What Separates a Roadside Zoo from A Legitimate Sanctuary?
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM Karen Lauria, BornFreeUSA.org
May 2020

The differences between captive facilities like Joe Exotic’s menagerie and sanctuaries like Big Cat Rescue or the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary could not be more stark.

captive Tiger

Netflix’s docu-series, Tiger King, brings viewers inside of a well-known roadside zoo in Oklahoma, previously owned by a man known as Joe Exotic. For the price of admission, Joe Exotic would take visitors on a tour of his facility, allowing them to gawk at the hundreds of wild animals held in captivity there, watch him feed and walk among the animals, and even hold and pass around tiger cubs for photos. The series juxtaposes Joe’s facility with that of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, a sanctuary that provides a forever home to captive big cats rescued from circuses, roadside zoos, and other exploitative circumstances.

At one point, Joe Exotic opines that his facility and that of Big Cat Rescue are basically the same. Both keep animals in captivity, he observes, so what’s the difference, really?

In truth, the differences between captive facilities like Joe Exotic’s menagerie and sanctuaries like Big Cat Rescue or the Born Free USA Primate Sanctuary could not be more stark.


1. The first priority of a roadside zoo is to make money and to entertain the public.

This happens at the expense of animal welfare, as zookeepers permit members of the public to gawk at, yell at, and otherwise intrude on the peace and comfort of the animals. Many also allow visitors to touch or feed the animals, which is stressful to the animals and potentially dangerous. What is more, bigger is often better at roadside zoos, which means that zoos will often keep adding animals to their facilities, even if they do not have enough space to house them humanely or safely. All of this is done to make money, not to safeguard the well-being of the animals.

2. Roadside zoos often breed animals.

Many roadside zoos take part in captive breeding. While the zoo community often claims that breeding is part of an effort to conserve species, in truth breeding animals in captivity rarely aids wildlife conservation efforts. Instead, captive breeding is done for the sake of profit. Keepers can sell baby animals or charge members of the public to pet and photograph them. And, when the animals get too large and dangerous to be around people, they are drugged to render them sedate, languish in cages, or are simply killed.

3. Roadside zoos lack vigorous oversight.

Many roadside zoos must obtain an exhibitor license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but the licensing process and the regulations that govern it focus on the safety of the facilities’ visitors, not on the welfare of the animals. Therefore, these parks generally lack oversight where animal care is concerned.


1. The first priority of a legitimate sanctuary is the animals’ welfare.

Legitimate wildlife sanctuaries put the needs of the animals they care for first. This means they are not open to the public and do not use animals for educational shows or displays. Contact and interaction with the animals, such as feeding or petting, is not allowed, unless it is in the animal’s best interest. At Born Free USA’s primate sanctuary, for instance, the sanctuary staff does not handle monkeys unless necessary for medical care.

2. They do not engage in captive breeding.

Legitimate wildlife sanctuaries prevent the animals they care for from breeding, since their focus is solely in caring for the animal, not in attracting visitors or in trading or selling offspring. Legitimate sanctuaries want to see an end to wild animals in captivity, not breed more captive animals!

3. Legitimate sanctuaries are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS).

Unlike roadside zoos, legitimate wildlife sanctuaries go through a rigorous accreditation process to ensure they meet strict criteria for animal housing, nutrition, safety, management, and governance.


Born Free USA works to keep wild animals where they belong: in the wild. We advocate to change laws to end the cruel and unnecessary captivity of wildlife – in fact, we would like nothing more than to close our Primate Sanctuary because there were no more monkeys in need of rescue and a safe new home. Quite simply, we do not want to see animals in cages – no matter how big those cages are. Roadside zoos, like Joe Exotic’s, by contrast, are driven by profit to ignore animal welfare concerns, breed animals, and stuff a growing array of exotic animals into limited space – to make money and keep themselves in business forever.

Earlier this year, we welcomed five monkeys to our primate sanctuary from a deplorable roadside zoo. This exemplifies the difference between a roadside zoo and a legitimate sanctuary. At the zoo, the animals lived cramped together in filthy cages, subjected to the stares and taunts of visitors and the whims of the zookeepers, and denied adequate nutrition and medical care. While they are still in captivity at the sanctuary, they now enjoy peace, space, excellent care focused on their needs, and the chance to live life on their own terms.

Not all captivity is made equal. The difference between a legitimate sanctuary and a roadside zoo is an important distinction that anyone could see. Anyone, perhaps, except Joe Exotic…

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