3 things you need to know about Ontario’s roadside zoos

15/05/2024

Interested in learning more about the roadside zoo situation in Ontario? Read on!

By Michèle Hamers, Wildlife Campaign Manager 

Roadside zoos are typically small, under-regulated facilities that keep wild animals captive in degrading conditions, leading to immense animal welfare concerns, all in the name of entertainment. 

Here are three key aspects of roadside zoos that highlight why they're problematic: 

1. How can I recognize a roadside zoo? 

About 70% of facilities that keep exotic wild animals in Ontario can be described as a roadside zoo, but what differentiates them from a higher-welfare public wildlife facility? There are a few relatively easy ways to recognize a roadside zoo: 

i. They offer unsupervised feeding, having the possibility to touch or closely interact with wild animals. These zoos normalize interacting with wild animals, for example, by posting pictures of their staff carrying, hugging or petting wild animals. 

Interacting with a wild animal is ill advised whether the animal is in their natural habitat or in a zoo. Some animals like tigers, bears and crocodiles are dangerous and can severely hurt or even kill a person. 

Unsupervised feeding is problematic since animals in zoos should have a healthy and stable diet. When the public is allowed to feed them, animals can easily become overweight. It can also lead to conflict within a group of animals, because they will likely compete to get to the food.  

Guests directly interacting with and feeding wild animals

Guests directly interacting with and feeding wild animals at a roadside zoo. (Photo: Sasha Rink / World Animal Protection)

Finally, being allowed to interact with captive wild animals is poor education. Wildlife enforcement officers and governments are trying to educate the public that wild animals should not be approached or fed in cities and parks for the safety of animals and people. What these roadside zoos do is in direct conflict with this message. 

ii. Most wild animals don’t have opportunity to hide from the public’s view. 

Wild animals, who generally avoid close proximity to humans whenever they can, should have the choice whether they want to be in the public’s view or not. And with choice, we don’t mean the small indoor boxes these animals might have access to. An animal should be able to rest, eat, sleep, play, and do all the things an animal wants to do out of the view of visitors. Many of these facilities strategically place food and water in locations that force animals into public view and limit hiding spots to make sure the animals are visible to the public at all times 

A jaguar in a roadside zoo

A jaguar in a roadside zoo in Ontario. (Photo: Sasha Rink / World Animal Protection)

Our report  “Nothing New at the Zoo” documented 11 of the approximately 30 roadside zoos across Ontario. You can use this report to see examples of animals being kept in inappropriate conditions. 

iii. All the cages and enclosures look the same. 

It’s a “cookie-cutter” approach to housing wild animals, all animals housed in often similar size enclosures, with the same substrate, the same water and food bowls and the same climbing structures. This approach is easy and cheap for the zoo operators. When a cage/enclosure is empty (due to the sale or death of an animal), it takes no effort to put a new animal in the enclosure, no matter the species. But as you can imagine, each species and individual animal has their own needs and preferences.  

For example, a Snow monkey from Japan comes from a very different environment than a Ring-tailed lemur from Madagascar, yet their individual needs are often not addressed when it comes to enclosure design. 

A Snow monkey enclosure at a roadside zoo
A Ring-tailed lemur enclosure at a roadside zoo
Two lions sit on a structure in a small enclosure in a roadside zoo in Ontario.
A lemur in a Canadian roadside zoo
A baboon in a cage at a roadside zoo

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