USDA Cracks Down on Roadside Zoos

The battle against roadside zoos — where animals are exhibited for entertainment, handled throughout the day by strangers and abused by facility staff — has been a long one.

While the Association of Zoos and Aquariums oversees inspection, accreditation and standards maintenance at zoos and aquaria across the United States — including rigid requirements for animal welfare – roadside zoos are subject to no such regulation.

And despite routine undercover investigations showing systemic abuse, the government has been slow to act. Now, that’s changing — at least for big cats. New U.S. Department of Agriculture guidance clearly articulates that many practices at roadside zoos violate the Animal Welfare Act.

The FDA and animal advocates are concerned about the practice of allowing visitors to handle and feed young tigers, lions and other big cats.

The cubs are often deliberately underfed, physically abused and deprived of veterinary care. As they grow bigger, older and more dangerous, their futures can be uncertain, as they’re no longer profit generators for their owners. Those that do escape to sanctuaries often have serious untreated veterinary problems.

In 2014, the Animal Legal Defense Fund outlined a series of horrific violations at roadside zoos, and a year later, the Humane Society of the United States did the same. The HSUS investigation found cubs with ringworm that were handled repeatedly by the general public. There was also evidence of deliberate underfeeding to keep cubs docile.

The organization noted that with minimal supervision, there’s a lively trade in breeding big cats for roadside zoos. Cubs are often taken from their mothers at far too young of an age — many lack robust immune systems.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ statement on roadside zoos is crisp and to the point: “The ASPCA is opposed to the cruelty that is inherent in using either wild animals or livestock in unaccredited zoos, roadside menageries, petting zoos, game farms and the like, and in attractions such as elephant rides, camel rides, and llama and pony rides that either stand alone or are attached to such venues.”

The Washington Postalong with The Dodo, also uncovered terrible conditions at such attractions. Historically, these zoos have been subject to virtually no government oversight.

While the USDA theoretically has guidelines and standards in place, many are vague and poorly enforced — despite repeated outcry from animal welfare groups. Anyone interested in starting a roadside attraction with exotic animals could fill out some documentation and open for business.

The newly-issued guidance covering big cat cubs is tremendously good news. The policy could be another nail in the coffin for such facilities, as more and more animal welfare advocates lobby against them.

Now, the Humane Society says it’s on to the next challenge: more protections for great apes and bears. Like their feline counterparts, these animals are taken away from their mothers too soon, manhandled, passed from customer to customer for photo ops and kept in filthy, cramped conditions.

Animal welfare groups don’t just want to see legal protections extended to these victims — they also want to see those standards enforced. The USDA is a large agency with a vast mandate and a limited number of inspectors, often stretched thin as they try to balance the myriad needs of the agency.

That’s why it’s so important for you to report suspected violations of the Animal Welfare Act to the USDA, and to provide copies to welfare organizations like the HSUS and ASPCA. These organizations use compiled reports, as well as their own investigations, to target prime offenders.

The ultimate goal is to remove animals from terrible conditions and place them in sanctuaries where they can receive the care they need — and deserve.

Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Dianne D.
Dianne D3 years ago

shut down all zoo's, and animal entertainment venues

Rosemary H.
Rosemary H3 years ago

I visited a roadside zoo the other day. All the big iconic animals were there, all in good shape and close together, so you didn't have walk too far, and everyone there thoroughly enjoyed the experience! .......................................................................... Now before the keyboard warriors attack me, this "zoo" was a sculpture park, and the animals were made of iron! It made me think. Couldn't we have more attractions like this instead of real roadside zoos?

Randy Q.
Past Member 3 years ago


Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

Close all these pathetic places.

Elaine Bauer
Elaine Bauer3 years ago

These agencies' raison d'etre is the protection and care of creatures, and our environment. How can these places even exist, if agents are doing what we are paying them for? They must be eliminated, and all of out "protective" agencies must get real as to their mission!

dagmar karin dag
dagmar karin dag3 years ago

Los zoologicos,no son educativos,son solo cárceles para animales inocentes.

Ana R
ANA MARIJA R3 years ago

Why does it take so long for people to understand that Roadside Zoos (or any kind of parks) are not entertaiment, education or conservation...?! Btw, ignorance IS a Choice.
Ruth C. i agree with you...

S Gardner
sandy Gardner3 years ago

Thank God...lets close these prisons!!!!!

Lori Hone
Lori Hone3 years ago

Laws are only as good as the enforcement and they can't do anything if they don't know about it.