From circus-like shows to wildlife selfies, animals are routinely abused and exploited at zoos, aquariums for entertainment

World Animal Protection documented cruel and demeaning performances and activities in over 1,200 zoos and aquariums and found that 75% of venues offered at least one type of animal visitor interaction, including some "horrific" cases

                            From circus-like shows to wildlife selfies, animals are routinely abused and exploited at zoos, aquariums for entertainment

Some of the world’s top zoos and aquariums are abusing and forcing wild animals to go through “demeaning and appalling” suffering, all in the name of entertaining visitors. From big cats in gladiator-style shows in large amphitheatres and dolphins being used like surfboards to clothed chimps in nappies, driving around in scooters, and elephants playing basketball, the report by the World Animal Protection (WAP) documents largescale exploitation of wild animals, who are involved in activities that require cruel training techniques, and known to cause significant physical and mental distress to animals. The WAP is an international non-profit animal welfare organization. 

The study documents cruel and demeaning performances and activities (as can be seen in the above picture of the Zoo D’Amneville, France, courtesy of the WAP report) taking place in venues linked with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).

“Wild animals kept by irresponsible zoos and aquariums across the world are enduring appalling suffering for visitor entertainment. During field visits to a number of WAZA-linked venues, researchers observed big cats, such as lions and tigers, being placed on stage to perform tricks and stunts set to loud music; dolphins being forced to perform stunts and allowing trainers to ‘surf’ on them; elephants being forced to give rides on their backs to tourists and perform in shows; and primates being exploited as photo-ops dressed in costumes,” says the study - The Show Can’t Go On. 

It further states: “These activities inflict intense suffering and involve behavior that would never be observed in the wild. They have no place in any modern zoo that puts the best interests of animals at its heart.” 

Avilon Zoo, Philippines. (Image courtesy World Animal Protection (WAP) report)


While WAZA guidance states that members should not involve animals in animal shows, displays, or interactive experiences where animals perform demeaning and unnatural behaviors, the researchers found that the guidelines are not being followed or implemented. Of the 1,200-plus zoos and aquariums included in the study, 75% offered at least one type of animal visitor interaction.

Currently, there is no single global body regulating all wildlife tourism. In the case of zoos and aquariums, WAZA was founded in 1935 to help venues “maximize the conservation impact and look after the animals in their care to the highest standards.” It has approximately 282 direct members, and about 1,200 associated member venues through 24 different national and regional associations. 

The researchers found that 75% of the zoos and aquariums offered at least one type of animal-visitor interaction. (World Animal Protection (WAP) report)


The research team initially conducted a desktop survey focussing on more than 1,200 venues located across the globe. They used data from the review to identify venues of particular welfare concerns. Based on these findings, the researchers visited 12 different zoos/aquariums between February and June 2019. The on-site field research was carried out in collaboration with the Change for Animals Foundation. 

The venues for the field visits, and included in the case studies, were chosen from zoos and aquariums that are either direct members of WAZA or linked to it through regional and national association members. These include venues located in nine countries - the US, Australia, Canada, France, Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, and South Africa. The study focuses on the exploitation of big cats, dolphins, elephants, and primates.

According to the researchers, WAZA’s stated aim is to “guide, promote and encourage members in animal care and welfare.” However, says the research team, their investigations reveal clear evidence that cruel/demeaning visitor attractions that have no place in responsible modern zoos and aquariums are slipping through the net. 

The report says while the venues included in these case studies do not represent the worst zoos in the world, but their links with WAZA implicitly suggests they are aspiring to be modern, animal welfare-friendly zoos, but are clearly contravening WAZA guidelines.

“The research exposes some of the worst examples of wild animal attractions that have no place in a modern zoo. All this cruelty continues despite repeated calls by the World Animal Protection to WAZA, asking them to ensure their members are not offering these types of cruel and demeaning attractions,” says the study. 

Investigations show clear suffering caused to wildlife. For example, despite their reputation as some of the world’s fastest and strongest predators, some zoos exhibit big cats as little more than cuddly toys, shows research. 

