Who would hand a bear a life sentence begging for crumbs in a concrete pit, snatch baby tigers from their mothers and use them in photo ops, or make a lonely elephant walk in circles for years giving rides?
Answer: the profiteers who run the seedy roadside zoos, cruel breeding operations, and other tourist traps dotting the country’s byways like a bad case of acne.
You’ll probably see the billboards, the ones promising “special memories” or an “educational adventure,” when the family hits the road for a late-summer vacay.
Please, keep driving because every dollar spent at these hellholes—they’re routinely cited for violating federal animal welfare laws—ensures that animals will continue to suffer. Bears, big cats, chimpanzees, and others are often denied proper veterinary care, clean and safe enclosures, and even adequate shelter from the wind and extreme temperatures.
Bosco, a 24-year-old bear at Pymatuning Deer Park in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, is confined to a barren, mostly concrete pit. Three Bears General Store in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has been cited repeatedly for not allowing animals to retreat to their dens during the day to escape public view or take shelter from bad weather. The bears at Cherokee Bear Zoo in North Carolina are displayed in desolate concrete pits or cramped cages, with no hope of roaming, foraging, or even just climbing a tree. They have virtually nothing to do but beg tourists for scraps of food.
At Waccatee Zoo in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, an inspector noted that bears, baboons, and a cougar were showing signs of abnormal behavior and that a lion appeared to have difficulty moving his hind legs. This is the same roadside dump where a chimpanzee named Chico, who’d been held in solitary confinement for more than 25 years, died suddenly from congenital heart disease.
Asha, a lone elephant at Virginia’s Natural Bridge Zoo, is locked in a cold, damp barn during the winter and forced to walk in endless circles giving rides in the summer heat.
The Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park is the flowery name of a sleazy Oklahoma menagerie that buys, sells, trades, and breed animals: It still churns out tiger cubs for photo sessions even though it was investigated after 23 cubs died within a seven-month period.
Many of these outfits aren’t above using disingenuous buzzwords like “sanctuary” or “rescue” to deceive well-intentioned guests about the quality of care that their captives receive. Don’t buy it. The goal of these places is to bring in cash, but it’s the animals who pay.
If you come across a facility that raises a red flag, remember this: Legitimate sanctuaries provide animals with safe, comfortable living conditions in which they can thrive. They don’t breed or sell them, take them on the road for public display, or encourage direct contact with guests, including “hands-on” photo ops.
While other attractions have bigger advertising budgets and more bells and whistles, that’s about all that distinguishes them.
At the Miami Seaquarium, Lolita, who is 20 feet long, languishes in the world’s smallest orca tank—it’s just four times the length of her body at its longest point and 20 feet deep at its deepest. She’s routinely attacked by other dolphins in the same tank and medicated virtually every day, and her teeth are permanently damaged, likely from gnawing on the tank’s walls and gates.
The rap sheet compiled by SeaQuest aquariums, a chain of “touch tank” petting zoos, is long and disturbing: hundreds of animal deaths, legal violations, injuries to the public, and allegations of serious animal neglect. An octopus was reportedly “cooked alive” at its Las Vegas facility after the water in the tank overheated.
And it’s business as usual at SeaWorld. Orcas suffer in shallow, barren tanks, and other dolphins are used in cruel sea circuses, in which trainers treat them like surfboards, standing on their faces and backs. Highly intelligent and self-aware, bottlenose and Pacific white-sided dolphins are also still being impregnated, sometimes forcibly while they’re drugged, to ensure that the shows go on.
Vacations are all about coming home with great memories. Making the decision to distance ourselves from the suffering and exploitation of animals is one memory that we can always cherish.
What’s your take? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.
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