Animal Welfare Consequences Of Mobile Zoos
Mobile zoos go by many names, including “live animal experiences,” “animal educational visits,” or “traveling animal shows.” In these programs, exotic or domesticated animals are transported to different locations with the goal of providing education, entertainment, or therapeutic support to humans.
This study takes a critical look at mobile zoos and the laws regulating them. The authors find that mobile zoos raise many of the same animal welfare concerns as stationary zoos, plus additional concerns related to the traveling nature of these programs. Mobile-zoo-specific concerns include transportation stress, frequent handling, and unstable living environments. Despite these factors, mobile zoos are largely unregulated in most countries.
Information about mobile zoos is sparse, since few governments keep records about them. In an attempt to fill this gap, the authors used Google to search for mobile zoos in Australia, Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Spain, and the Netherlands. For each country, they collected data from websites that appeared on the first five pages of the Google search. Because this data comes from a small sample of mobile zoos with an online presence, the authors caution that they cannot draw conclusions about the total number of mobile zoos or how common certain features are among them.
From the Google results, the authors identified 341 different animal species that appear in mobile zoos, including invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. To quantify how challenging it is to care for these animals in a zoo environment, the authors assigned each species a grade: “easy,” “moderate,” “difficult,” or “extreme,” The authors based the grades on factors that included nutrition, health, and habitat needs, as well as any health or safety risks posed to humans. Over 80% of the species were in the “difficult” or “extreme” category.
Due to the nomadic nature of mobile zoos, the authors argue that it is difficult, if not impossible, for caretakers to meet animals’ basic needs. This is especially true for species in the “difficult” and “extreme” categories. From existing literature on animal welfare, the authors found fourteen welfare concerns relevant to mobile zoos. Many of the concerns relate to unstable, unsuitable housing and the stress of frequent handling and transportation.
Like animals in stationary zoos, animals in mobile zoos are confined, preventing them from taking part in natural activities and behaviors. Because animals in mobile zoos need to be transportable, they are likely confined to even smaller spaces. While the animals are in transport, they can experience stressful noise and motion; unhealthy changes in light, temperature, and humidity; disrupted sleep; and stretches of time without access to food or water. The combination of chronic stress and unsuitable living conditions can lead to poor health.
Animals in some mobile zoos are frequently handled by caretakers and inexperienced members of the public. Handling is stressful, especially for non-domesticated species, because it mimics what animals experience when they are captured by a predator. At mobile zoo events, members of the public often pet or handle multiple animals, which can spread disease and further compromise the animals’ health.
The authors also point out that handling animals at mobile zoos poses health risks to the public, most notably from zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted between humans and nonhuman animals. While there isn’t much data on disease transmission at mobile zoos specifically, outbreaks are well-documented at similar live animal programs like petting zoos and open farms. The authors speculate that many disease outbreaks linked to mobile zoos go unnoticed. Because mobile zoos move from place to place, mobile-zoo-related outbreaks are difficult to track and contain.
Mobile zoos often state that their mission is educating the public. When the authors fact-checked educational and promotional materials that appeared in the Google search, they found many inaccurate and misleading statements. These statements frequently had the potential to negatively affect animal welfare. For example, one mobile zoo stated that “[m]ost invertebrates, amphibians, and reptiles are low-maintenance and easy to keep as pets.” This is false. In fact, many invertebrates, amphibians, and reptiles have “difficult” or “extreme” care requirements.
Despite the risk they pose to animal welfare and public health, mobile zoos are minimally regulated in most countries. The authors collected data on existing laws and regulations by surveying government agencies in 74 countries. While some responses were incomplete, the results show most countries have no federal laws governing mobile zoos. Even countries that regulate mobile zoos often have inadequate regulations. The U.S. Federal Animal Welfare Act applies to certain animals at mobile zoos, but not invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and farmed animals.
Laws at the state and provincial levels are highly variable, especially regarding animal welfare. In Canada, for instance, Saskatchewan has no specific mobile zoo regulations, while Quebec requires permits aimed at protecting animal welfare and conserving wildlife. U.S. state regulations largely focus on public health rather than animal welfare. New York, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have no regulations or legal guidance except for handwashing requirements.
In most countries, stationary zoos are subject to much stronger regulations. Typically, stationary zoos can’t operate without formal certification and regular inspections.Although scientific data about mobile zoos is lacking, the authors conclude that mobile zoos urgently need government regulation and monitoring based on the precautionary principle. According to this principle, when there is a lack of evidence, we should act in ways that minimize the chances of harm.
By this reasoning, the authors recommend that exotic animals and potentially dangerous domestic animals should be banned from mobile zoos altogether. Mobile zoos should be required to register with governments. They should also be regularly inspected to monitor the health of the animals, the animals’ accommodations, and how the animals are transported and cared for. Safeguarding the health and welfare of animals in mobile zoos is an important issue for advocates.