Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal


Visiting the zoo is a beloved national pastime — American zoos attract 183 million people annually. For many Americans, zoos provide the first, and sometimes only, opportunity for individuals to be in the presence of animals outside of domesticated cats and dogs. However, for the animals themselves, zoos can cause suffering.

Two philosophies support the protection of wild animals in captivity: an anthropocentric and ecocentric view. According to the former, anthropocentric view, wild animals hold an extrinsic value and when they cease to be valuable to humans, or conflict with our other values, their interests can be sacrificed. The latter, ecocentric view, holds that wild animals have intrinsic value, can be morally harmed, and how we treat them should not be judged solely by the benefit to humans of a particular course of action. This article is written from the philosophy that animals have an intrinsic value. It examines how zoos operate under the Animal Welfare Act and how it must be improved to better zoo animal welfare under the ecocentric view.

Part II provides an overview of the Animal Welfare Act, under which all zoos must adhere and are licensed. Part III discusses issues with the Animal Welfare Act, focusing on the lack of enforcement, bare minimum care standards, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) failure to shut down non-compliant zoos, and the USDA’s secrecy regarding Animal Welfare Act violator documentation. Part IV discusses two zoo accreditation organizations that provide additional animal welfare guidance to zoos and offer membership status. Part V examines the problems with zoos, including individual animal psychological suffering in captivity and breeding programs, animal susceptibility to human diseases, exploitation of zoo animals for human entertainment, and potential harm to humans. Part VI examines suggestions for improvement to the Animal Welfare Act and the viability of these recommendations, assessing their practicality and sufficiency. This article concludes that the Animal Welfare Act should be amended with species specific guidelines, a prohibition on public contact with animals, a stricter licensing procedure, and a provision for the creation of USDA facilities to treat and house confiscated animals from non-compliant zoos. Without meaningful changes to the Animal Welfare Act, the animals will continue to suffer in sub-par conditions.