Ontario’s roadside zoo problem – 6 commonly asked questions answered
About 70% of facilities that keep exotic wild animals in Ontario can be described as a roadside zoo. Learn more about roadside zoos and what you can do to help.
1. What is a roadside zoo?
Roadside zoos typically bear little resemblance to the large well-funded public institutions most people think of when they hear the word “zoo”. Whatever your opinion about zoos generally, roadside zoos set the poorest standard for how we see and treat captive wildlife.
Enclosures are designed to enhance public viewing, allowing visitors to come close to animals, not for the welfare of animals. Cages are often grossly undersized, without space for animals to exercise or to perform natural behaviours, and usually lack shelter, privacy, enrichment and hygiene.
Most of these roadside zoos operate according to their own standards and don’t have trained, professional animal care staff or the finances necessary to provide proper animal care, housing, and safety for animals and the public.
2. Why are most of Canada's roadside zoos in Ontario?
Ontario is the only province that does not have any regulations related to the keeping of exotic wild animals in captivity. A provincial licence is only required when keeping native wildlife in captivity.
This means that a roadside zoo could have a license to keep a native wildlife species (such as a black bear) and when an enforcement officer comes to check on the conditions the bear is kept in, they are unable to comment on the enclosure next door that might hold a lion, tiger or other wild animals not native to Ontario.
While the prescribed conditions are minimal, vague and poorly enforced for native wildlife, Ontario does not have any licenses and barely monitors facilities that keep exotic wild animals. Instead, individual municipalities are responsible for providing oversight and control of facilities keeping these animals within their jurisdiction and for dealing with any problems associated with them.
In many Ontario cities, there are no regulations against keeping exotic wildlife like a tiger or a monkey; to open a zoo, no training or education is necessary, and no business, financial or emergency planning is required. Almost anyone can acquire wild animals, nail together a few cages, stick up a sign and call themselves a zoo. These are the places we call roadside zoos.
3. Where do roadside zoos get their animals from?
Roadside zoos breed their animals or acquire new animals from other zoo facilities and private wild animal collectors, such as exotic pet owners. The captive breeding of animals in roadside zoos almost always involves species that are already overrepresented in captivity, such as monkeys and lions.
Breeding efforts are not based on science and the genetic history of their animals is often unknown, making them unsuitable for official breeding programs. Breeding is used to attract the public with baby animals, using these baby animals in animal-visitor interactions and to replenish their captive animal populations.
Occasionally roadside zoos sell their animals to other roadside zoos or exotic pet owners.
4. Do roadside zoos contribute to conservation and education?
These facilities usually argue that the public should overlook their deficiencies because of the contribution they make to public education and conservation. These claims don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Signs at roadside zoos offer little in the way of education. Many are poorly designed, difficult to read, and inaccurate. In many cases, only the name of the animal appears and occasionally the animal’s age, birthdate, and/or species name. Other kinds of educational programs that are found in more professional zoos are almost always absent.
Similarly, roadside zoos do very little for the conservation of vulnerable species. Endangered species like lemurs, tigers, parrots, and tortoises are rarely released back into their natural environments.
5. Are roadside zoos safe?
There are few public health and safety regulations or inspections to protect the captive animals, zoo staff, volunteers, visitors and the local community. And self-regulation has not led to the implementation of minimum professional zoo safety standards. For example, tigers and other dangerous animals are often kept behind fences that are too low and stand-off barriers that prevent direct interactions between wild animals and the public are often missing.
Additionally, inappropriate animal-visitor interactions, such as unsupervised feeding and touching of animals can, and have, resulted in bites, scratches, and other injuries to zoo visitors.
Contact with wild animals also heightens the risk of zoonotic diseases – diseases being transmitted from animals to the public. This risk is even higher when animals are stressed, and many are. It’s not uncommon to see animals in roadside zoos showing signs of boredom, frustration, anxiety, and other signs of stress.
6. What can I do to stop roadside zoos?
There are several things you as an individual and animal lover can do. As a starter do not visit a roadside zoo. If you want to visit an animal facility, please consider doing some research to make sure that it’s a legitimate sanctuary that you’re planning on visiting. View our wildlife attraction and sanctuary checklists.
If you live in a community where a roadside zoo is located or if you want to advocate for the animals currently in roadside zoos, you can take the following actions:
- Talk to your provincial political representative to share your concerns. See our toolkit for tips.
- Write the Solicitor General to share your concern. Visit our campaign page to use our advocacy tool.
- Donate to support our work to change Ontario regulations.