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

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

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.


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.


At SeaWorld, the animals were being asked to perform and entertain. Often animals were being asked to show off skills that had been learned rather than reinforced natural behaviors. This contrasted sharply with the zoo where on tours animals might be asked to feed or show off specific behaviors similar to ones they would perform in the wild. Like a keeper might give a signal and the Kookaburra bird would sing or at most at the Safari Park the keepers might demonstrate how the elephants had been trained to perform certain “moves” for medical exams. But this never involved the keepers physically handling the animals or manipulating them in any way, certainly not riding them.


SeaWorld claims to be committed to rescue efforts and conservation research, insisting that “your visit to SeaWorld helps support animal rescue efforts, with over 39,000 and counting.”* They also say this commitment has lasted 50 years (that averages out to only 780 animals helped each year). Information about their specific efforts and projects is not easy to find and the “conservation” part of their website is full of broken links. But don’t worry, you can buy tickets to the park from any page!

Itsy Bitsy looks on while trainers interact with dolphins (Dec. 2018)

Again, I go back to my gut. SeaWorld’s lip service just doesn’t feel like it matches their actions. They might say they support conservation and research, but they are definitely not an aquarium. They might promote themselves as being in favor of rehabilitation and habitat protection, but there have been too many questions about how they get their animals and how they treat them. Not to mention the fact that their own website uses vague language, few facts, and almost no external links to support their commitment to research, conservation, or education.


While I do not judge those who choose to go to SeaWorld, after all, there are few places you can vacation and interact with orcas, I would encourage you to do some research before buying tickets. We got a yucky feeling, but again, I’m not here to judge, each to their own. But we will not be returning.


Dolphin Quest, Hawaii

Dolphin Quest is one of those experiences where I will fully admit I do not know how to feel about the organization. On the one hand, intelligent animals like dolphins probably should not be kept in captivity. But on the other hand, allowing the public to safely interact with dolphins is a great way to get people to care about marine life and the health of our oceans.


Itsy Bitsy on our resort balcony overlooking Dolphin Quest, Hawaii (Jan. 2017)

Fat Papa and I participated in a Dolphin Quest program in January 2017 and frankly, it was amazing. We had so much fun that I really want to take Itsy Bitsy back to do it sometime. But, I will admit I felt, even at the time, really torn about the experience. Here are my pros and cons.


Cons

  • Dolphins are highly intellectual and social animals that should not be kept in captivity.

  • Is there really any size tank that is going to be large enough for a dolphin?

  • The dolphins are being asked to perform learned tricks, not all of which mimic natural behavior.

  • The facilities are only located in tourist areas and clearly little to no research is happening on site.

Pros

  • The dolphins appear to be well treated. There was a dolphin who had recently given birth who occasionally participated in our interaction but mostly stayed with her calf. When the mother interrupted interactions “mid tick” to nurse her calf, the trainers called the behavior out to us guests and discussed the special mechanics of dolphin nursing. It was a unique educational experience.

  • We only ever saw positive reinforcement used to encourage behavior. Trainers appeared to treat the dolphins well and never used force with the animals.

  • The dolphins did not appear to exhibit signs of stress or illness.

  • The trainers were able to answer all of our biological, environmental, temperamental, and other questions about the dolphins and their lives at the facility.

  • All trainers appeared to be extremely knowledgeable, and one discussed with us at length her background in marine biology and the extreme competition she experienced to work and research with Dolphin Quest.


Dolphins are fed from the dock at Dolphin Quest, Hawaii.

Additionally, it may just be the nature of the Dolphin Quest enterprise, but the animals are truly at the center of their organization. The language on their website is clear and concise leaving little room for assumptions or misinterpretations (unlike SeaWorld’s website which leaves many questions and a desire for clarification regarding their “conservation” work).


While it would be great if MORE of Dolphin Quest’s proceeds went to conservation, education, and research, they are not shy about the ways they support ongoing scientific efforts. Their website clearly states current and past projects, the specific people heading up those projects, and the research institutions associated with the projects. This makes it easy to find information on each one and see the direct impact Dolphin Quest is having. You can learn more by clicking here.


So, when I weigh these pros against the cons my gut tells me that until I learn otherwise, I feel okay visiting Dolphin Quest. And frankly … it was AMAZING! Getting to learn about dolphins from people who not only hold degrees in marine-related fields but who work with these animals every day was incredible. Learning from the trainers was only shadowed by the dolphins themselves and seeing the way they interacted with one another (the mother and new baby were ADORABLE) and then getting to interact with them and the trainers was just inspiring. 10 out of 10, highly recommend!

