Roadside zoos are an example of commercial cruelty where animal exhibitors put profit over the care of the animals. Roadside zoos usually mean suffering, pain, fear, and degradation for the animals forced to perform daily. There is a reason that accredited zoos do not allow public contact- it is not in the animals’ best interest.
According to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) website,  less than 10% of the 2,800 wildlife exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meet accreditation standards. 
Examples of Roadside Zoos:
The animals at roadside zoos are often fed inadequate food, kept in small, dirty cages, do not receive proper mental stimulation, and are repeatedly denied appropriate medical care. We see these attractions pop up constantly.
The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park
One infamous roadside zoo (no longer in business) is The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, better known as the animal park from Netflix’s “Tiger King.” According to NBC, in 2021, the U.S. government seized almost 70 big cats from this location due to violations of the Endangered Species Act.  According to the Justice Department, the animals lacked proper shelter, food, and veterinary care.
Wildlife in Need
Another example of an infamous roadside zoo is Wildlife in Need, whose former owner was featured in “Tiger King.” Don’t let the name of the zoo fool you- this roadside zoo was not helping any wildlife in need. The USDA revoked their permit in 2020 after the owner, Tim Stark, was accused of abusing animals, declawing tigers, and threatening officials.  The extent of these allegations included over 120 violations of the Animal Welfare Act and the confirmed murder of a leopard cub by Stark using a baseball bat.
Texas Roadside Zoos
In Texas, two roadside zoos owned by the same man had a total of 26 violations of the Animal Welfare Act and 1 official warning in 2021. In June of 2021, the USDA investigated one of these zoos and found that there was no attending veterinarian for the animals there. The USDA also found that a giraffe and a hippo died under suspicious circumstances at this location. The inspector found injured animals, filthy enclosures, and many needed repairs. 
Upon their inspection of the owner’s second zoo in August of 2021, they found extremely similar conditions- strong smells of feces and ammonia, animals without water, and extremely skinny animals. Shortly after this USDA inspection, the zoo’s only giraffe was removed from the facility and was never returned. From June 2021 to September 2021, the USDA documented over 300 animals that were acquired or “disposed of” without documentation at each of these awful zoos.  Both of these roadside zoos remain open to the public as of 2022.
It is important to ensure that the location you visit meets the accreditation standards of either Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) or The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS). AZA sets the standards for zoos and aquariums, while GFAS handles the accreditation of animal sanctuaries.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a good zoo, aquarium, or sanctuary versus a bad one. Here are some red flags and green flags to help you tell the difference:
What To Look Out For
- Are they literally ON the roadside? Roadside zoos earned their name by often being on the side of the road.
- Interactive experiences with animals (touching, feeding, swimming, photo opportunities.)
- Isolation or overcrowding
- Empty enclosures with no enrichment items (toys, structures to climb)
- Small enclosures
- Breeding their animals
- Accreditation from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums or The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries
- Large enclosures that allow plenty of space to roam and play
- A good amount of enrichment such as toys, structures to climb, different places to sleep, and sometimes live food
- Knowledgeable staff ready to answer any questions
- Transparent about where they get their animals from
What To Do If You Come Across A Roadside Zoo
If you find yourself at a questionable zoo and notice potential animal abuse or animals in distress, document what you see. Take photos or videos of anything that looks suspicious- enclosure sizes, water and/or food bowls, cleanliness of animals, number of staff members, etc.
After documenting, contact local law enforcement if anything you saw was an emergency and/or life threatening. For any other concerning findings, file a report with local law enforcement and file an animal welfare complaint with the USDA by visiting https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalwelfare/complaint-form. By doing so, your reports can be used as evidence in the future to shut down these roadside zoos.
Updated July 2022.