Zoos, Aquariums, and Animaltainment – Fat Mama’s Views on Animals in Captivity

Updated: Jun 9

In a world where both the critically acclaimed documentary “Blackfish” and the cultural phenomenon “Tiger King” topped the charts on Netflix’s Top-Rated list of must-watch programming, it is clear that people are divided about the treatment of animals in zoos, attractions, education, and research facilities. It is also clear that there is no publicly accepted definition of what qualifies as roadside attraction vs. educational facility or zoo vs. theme park. This can make it difficult as a tourist to determine if you should be participating in fun animal-based activities or if you are helping to support cruel or illicit animal practices.

Fat Mama hanging out with a smiling camel on a tour at the San Diego Zoo (Nov. 2021)

As people who love animals, and especially having a soft spot for any kind of unique or special experience, our family always jumps at the chance to visit zoos, farms, rescue centers, and animal research facilities. But we have recently started rethinking how our tourist dollars might be supporting negative animal practices. But how can we, simple travelers, know the difference between positive and negative “animaltainment” (that’s entertainment focused on animals)?

Itsy Bitsy has always loved aquariums (Jan. 2019)

Fat Papa and I have been putting a good deal of thought into this because over the last ten years we have visited a wide variety of animaltainment attractions. Some of our favorites have included the Olympic Game Farm, San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, San Diego SeaWorld, Dolphin Quest, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Admittedly, these facilities all have very different feels, different focuses, and offer very different experiences and our feelings about them have changed over the years.

But the question remains, how does someone determine if an animaltainment attraction is promoting positive or negative animal practices? After all, there is a good argument to be made that animal interactions help inspire individual and public responses toward global education, conservation, and research related to animals in the wild. So where do we draw the line?

My Thoughts on Animals In Captivity

Where is the line when it comes to animaltainment? That is the question I am going to try to answer today. I find this question of animal ethics a really difficult one for so many reasons. I mean of course I disagree with animal abuse and cruelty, that seems like an easy line. But zoos? Aquariums? Animal interactions? At what point does the line get crossed from education and research to entertainment and exploitation or endangerment and neglect?

Is this someone's pet posing at a fair with Itsy Bitsy and Fat Mama or an exploited animal? I'm not sure (July 2018)

I’m not really sure I have fully answered this for myself and my family. But I am trying, and these are my thoughts on the issues.

First, I love animals, especially wild animals, and certainly do not think that wild animals should be kept as pets or in captivity. But, I also understand that there are certain situations that require wild animals to be in captivity. From bears who have learned to rely on human food to dolphins who have been injured by fishing nets and can no longer compete in their pods or tigers who have lost their home due to deforestation.

Sometimes there are just practical reasons for wild animals to be relocated from their original habitats. In zoos, rehabilitation centers, or research facilities, they can be cared for and studied. Grant it, when there is a need for animals to be rescued, it is almost always because we humans have negatively impacted their environment. "Rescuing" them (I put that in quotes only because it is hard to be the rescuer when we are the reason animals need rescuing in the first place) and caring for them is the least we can do.

Second, I can see how even in the highest quality of facilities like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance facilities, not all the animals are living their best lives. There are definitely animals that exhibit signs of stress or domestication, even when these extremely professional, highest-rated facilities do everything possible to cater to the needs and welfare of the animals.

But, at the same time, there is a certain number of animals needed in captivity for research purposes. Regardless of how you feel about lab rats and the need for medical animal testing, the fact remains ... there is a certain amount of conservation research that is easier done in captivity than in the wild. Additionally, organizations like the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance are leading the way on animal rehabilitation, population growth, and fighting extinction due to the research and breeding programs they do with animals in captivity all around the world. Does this justify their animaltainment programs?

Giraffes have such beautiful faces up-close (Jan. 2018)

Third, from my own personal experience and seeing Itsy Bitsy’s experience with animals, I can say without a shadow of a doubt in my mind that getting to interact with animals changes the way people think about animals. As ducked up as it is, we as human beings simply care much more about and for things that we can relate to from our own experiences.

Itsy Bitsy cares deeply about African animals and the conservation of the worlds rainforests because she has fed giraffes, gotten up close and personal with chubby unicorns (rhinos), and because there is an orangutan in San Diego that almost always smiles at her. Our whole family loves sea otters because we can clearly see them in their natural habitat while driving to Gigi and Pappy’s house and because the Monterey Bay Aquarium has an AMAZING display. Our personal interactions with animals have made us care more.

Lastly, I really trust my gut; after all, I have a large one, I might as well put it to use. When we visit a place, I try to listen to my instincts. Some places just feel wrong. How does an experience feel? How do I feel about the facilities? Do the people give off a good vibe? What does my gut say when we first walk up to a place?

