Do Roadside Zoos Help Endangered Animals? What to Know About Conservation

Roadside zoos defend their breeding programs under the pretext of conservation, but at these shabby captive-animal displays, new baby animals are bred for only one purpose. It’s not to replenish threatened populations—it’s to bring visitors through the gates. Most animals confined at roadside zoos are not endangered, nor are they being prepared for release into natural habitats. And very few (if any) of the captive-bred animals whose species do face extinction in nature—including elephants, tigers, and chimpanzees—will ever be released back into their natural environments to bolster dwindling populations.

this is not the ideal weight of a tiger
When you see this photo of a severely emaciated male tiger—named Mooton and kept at Bhagavan “Doc” Antle’s South Carolina hellhole, Myrtle Beach Safari—do you immediately think “preservation” and “conservation”? No. It’s been documented that Antle, who touts himself as a conservation advocate, has failed to provide animals with adequate veterinary care, sufficient cage space, protection from the elements, and clean water. Clearly, the only thing this roadside zoo is interested in preserving is its ability to turn a profit.

Roadside zoos’ touting of captive breeding as “conservation” gives the public a false sense of security about a species’ survival—a fraudulent comfort that undermines support for and diverts resources from real conservation efforts.

Breeding tiger-and-lion hybrids—such as ligers, tigons, and liligers—and inbreeding tigers to produce white ones are more examples showing that roadside zoos are focused on turning a profit, not ensuring animals’ well-being. Aside from the obvious fact that breeding unnatural animals is practically the opposite of conservation, these interspecies hybrids and victims of inbreeding often suffer from debilitating health problems, develop diseases and sustain injuries more often than other big cats, and die prematurely.

Inbred white tiger with cleft palate and crossed eyes
This is Kenny, a captive-bred white tiger whose parents were brother and sister. After languishing in filth at a private breeder’s Arkansas operation, he was rescued in 2000 by Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. He was born with a cleft palate and crossed eyes—and he died at half the age captive tigers normally reach, which is common among inbred big cats.

Roadside zoos teach humans that it’s acceptable to interfere with animals—including by passing tiger cubs around for photo ops or forcing chimpanzees to do backflips, which does nothing for conservation. Quite the opposite, it teaches children and other patrons that it’s OK to exploit animals for a photo or a cheap laugh.

tiger cub petting
In order to acclimate baby tigers to handling for photo ops, “playtime” with patrons, and other exploitative uses, cubs are torn away from their mothers when they’re just weeks or sometimes only days old.

Animals in roadside zoos, pseudo-sanctuaries, traveling shows, and roadside displays are often forced to endure more than hands-on interaction, too—chimpanzees are dressed up in clothing and forced to play football, and elephants are made to paint with their trunks under the threat of a bullhook. And some animals are trucked around the country.

big cat habitat expose
At Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast “Sanctuary” in Sarasota, Florida, a PETA eyewitness observed a chimpanzee named Chance being jerked around by a leash wrapped around his neck. He was torn away from his mother when he was just 6 months old, acquired by a breeder for private “pet” ownership, then sent again to the family who owns the shabby Sarasota roadside zoo, where he’s forced to perform demeaning tricks while tethered. None of this aids conservation.

These are cheap publicity stunts—exploitation—dressed up as playful stimulation or enrichment for the animals.

True conservation is about helping animals in their own environment, not imprisoning them for entertainment.

That these animal prisons dare to refer to such abuse as raising conservation awareness—to exploit animals while claiming to be protecting their species from extinction—is a slap in the face to organizations that do work to preserve animals’ natural habitats.

Roadside Zoos, Pseudo-Sanctuaries, and the Great ‘Conservation’ Con

A 2011 study conducted in part by Association of Zoos and Aquariums expert Stephen Ross and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science surveyed zoogoers, asking whether they thought chimpanzees were endangered. Most believed they weren’t, because they saw them so frequently on TV and in movies. Clearly, putting chimpanzees in clothes and forcing them to perform tricks hinders conservation awareness, rather than bolstering it.

Support Habitat Conservation, NOT Animal Prisons

People who want to make a difference should support organizations that work to preserve animals’ natural habitats as well as real animal sanctuaries that rescue and care for exotic animals but don’t sell or breed them. Visit the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries to learn more.

You can also help animals by taking action today. Click below to take action for animals suffering at shabby roadside zoos across the country and at countless other tourist traps around the world:

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