Dolphin swimming around the dolphin lagoon at Dolphin Quest, Hawaii.

There are other marine education and research facilities that Fat Papa and I have come across in our travels, particularly in Hawaii, that we do not feel so great about. Ones who proclaim themselves to be research facilities but then allow you to purchase rare or exotic sea life for your home tank seem fishy (pun intended!) to us. My gut starts to grumble anytime a facility claiming to be for research, preservation, or rehabilitation then breeds and sells animals to the public. So, we stay away from those types of animaltainment … even though their programs look really cool.


Petting Zoos and Pony Rides

We’ve all seen those traveling petting zoos at County Fairs or the pumpkin patch that sets up a pony ride to attract more kids. When you’ve just finished your corn dog lunch and are looking for the next fun thing to do before hitting the carnival, it is hard to say no to a kid who just wants to see the animals in the petting zoo. So … Fat Papa and I almost never say no. Except in a few rare occasions.

Itsy Bitsy loves talking to the 4-H kids, especially when they let her hug a bunny (Aug. 2019)

Again, it all comes down to my gut ... and the fact that all of these animals fall very easily into the category of "pet." Sure, I might not want a goat in my backyard but that doesn't mean somebody doesn't keep goats as pets (okay, I totally do want a goat for a pet, but you get what I am saying). We are not talking about exotic animals here.


All the animals we have seen participating in traveling reptile shows or Alaskan pig racing or pony rides can be obtained without breaking, bending, avoiding, skirting, or otherwise evading any domestic or international laws about selling, breeding, licensing, transporting, or keeping the animals. The primary ethical questions are ... should the animals be kept in those traveling conditions and should the animals be forced to interact with the public? And that is for your gut to answer.

Itsy Bitsy just loves petting zoos (Aug. 2019)

I am sure most of the animals in the traveling petting zoos that go from town to town and state to state hitting up all the different fairs and festivals don’t have the best life (I mean I get tired after one afternoon of a toddler hanging all over me). However, it is rare that I have seen one with sick or injured animals.


For the most part, these petting zoos are filled with animal breeds that have been domesticated for tens of thousands of years. In fact, I have NEVER seen an animal injure a child at a county fair petting zoo (except for the occasional nibble).


BUT, there are a couple of pop-up petting zoos and a specific Half Moon Bay pumpkin patch pony ride that we will NEVER take Itsy Bitsy back to visit. Why? Because the animals clearly were not being treated well and it showed in the animals’ interactions with people.

Itsy Bitsy grooming a goat at the Oakland Zoo (Sep. 2018)

When we have been at a pony ride or petting zoo and see animals kick, act nervous, try to avoid human contact, or be aggressive toward other animals (other than goats who always try to push each other out of the way to get the food) then, once again, my gut starts grumbling like it’s in desperate need of some Pepto Bismol. For Fat Papa and I, these are sure signs that the attraction’s owners are not treating the animals well and are forcing them to perform.


Again, I understand that traveling animal attractions do not provide the best life for animals. However, I do feel that as long as the animals in these productions are not exhibiting signs of illness, distress, or neglect, then for our family it is an okay animaltainment activity. But it’s definitely a gut reaction and one that when my gut starts grumbling, Itsy Bitsy is not happy about. Luckily, the instances of my having to say no to a petting zoo or pony ride have been few and far between. Just trust your gut!

 
San Diego Zoo offers giraffe feedings every weekend (Oct. 2019)

Regardless of the choices your family makes about animaltainment there really is no better experience than learning from the experts whose life’s work has been to research, educate, conserve, or rehabilitate wildlife. From behind-the-scenes zoo tours to Ranger Talks at State Parks to talking with the 4-H kids at county fairs, our family loves nothing more than learning about and interacting with animals when we travel.


I hope this description of our experiences and what we look out for helps you make future plans around your own families animaltainment adventures!

 

*SeaWorld quotes were found on the SeaWorld San Diego website on December 22, 2021 and January 4, 2022 at: https://seaworld.com/san-diego/commitment/


References to the Dolphin Quest website are based on multiple visits to their website and specific language found on January 4, 2022 at: https://dolphinquest.com/health/

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