Wasted Lives and Roadside Zoos



by Barry Kent MacKay

Recently, I revisited Jungle Cat World Wildlife Park: a roadside zoo just outside the small town of Orono, Ontario. I had not checked it out in a couple of decades. It opened in 1983.

It’s neither the best nor the worst of its kind. When I sent photos I had taken to Rob Laidlaw of Zoocheck, he replied, “When I look at the images, it just strikes me how absurd and wasted the lives of the animals are living in those cages in Orono; a purposeless and hopeless existence.”

That perfectly expressed my own views. Scattered about the grounds are a series of cages and enclosures in which the usual assembly of animals commonly seen in zoos are imprisoned, without a jungle in sight. There is also a pet cemetery, a motel-like bed and breakfast accommodation, a tiny cafeteria, and a souvenir shop.

The zoo offers a “Safari Zoo Camp experience” each summer. It grandly promises to “protect and conserve the natural world by offering the public engaging wildlife education programs and experiences with animals to help foster the necessary awareness, knowledge, skills and confidence to live in an environmentally friendly way.”

Photo: Barry Kent MacKay

I climbed the “wolf tower” to peer down into an enclosure where some wolves remained, mostly hidden in the weeds. One was pacing in the classical stereotypic manner of confined zoo animals. By pre-focusing my camera at the spot where he was briefly visible, I got a few mediocre snapshots. This is definitely not how wolves act in the wild.

The sign for the European kestrel misidentified him as a female and contained a mishmash of information on that species and the markedly different American kestrel—while doing nothing to protect either species.

Until she read the sign on the cage, I overheard a lady say that the mountain lion, puma, and cougar were all the same species. I guess that’s education.

Photo: Barry Kent MacKay

My concern is that these places make people think that what they see in such facilities is somehow “normal” for the animals they imprison. The parrot on the t-bar, the lemurs jumping on a hanging spare tire and begging for grapes, that owl up in the corner of her cage, or the pacing tiger… This is what they’ll know of each species.

This is not what animals are like, so isolated from the realities they evolved to inhabit. And yet, in or near towns and cities across the continent, I fear that too many people see these facilities as normal components of our own society: the animals serving to amuse us, where we “ooh” over white lions, or gasp at how big a boa constrictor can grow, or laugh at the antics of a squirrel monkey.

Rob calls the last century and a half that the modern zoo has existed the “sanitization and acceptance” period, wherein wild animals in cages are increasingly seen to be perfectly normal… while the spaces they naturally inhabit continue to decline. Sadly, I think he’s right.

Keep wildlife in the wild,

14 thoughts on “Wasted Lives and Roadside Zoos

  1. There is no excuse for allowing animals to be exploited in roadside zoos. But they continue because somebody is making a buck and because animal lives don’t matter to us.

    I’m reminded of something George Carlin once said about zoos in general:

    “And I think people have a lot of nerve locking up a tiger and charging four dollars to let a few thousand worthless humans shuffle past him every day. What a shitty thing to do. Humans must be easily be the meanest species on Earth. Probably the only reason there are any tigers left is because they don’t taste good.”

  2. The only way any of this will change is if the human population drastically goes down. I don’t think even a few million less will make a difference. Perhaps a billion or more humans removed from earth would help some population of animals recover. As far as I can see it is all hopeless!

    • Yes, it does seem futile. For every animal saved in a good sanctuary, more people are born. I was thinking back to when Dian Fossey was murdered after her years of work for the mountain gorillas. She was constantly fighting poachers and trying to stop the cattle herders from encroaching on gorilla habitat. When her death was announced, a writer named Nina Stoyan, I believe, said basically that Fossey deserved what she got for caring more about animals than about people!

      That mindset is still around. Many don’t see anything wrong with animal exploitation like the roadside zoos if kids get a few minutes of “education” and the owner is making money.

  3. These are the types of zoos that ought to be closed down immediately, and animals brought the relief of a sanctuary! It reminds me of hunters, where the very poor ones are included with the (so-called) very good ones, and they all stick together. Our lax governmental laws are responsible here – the ‘rights’ of people to do whatever the heck (I’ll be nice) they want, and both political parties perpetuate that fallacy.

  4. You also have to wonder why people contribute to these places by visiting – just walking around like empty-headed zombies, when they should make their views (if they have any!) on these dumps known by a mass boycott.

  5. I have no idea why roadside zoos are even allowed to exist. They breed and encourage the breeding of exotic cats because the cubs are used in photo sessions with the public. The animals are kept in deplorable conditions. I’d love to know what steps can be taken to force these hellholes out of existence. The Humane Society of the United States has been trying to shut down
    these places for years and sometimes they actually are effective.
    LOVE the George Carlin quote…..

  6. “My concern is that these places make people think that what they see in such facilities is somehow “normal” for the animals they imprison.”

    My fears and thoughts exactly. That’s the education children, indoctrinated at such young ages, will get is and always has been my concern, contrary to the line that zoos give as their reason for being.

  7. Society likes to be entertained, whether it be the likes of maniac Trump, or going to Sea World. We are no different than the entertainment-loving Romans, who decimated wildlife populations in the region for their fun and games. Well, I should say, there is some difference: there are so many more of us, doing so many more terrible things.

    As this planet’s biological diversity disappears, those poor animals in captivity will most likely become even more popular, in so-called “natural enclosures,” where tigers, leopards, giraffes, elephants, pandas & other increasingly rare non-humans can be viewed. Will most humans even care, as long as they can say “I saw an elephant.”

    I fear that such captive wildlife will experience even more suffering, physically and emotionally, as more wars break out, and societies become more chaotic and violent. I remember not too long ago, seeing a photo of a once-wild, lovely bear, grouching against the wall of a dirty, dark cell— grieving, and most likely crying….for his former life, the natural world from which he was torn.


  8. I remember a video of an elephant enclosure at a zoo in Israel, and with the sound of a bomb siren, the poor things all herded together in fright, no different than humans would. Can you imagine being conditioned to that kind of fear all the time, and never being able to escape it. We humans suck. There should never be zoos in war zones, and they can’t always be maintained either, and then are abused. I will never forget this:


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