The U.S.'s Most Destructive Zoos

By | January 3, 2021

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The newborn elephant baby and other elephants are pictured in their enclosure at the animal park Planckendael in Muizen, near Mechelen, on April 11, 2018. (Getty Images)

Every year, millions of people around the world visit zoos and animal-themed amusement parks, yet the practice of collecting and displaying wild animals has long been a controversial topic. While some people see the value in studying and conserving animals, especially those that are endangered or native to currently uninhabitable areas, others view the practice of animal captivity as inherently cruel and inhumane, and some of your faves are on the list of worst offenders.

The First Zoos

For thousands of years, humans have collected animals to show off to their family and friends, with some of the earliest examples of animal menageries found as far back as 2500 B.C.E. in Egypt. However, the first true zoological park as we know it today opened in Paris in 1793, as members of the general public were allowed to view the adorable wonders of the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes. The London Zoo of 1826 took things a step farther toward modernity, as they not only exhibited their animals but also dedicated time and funding into studying them.

Unfortunately, the biologists weren't quick enough to keep up with the animals' needs, and most of these early zoo animals suffered untimely deaths. Over time, however, zoologists and biologists alike discovered and built upon a global knowledge base, and in many cases, the life expectancy of animals in public zoos is equal to (if not longer than) their counterparts in the wild. Zoos around the world have made important strides in habitat conservation and rehabilitation, and some even release some of their healthy animals back into the wild when possible.

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Disney's Animal Kingdom, 2009. (Jennifer Lynn/Wikimedia Commons)

Disney's Animal Kingdom

However, not all who keep and exhibit animals are doing so with knowledge and preservation in mind. Back in the '90s, Disney's Animal Kingdom fell under some scrutiny when it was revealed that 31 animals in their care died in the months before the park's opening, although the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not find their mishandling to be criminal by nature.

Among the fallen were two otters who died when Disney planted poisonous loquat trees in their environment under the incorrect notion that the otters wouldn't try to eat them and cheetah cubs who were poisoned rather more mysteriously. Even a federal investigation could not determine how they got hold of the toxic chemicals they ingested. In 2014, the park made animal rights group In Defense of Animals's "10 Worst Zoos for Elephants" list due to the death of two elephants, one of which was pregnant.