28 min read

The Disturbing Truth About Where Zoo Animals Come From

This is Sissy.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Sissy's life in the zoo system began in 1969. That year, at the tender age of 1, she was ripped away from her family in Thailand and shipped to the Six Flags Over Texas Amusement Park petting zoo in Arlington, Texas.

Not long after her arrival to Six Flags, she was sold to the Frank Buck Zoo in Gainesville, Texas.

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

In 1981, a massive flood hit the region and she nearly drowned. She was found tightly holding herself against a tree, with only her trunk visible. She suffered long-term trauma from the event and, for years afterward, the threat of a storm made her petrified.

Five years later, in 1986, Sissy was again transferred, this time to the Fort Worth Zoo for breeding purposes. It didn't go well. "She reportedly showed signs of aggression toward her new keepers and did not relate well with the other elephants," according to the website of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where Sissy now lives.

During her 2-year stay at the Fort Worth Zoo, she was never successfully bred, and was shuttled back to the Frank Buck Zoo.

Sissy with Vincent Reynolds of Frank Buck ZooThe Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Sissy with Vincent Reynolds of Frank Buck Zoo | The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Sissy remained there for 10 more years without incident - until one day, a zookeeper was found dead in her enclosure, and Sissy was labeled a killer.

Sissy at the Frank Buck ZooThe Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

Sissy at the Frank Buck Zoo | The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee

In 1998, with that reputation, Sissy was transported briefly to the Houston Zoo before being hopscotched over to the El Paso Zoo, where she was brutally beaten with ax handles by her keepers.

Finally, in January 2000, after enduring decades of endless transfers and abuse, Sissy arrived at the Tennessee sanctuary, where she is expected to live out the rest of her life.

"Sissy's life touches me emotionally," Barbara J. King, professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and author of "How Animals Grieve," told The Dodo. "She suffered because she was treated as a commodity ... [she] was thought of as solving a problem for zoos, but the costs for her life are underestimated."

Margaret Whittaker, director of elephant programs at The Elephant Sanctuary, told The Dodo one of the most significant costs of all those years of moving around is that Sissy never had a consistent group of elephants to bond with. "What impacted [Sissy] was years of social isolation that led to abnormal behaviors."

But, says Whittaker, Sissy is resilient, her behavior is quite flexible and her recovery "is amazing."

King says the zig-zagging and cruel tale of Sissy's life is extreme in the zoo system. Sissy's story raises significant concerns about the life of zoo animals behind the scenes, however. Millions of Americans go to the zoo each year. In fact, the number of zoogoers in some years exceeded the number of people who attended professional football games, basketball games, hockey games and baseball games combined. But how many of those people actually looked at the animals and genuinely wondered: Where did these animals come from?

The ecosystem of zoos

"People have this idea that they go to a zoo and there is this individual zoo and here are the zoo's animals," Irus Braverman, professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and author of " Zooland," told The Dodo. "But in fact, it is more like an ecosystem in a way, as artificial as it may be." Movement between zoos and the acquisition of animals is not only common but the "heart and blood of zoos," she says.

Let's start with some basics. Not all zoo animals are born where they're exhibited. Some, like Sissy - and potentially 18 elephants from Swaziland that three U.S. zoos are attempting to secure at this time - are yanked from the wild. Others are transported from one zoo to another. Sometimes they are shipped for well-intended reasons, like diversifying the genetic breeding pool. Maybe a solitary animal needs to have some company or a more suitable climate. Other times, animals are shuffled about for more questionable reasons that disrupt important social bonds and subject them to various other stressors. And before you think you've even seen all the animals at a given zoo, some animals are not even put on display, living out of sight of the public altogether.

Giraffes, sloths, antelope, bears, parrots, porcupines, monkeys, lemurs and lions live in fabricated landscapes their whole lives so the public can stare at them for a passing moment. One study revealed that people look at a zoo elephant for an average of just 79.5 seconds. Rob Laidaw, founder of Zoocheck in Canada told The Dodo that in some cases, it's a lot less: "For a lot of species, the time can be as low as 8 seconds."

Roadside zoos

There are basically two types of zoos in the U.S. A network of roughly 230 zoos and aquariums are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and as such go through an accreditation process. But there are an equal number of other zoos that generally have far less stringent regulations and are loosely overseen by the USDA. Many of these are colloquially referred to as roadside zoos.

"There are some 250 roadside zoos in the U.S.," Lisa Wathne, captive wildlife specialist for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), told The Dodo. And where the animals come from - unlike the majority who live in the AZA system - is something of a mystery. "We know many roadside zoos breed animals," Wathne says. "We also know they trade and buy animals from other roadside zoos and dealers."