I know that sounds a little hippy-dippy but, in general, I feel like my instincts have been good. But if I don’t want to trust my instincts, then I can always rely on the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Zoological Association of America (ZAA). These two organizations are the leading authorities on animaltainment certification. Now, when we talk to Fat Papa’s ornithologist aunt, she has very strong opinions about the AZA vs. ZAA and to her, only AZA certification will do.

But what is the difference between the two organizations? The big differences come down to stringency, cost, and difficulty to qualify. Just looking at the caliber of the two organization's members lists you start to get an idea for the difference in zoo types that they represent. For example, the San Diego, San Francisco, and Oakland Zoos are all part of the AZA but the Monterey Zoo is part of the ZAA.

A simplistic, and VERY boiled down description of their differences hinges on animaltainment and direct contact between animals and the public. Particularly around human interactions with elephants. I’m not going to make a call here on the validity, authority, prestige, or legitimacy of either organization other than to say that there is a discernible difference in the quality of facilities accredited by the AZA vs the ZAA.

San Diego Safari Park keeper demonstrates moves elephants have learned to assist in medical exams (Oct. 2019)

However, if we are interested in visiting a new animaltainment location, I will often start my research with looking up their AZA or ZAA accreditation. If they are not accredited by at least one of these organizations, then right off the duck my gut starts telling me the place is probably not the type of place we want to support. Sorry Olympic Game Farm, I loved visiting you as a kid, but as a parent, I just can’t justify the tradeoff between up close animal interactions with the poor treatment of your animals (I know. I know, its not intentional; but I have to assume that any place that lets the public drive their cars through animal enclosures sees more than their fair share of animal injuries.).

So, what am I saying about animals in captivity? I guess for me, the bottom line comes down to why the animals are in captivity. Are the animals in captivity so that the organization can educate and do research? Or are the animals in captivity so the organization can make money?

Now I know there is an argument on both sides. Plenty of places that are out to make a buck say they are all about the education, and plenty of educational places are also exploitative. This is why I trust my gut and look at the main operation. If the main operation is entertainment, then the location is a no go for our family. If the primary operation is education, conservation, rehabilitation, or research, then it is a big 10-4 and we are happy to throw our money at the organization.

There is something magical about getting to interact directly with animals, Fat Papa definitely agrees (Oct. 2019)

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the feeling we get around the animals…

Animaltainment – Interacting With Wild Animals

I will admit, feeding a giraffe and a rhino are among the coolest things I have ever done. These experiences are DEFINITELY ones I brag about. Getting to participate in these special feeding opportunities at the San Diego Zoo have been really special activities for Fat Papa, Itsy Bitsy and me; they are interactions that truly define our zoo experiences. But how do these differ from the things we saw people do on the “Tiger King” series?

While I certainly do my research and I love an old-fashioned Google search, often times online reviews, opinions, and sleuthing gets overwhelming. There are so many contradictory opinions from so many legitimate (and illegitimate) sources. Plus, everything seems so black and white online. Do you like animals? Then you must be against zoos … says this one group of experts. Do you love animals? Then zoos are one of our best ways to learn about conservation and rehabilitation … says this other group of experts. Meat is murder. PETA is the leading killer of stray dogs. For the price of a cup of coffee a day you can save the life of a polar bear …

Just look at those rhino lips, did you know that black rhinos like this one have a prehensile upper lip (Jan. 2022)

Legitimate, illegitimate, mainstream, counterculture, provocative, or Sara McLaughlin singing to pictures of abused animals, the amount of info out there about the treatment of animals in and out of captivity is daunting. And EVERYONE claims to be an expert and that their opinion or approach or way of thinking or their best practices are the way to go. So yes, please do your research before you book your animaltainment activities but sometimes, research just isn’t enough.

Fat Mama Tip: I'M NOT AN EXPERT, I make NO CLAIMS at being an expert on animaltainment and animal's rights in zoos. These are all just my opinions and experiences. Please do your research, trust your gut, and make decisions that make sense for your family.

For our family, there is nothing better than experience and our gut feeling. Like I said, I’ve got a big gut and I put it to use. We have participated in a wide variety of animaltainment activities from interactions at the highest rated zoos to pony rides at pumpkin patches. From these experiences, I have used my own observations and gut feeling to determine what kind of animaltainment is acceptable for my family, but it’s been hard. So let me break it down into four general examples.

While I think everyone needs to make their own decision for their own family, everyone can agree that ultimately the care of the animals is what matters most. But this post is written with no judgment and no shade. I hope by describing how I make my decisions about animaltainment and by sharing the experiences my family has had with different forms of animaltainment that I can help all of you Fat Mamas and Fat Papas out there determine what is right for your family.

