Some of the World's Top Zoos and Aquariums are Mistreating Animals

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Wild dolphins swimming the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

A new report from World Animal Protection says that a number of the world’s top zoos and aquariums are mistreating animals.

The attractions in question are affiliated with World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an organization founded in 1935 that says its goal is to promote conservation and animal welfare.

The World Animal Protection study, conducted in partnership with Change For Animals Foundation, involved surveying more than 1,200 zoos and aquariums linked to WAZA, which claims to represent “the world’s leading zoos and aquariums.

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As part of the research, the two organizations visited 12 of the world’s “top” zoos and aquariums and confirmed that cruel and demeaning performances and activities, known to cause great physical and mental distress, are taking place, including such things as:

—Dolphins performing stunts and being ridden in venues in Portugal, Singapore, Australia and the USA

—Elephants performing in shows with props in Japan and being ridden in Canada

—Tigers and lions being forced to take part in theatrical shows in France and being used as photo props in Canada and South Africa

—Primates being used as photo props in South Africa and the Philippines

Many of these activities, such as elephants being forced to offer rides and dolphins performing stunts and being ridden, have a long history of being controversial and more recently have been the focus of mounting evidence regarding their cruelty.

According to National Geographic, unlike the U.S.-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which requires members to undergo accreditation, WAZA doesn’t have such review standards.

Gavrielle Kirk-Cohen, WAZA’s director of communications, told National Geographic that the organization relies on its accrediting member associations to enforce their standards among their member zoos and aquariums.

Becoming a WAZA member requires filling out an application, submitting letters of support from two other WAZA members, and paying a fee. Zoos, for example, must pay 2,500 euros, or nearly $2,800, National Geographic reported.

According to the report from World Animal Protection (WAP), an international nonprofit organization that promotes welfare and humane treatment, wild animals kept by zoos and aquariums across the world endure appalling conditions.

The activities outlined by the report, such as dolphin stunts and elephant rides, continue despite WAP calling on WAZA to ensure its members are not engaging in such cruel and demeaning practices.

The report also points out that allowing visitors to participate in animal selfies can be damaging for animals’ mental and physical well-being and often requires training methods such as premature separation from mothers, physical restraint and pain- and fear-based conditioning.

“Zoos have this almost sacred kind of role in conservation,” Neil D’Cruze, WAP’s global wildlife advisor told National Geographic. “It’s time for [WAZA] to take a step back and take the leadership role that we as visitors, let alone WAP as an NGO, need them to take.”

The report identifies a dozen venues of particular concern including African Lion Safari in Canada, Cango Wildlife Ranch in South Africa and SeaWorld San Antonio in Texas.

WAP considers SeaWorld to be an indirect member of WAZA because it is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which is a member of WAZA.

African Lion Safari, in particular, was criticized for offering elephant rides, a practice that requires cruelly crushing an elephant’s spirit through a process known as phajan.

Representatives from African Lion Safari did not respond to National Geographic’s request for comment.

As for Cango Wildlife Ranch, the report says the facility “offers visitors the chance to pet cheetahs and servals in an enclosed yard, taking selfies with the animals under the supervision of staff members.”

Tammy Moult, assistant director of tourism at Cango Wildlife Ranch, told National Geographic “were absolutely broken” at Cango’s inclusion in the WAP report.

“We started doing substantial research on [WAP] and found a lot of scorned and unhappy ex-employees, donators, contributors, and many cracks and holes in the organization became clear without much effort,” she said in an email. “The ‘facts’ are grossly unfounded and irresponsible.”

SeaWorld San Antonio meanwhile offers shows and opportunities to swim, pet, and pose with dolphins, which respond to commands from trainers.

In an emailed statement, SeaWorld San Antonio spokesperson Suzanne Pelisson-Beasley told National Geographic: “Accredited zoos and aquariums like SeaWorld play an important role in raising the bar on animal welfare practices, advancing vital conservation efforts and facilitating marine mammal rescues.”

In a statement published on its website, WAZA said WAP’s report was incorrect and that the organization takes animal welfare seriously.

“WAZA is in accord with WAP that such practices have no place in a modern zoo or aquarium,” the statement says. “Unfortunately, the report contains a number of inaccuracies, including naming institutions which are not WAZA members and thus which WAZA has limited jurisdiction over.”

Two of venues highlighted by the WAP report, Dolphin Island in Singapore and Jungle Cat World in Canada, are not WAZA members.

Jungle Cat World lost its WAZA membership last year after it resigned from Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), according to National Geographic. Jungle Cat World resigned its membership soon after a CAZA inspection.

The WAP report meanwhile notes that when managed properly, zoos and aquariums, through initiatives like humane research and captive release programs, can be vital in conserving threatened wild animals. But because zoos and aquariums are also typically set up to attract visitors who want experiences with animals, sometimes responsible and credible conservation efforts can be put on the back burner.

“To make wild animals interact with, and perform for, visitors harsh training methods are frequently used that inflict appalling suffering,” states the report. “Depending on the species, and the type of attraction, these methods can involve premature separation of baby animals from their mothers, starvation, physical restraint, pain and fear.”

Captivity in zoos and aquariums will always compromise animal welfare and such attractions can never fully replicate the conditions that the wild animals need to live full lives, concludes the report.