Since USDA files on animals owned by roadside zoos are not available through public records requests, the movement, life and death of many animals in roadside zoos are often elusive.

These zoos, private owners, dealers and animal breeders are all part of a largely hidden network, "and if they want something, they know who to call and can either have [an animal] or find someone to give one to," Wathne says.

The exotic auction

One place where roadside zoos acquire animals are exotic animal auctions, where "exotic animals of every imaginable species - including big cats, bears, wolves, non-human primates, birds - are offered for sale to the highest bidder," says Wathne. The three auctions widely known in the U.S. are Lolli Bros. in Macon, Missouri, the Mt. Hope Auction in Ohio, and the Triple W auction in Cookeville, Tennessee.

A 2014 story in the St. Louis Post Dispatchdescribed the scene at the well-known Lolli Bros. auction in Missouri. Inside the auction house were cage after cage of tortoises, hedgehogs and "tiny gliding possums," according to the article. Two marmoset monkeys were sold for $3,000. A 6-month-old red kangaroo "held aloft in a baby blanket by its handler" was sold for $4,000. A leopard-spotted serval: $4,100. Baby monkeys in diapers were up for sale. Cockatoos. Camels. Zebras.

A baby black bear was brought into the auction by a man carrying a leash.

Pretty much every animal was for sale and people came from everywhere. The parking lot "bore license plates from Florida to Wisconsin, Texas to North Carolina," notes the article. The facility was plagued with problems, it says, including a number of animal welfare related citations by the USDA. "Last year, inspectors noted Bengal cats in enclosures so small they couldn't turn around; rabbits in cages with sharp corners; primates living in their own waste; and unsupervised contact between the public and the animals."

Wathne says there are trends for roadside zoos, a kind of roadside species du jour. "Right now it seems to be giraffes, because the public can feed them," she says. "And river otters - with some places allowing people to swim with the otters." Big cats and primates, she adds, are common because they're crowd pleasers.

"Really, the only species I can think of that a roadside zoo probably could not get or would be very difficult to get would be polar bear, gorilla, orangutan or rhino," she says.

A zoo home is rarely permanent

It's been some 50 years since Sissy was brought into the U.S. and it's unclear how many animals, like her, are shuffled annually throughout AZA zoos. (Request for comment by the AZA was not returned.) But in 2009, some 2,175 animals were shipped from the Smithsonian's National Zoo alone (most were invertebrates, mainly aquatic creatures such as cuttlefish).

And the standards that AZA zoos have for transport exceed those of roadside zoos.

"When animals are moved from one accredited zoo to another, they are moved for a specific reason," Ron Kagan, director of the Detroit Zoo, told The Dodo. For example, when Detroit's exceptional Arctic Ring of Life was opened in 2001, "the Detroit Zoo received polar bears from a number of other zoos because its facility was much larger than the existing facilities at the time," Kagan says.

"I've been working in zoos for 30 years," Scott Carter, chief life sciences officer at the Detroit Zoological Society, told The Dodo. "I think we've gotten better about some of the things we do. We spend a lot more time conditioning animals to prepare them ... before we put them on the road."

The amount of care and time can indeed be considerable. In October, a 13-year-old male Asian elephant named Kandula was moved from the Smithsonian's National Zoo to the Oklahoma City Zoo for breeding reasons. The trip took 24 hours. Kandula was transported in a climate-controlled crate, according to the Oklahoman.

In 2009, a 5,000-pound Nile hippopotamus named Happy was moved from the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to the Milwaukee County Zoo in Wisconsin, also for breeding purpose. A team of 16 builders took the engineers' sketches and fashioned the steel crate," reported the National Zoo.

But even when precautions are taken, not all animals survive being transported long distances. In 2008, a 6-year-old hippo named Hazina died during a transfer from the Denver Zoo to the Calgary Zoo in Canada. "When staff at the Calgary Zoo tried to coax their new hippopotamus out of the crate that had held the 1,500-kilogram animal for the 30-hour journey from Colorado on Friday, they were startled to find the 6-year-old couldn't stand," reported the Globe and Mail.

Less than 24 hours later, Hazina was dead. The hippo had been lying down for too long in the crate and had died due to the circulatory complications that came along with the transport.

Travel can indeed be hard on an animal. "Whenever you move exotic animals," says Kagan, "it is stressful. And that is one of the biggest challenges for any zoo ... Whether it's an elephant or a tiger or a frog, every move has an element of stress, and some are bigger than others."