“Our field investigations into four WAZA-linked zoos in Europe, North America, and South America have revealed that supposedly modern zoos still present their lions, tigers, and cheetahs in demeaning and unnatural ways. These include shows and visitor interactions where the animals can be petted and cuddled while leashed to a platform. One show paraded tigers around a small circus ring while a trainer poked them with sticks so that they would perform stunts. Another gladiator-style show made lions and tigers appear in scenes with actors in a decorated amphitheater. Other venues offered direct encounters where visitors can stroke, kiss and cuddle the cats, or use them as photo-props for selfies. To place these wild animals in such artificial contexts directly contradicts the animal welfare strategy that WAZA claims to promote to venues it is linked with,” says the study.

According to experts, stress can cause behavioral abnormalities and recurring health issues in captive big cats. They say wild tigers are solitary creatures, so performing in confined spaces with other big cats, and contending with spotlights, loud music, and large crowds, is likely to feel very unnatural for them.

The researchers further say that big cats kept for entertainment have also been linked with illegal international trade. “The wider implications are that direct interactions with wild cats can mislead people into thinking that these species are domesticated, and this could potentially fuel other problematic industries such as the global exotic pet trade. The use of wild animals as photo-ops is also a huge problem that could lead to species and biodiversity loss, as well as the inhumane treatment of wild animals,” says the team.

Again, investigations in four WAZA-linked venues in Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania showed dolphins performing choreographed ‘tricks’ for noisy crowds. “We found them being treated as nothing but selfie props and we even saw them being made to exhibit humans actions such as ‘waving’ with their flippers,” says the researcher.

SeaWorld, USA. (Image courtesy World Animal Protection (WAP) report)

The report says that keeping dolphins in captive facilities will always lead to severe restrictions on their welfare, and research shows that captive dolphins can be physically affected by their expectations to perform. “Commercial pressure implies they are likely to be encouraged to train and perform even when they do not show willingness. The presence of people in their enclosure can increase the animals’ stress levels. Since dolphins carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans and vice versa, direct interactions can transmit pathogens and leave visitors, staff, and animals susceptible to the spread of disease,” the findings state.

Elephants housed at WAZA-linked zoos are also being cruelly exploited for entertainment, investigations show. They are forced to endure tourists and staff riding on their backs and necks, while they are coerced into performing. The researchers found that elephants paint pictures with their trunks, play basketball, wear costumes, sit upright on chairs, and use props such as tambourines to ‘entertain’ the crowd. 

Ichihara Elephant Kingdom, Japan. (Fernando Carniel Machado / World Animal Protection)

“Activities such as petting and or riding elephants require the trainer to establish dominance, and this often involves painful and traumatic training techniques. Such training can have a significant impact negative impact on an elephant’s physical and psychological welfare and may also cause post-traumatic stress disorder,” the experts warn. 

They further say, “Shows and rides can be physically demanding for the elephants and leave little opportunity for social interaction with other elephants, or to graze for food. Given that elephants can live up to 80 years, any suffering experienced as a result of the entertainment industry is likely to be extensive and long-lived.”

The researchers state that without WAZA’s urgent action to protect wild animals within venues that they are linked with, the scale of animals suffering and the numbers condemned to cruel captivity are certain to increase. They say that tourists can also take a firm stand by not visiting or supporting these venues that offer cruel interactions. “By failing to properly address the cruel and demeaning visitor attractions being provided by these venues, WAZA itself is failing to adhere to its own animal welfare guidelines,” says the study.

Until these venues drastically improve their animal welfare, the experts from World Animal Protection have urged the public to avoid these venues. 

“We are demanding WAZA stand up and fulfill its role as the global alliance of the world’s leading zoos and aquariums. WAZA should clarify and communicate its position on this issue and review and revoke membership status from any venues refusing to shift away from providing irresponsible wild animal behavior attractions. It needs to make its interventions public, with clear, time-bound action plans which zoos and aquariums in questions can be held accountable for. Further, tourists visiting any venue displaying the WAZA logo must be confident they are not inadvertently supporting cruel visitor interactions with wild animals,” says the researchers. 

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