. 

  • Some Zoos Pretend Animals Are Actually Other Animals To Draw Customers

    At the end of the day, zoos are meant for entertainment, and they aren't afraid to use stand-ins. Zoos have been known to have fake or knock-off versions of animals. One Chinese zoo was caught displaying a Tibetan mastiff posed as an African lion, giant sea cucumbers and rats posed as snakes, and dogs dressed up as leopards and timber wolves.

  • Captive Animals Suffer From “Zoochosis”

    Captive animals often become depressed, bored, and lonely. This condition is called “zoochosis.” It is so rampant in zoos that animals are often given mood-altering substances, such as Prozac. Many of the symptoms are things we have all seen at the zoo before; symptoms include head bobbing, constant pacing, over-grooming, bar biting, and even self-mutilation. The term stems from a 1992 documentary by Bill Travers that examined the harsh effects of captivity on animals. 

  • Many Zoos Get Rid Of "Surplus" Animals

    Many zoos have surplus animals - unwanted animals for which there is no more space, or animals that have ceased to be cute or useful for breeding purposes. These animals are sometimes killed, a practice referred to as "zoothanasia," fed to fellow zoo habitants, or sold to other zoos or dealers. While this practice is not common in certified US zoos, it is overseas and at unregulated operations. 

  • Almost Anyone Can Start A Zoo
    Photo: Sara Ahmed Naqvi / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Almost Anyone Can Start A Zoo

    Unaccredited zoos are a large problem, at least in part because they are so easy to set up. Any person who privately possesses wild animals can obtain an exhibitor license under the Animal Welfare Act and establish a zoo, but only 10% of the 2,000 zoos in the U.S. are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. While some states have restrictions on what kind of wild animals you can possess, not all do. And some states are easier than others to establish privately-owned animal operations.