To be sure, travel - and the stress that can come along with it - isn't restricted to land mammals. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, describes to The Dodo how cetaceans are moved. "The animal is generally placed in a sling that is lined with lamb's wool or other cushioning material. The pec fins go through custom holes on the side. The sling is then suspended in a box the same size as the cetacean (so, smaller for bottlenose, larger for orcas), about half-filled with cold water (often with ice in it - overheating is a primary risk during transport)." The box is moved on a truck to an airport and loaded into a cargo plane, she explains, so it doesn't move during takeoff and landing.

In the top zoo facilities, says Rose, the animal is usually accompanied by a caretaker and a veterinarian.

Even within the world of careful transfers, animals often end up at facilities vastly different from their wild homes. Just recently, a 13-year-old lion named M'Wasi was sent from the Bronx Zoo to the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, New York.

M'WasiYoutube/Rosamund Gifford Zoo

His enclosure - complete with a wall painted to look like the savannah - is only a fraction of the size of his natural terrain ( a male lion's pride territory can be 100 square miles). Moreover, Africa's climate is nothing like that of Syracuse, a city known for its long, frigid winters.

Wathne, who has been studying captivity issues for two decades, says she can't comment specifically on M'Wasi, but he will likely spend a considerable amount of his life indoors. "Cold winter temperatures often force animals to be indoors for very long stretches of time - sometimes for months on end," she says. "Even during temperate weather, many zoos lock the animals indoors when the zoo is not open to the public, which means that the animals end up spending the majority of their time in areas that are often nothing more than small concrete cages with no natural light or fresh air."

Lori Gruen, a professor of philosophy at Wesleyan College and the author of "Ethics of Captivity," told The Dodo this is the fate that befalls many animals from the tropical or equatorial areas, who cannot survive in the U.S. during colder months. "Most animals prefer to be outdoors and keeping them indoors, often from November to March (longer in colder climates) in spaces that are small [and] without fresh air is a detriment to their well-being," she says.

Breeding

Breeding is an integral and complex part of all zoos, and it sometimes comes with costs. In 2012, the Seattle Times conducted an explosive series on elephant breeding in AZA zoos that explored these issues at length.

"Over the past 50 years, elephant deaths have outstripped births by a ratio of 2-1," reports the Seattle Times. The overall infant-mortality rate for elephants in zoos is an astounding 40 percent, the Seattle Times notes, "nearly triple the rate in the Asian or African wild." The report largely focused on a female elephant named Chai, from Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, as an example of the zoos' efforts to breed elephants in captivity. Chai went through at least 112 artificial and physically aggressive insemination attempts, according to the paper. At least one of her children died. Chai currently lives at the troubled Oklahoma City Zoo, where a 4-year-old elephant recently perished.

Some aspects of breeding are less clear-cut. Some AZA zoos take painstaking efforts to boost viability within the zoo system and work conscientiously to promote a strong animal welfare ethic. These programs may become increasingly critical to having certain species on Earth at all as they disappear entirely from the wild, say some conservationists.

The ones left behind

Although many zoo transports don't end in emotional or physical tragedy, what happens to the animals who are left behind in the enclosures at the zoo?

Scott Blais, founder of the Global Sanctuary for Elephants and original co-founder of The Elephant Sanctuary, has been involved with the transport of 50 zoo or circus elephants over his career. He told The Dodo that when elephants are separated from each other, the toll can last a lifetime. "The travesty of the relocations is far greater, causing the elephants to close off emotionally, sometimes leading them to ignore and disregard new friendships."

Blais says that every zoo elephant at his sanctuary was labeled "antisocial" or "aggressive" when he first arrived. But, "in virtually every case, this was not at all who they were. It was what captivity had caused them to become," he says.

If the elephants have to be moved and if they are already in captivity, Blais believes, "it should be to a location that has the space to provide for them for life, and in a family dynamic that allows them to develop lifelong bonds."

This is how it would be in life, he says, in the wild.

In the end, zoos aren't the wild, of course. Some zoos try harder than others to duplicate the natural world as much as possible. Some apes are managed with care and consideration. But, in another zoo, a giraffe could be stuffed away all winter in an indoor enclosure. An elephant could have been ripped from a close comrade in order to be bred, while a bear at another facility could be languishing day and night on a concrete slab. A bird could spend his whole life without ever seeing the sun.

In the end, it's your dollar and you pay for your few minutes to look at these animals in the zoo before you return to your home. The animals, meanwhile, will be staying in the zoo system forever.