Fat Mama, Itsy Bitsy and Fat Papa were surprised at how soft the kangaroo was, almost as soft as a cat (Dec. 2019)

However, the best advice I can give any parent when it comes to choosing animaltainment activities is this … TRUST YOUR DUCKING GUT.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance
Itsy Bitsy watches Fat Papa feed a cassowary bird (Dec. 2019)

The reason I trust the animal interactions my family participates in with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance are manyfold. But it all begins with the way I see zoo educators and keepers interact with the animals. Our family has participated in over twenty tours, safaris, and feedings at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance facilities since 2018. Not once have I EVER witnessed a staff member raise their voice to an animal, promise an animal interaction, attempt to cajole or force an animal behavior, or use any form of negative reinforcement with the animals.

We have experienced animals refuse to participate in interactions, animals who decide not to feed, animals who chose not to practice a behavior, or who behave in an unexpected way. But never has an animal been punished, rebuked, or disciplined for noncompliance. More often than not, when we have participated in tours and feedings, the animals respond in very positive ways. The keepers might use food and/or a bell to lure the animals to the feeding area, but they never do so in a threatening or violent manner (and never from within the cage or enclosure). Because the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance educators, keepers, and staff rely on positive reinforcement, the animals generally are happy to interact because they know they will be rewarded.

A Rubber Duck Tale: When the animals don’t cooperate, we appreciate the staff’s response. It is what lets me know the true quality of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance facilities. Our most recent trip to the San Diego Zoo was for our annual Happy Zoo Year trip and one of our tours included an okapi feeding. I have wanted to do this for YEARS and so was very excited about the idea of feeding an okapi.

Our tour guide explained that the okapi male had been separated from the female and a new baby (four-months old) and the zoo was currently switching off days as to who was on exhibit. She warned us that when the male was on exhibit, he was less social as he could smell, but not see, the female and baby. The okapi were separated currently but would be reunited once the keepers deemed it appropriate after mother and baby had fully acclimated.

However, this meant the male didn’t always come participate in public feedings. Our guide explained how the feeding protocols work. First, keepers make eye contact with the okapi then show him food in his line of site. Next keepers or guides would call his name and ring a bell for a few seconds while continuing to show him the food. It is then the okapi’s choice whether or not he wants to participate.

In our case, the tour guide went through this procedure, but the okapi did not approach the feeding area. Itsy Bitsy and E-Man both asked the tour guide to ring the bell again, but she politely refused, explaining that she did not want to desensitize the okapi to the stimulation. Additionally, it was the okapi’s choice to feed, and pestering him with the bell would not be polite.

While we were all disappointed, no one was unhappy. On the contrary, we were very glad to see the respect and care the tour guide provided to the animal and the knowledge she passed on to our party about the care of the zoo’s animals. I can’t wait to take the tour again and hope for a different outcome.

Additionally, several years ago, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance made a change in policy regarding animal interactions and feedings. To improve the mental, dietary, and physical health of their animals feedings, tours, and interactions would not longer be constantly available. Now the tour and interactive schedules have changed to a rotation more accommodating for the animals’ overall well-being. So, we might not get to feed giraffes on a Wednesday and the Flamingo and Friends tour isn’t always going to be offered, but that’s okay. If it means the animals are happier and healthier, we will gladly plan our zoo trips according to the new schedule and policy.

This year the whole family came to San Diego for our yearly Happy Zoo Year trip (Dec. 2021)

All of these experiences make us feel comfortable interacting with animals at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Association facilities. I feel like these policies that we have seen in action truly support the organization’s stated mission and values. Clearly the organization is dedicated to education and research. I have seen firsthand the way they run their programs to support education not commerce. Although, yes, they do participate in capitalistic practices, commercial enterprises, and fundraising to support their efforts. But it doesn’t feel the same as say … SeaWorld.

While Fat Mama, Itsy Bitsy, and Fat Papa had fun at SeaWorld they left feeling bad for the animals (Dec. 2018)

Judge me all you want, but when Itsy Bitsy was three, we took her to SeaWorld. I mean, this kid loves all things aquatic and surely it can’t really be as bad as all the press makes it out to be … right?

Well … Let’s put it this way … how often have you been to an amusement park with your kids and gotten a headache during the day from all the loud noises and sensory overload? And that is just from one day, you don’t have to work there. Have you ever worked at an amusement park? Having to deal with the noise, smells, and general chaos that is most theme parks can be daunting, even for employees. How do you think animals whose senses are MUCH more sensitive than ours would feel about it all?

Flamingos living under a rollercoaster at SeaWorld (Dec. 2018)

Within 30 minutes of being at SeaWorld, Fat Papa and I felt like we had made a mistake. But, the damage was done, the money was spent, so we decided to finish out the day. The feeling only got worse. While we never witnessed any negative or forceful treatment by trainers or staff toward the animals, the interactions did feel very different from the zoo.