March 2016

Travelling zoos on the rise and animals increasingly at risk

Meerkats, monkeys, snakes and owls are just some of the animals used in the ‘mobile zoo’ industry, an industry which animal campaigners say is poorly regulated and puts animals at risk. New research carried out by the Freedom for Animals, The Growth of the Mobile Zoo Industry suggests that the number of mobile zoos are on the rise and the charity is demanding a change in the law to protect the animals.

Animals in mobile zoos are transported to parties, schools, fairs, and other public events, with some businesses operating seven days a week. Over 187 mobile zoos have been identified, with 56 new mobile zoo businesses starting up since 2013. Over 3500 animals are being used although the­ charity fervently points out that this is based on minimum levels so the actual numbers are likely to be much higher. Campaigns Director for the charity, Nicola O’Brien says,

The very nature of these businesses creates a welfare disaster for animals. Being carted around in the back of a van for hundreds of miles to events where they are handled by crowds of people, can only cause stress especially for the exotic animals so commonly used. Animals who would naturally roam a large area and engage in a variety of natural behaviours including socialising with others of their species, hunting and foraging, and defending territories are largely denied the opportunity to have these experiences when used in a mobile zoo.”

When not being used for events the animals mostly live in the homes of their owners in varying set-ups, be that a specially constructed shed or even the family living room, and the charity warns this is not suitable for the exotic species they hold. The charity have shared evidence of animals living in appalling conditions in one business in particular, Tropical Inc. which the charity helped to expose in 2013, after a tip off from a whistleblower. Photos from the premises show animals living in dark sheds, squashed into cat carriers and cages piled on one another. The premises were raided by the RSPCA and over 70 animals moved to safety, although sadly some were so ill they had to be put down.

The owner of Tropical Inc. was convicted of 34 offences under the Animal Welfare Act and a number of offences under law designed to protect endangered animals. Despite this, he was allowed to continue operating his business and travels with animals to this day. Freedom for Animals warns that the nature of these businesses and the lack of regulation leaves the animals vulnerable to suffering and that more cases like Tropical Inc. could be out there.

Nicola states,

Currently the mobile zoo industry is virtually unregulated as no specific laws exist to govern this industry. We are troubled by the results of our latest research which shows that this industry is growing and more animals are being used. There are now over 3500 animals being used and the majority are exotic species, wild animals who have very complex needs.

We are demanding a change in the law to at the very least provide some form of licensing for these businesses which will include welfare inspection for the animals. We will of course continue to oppose such businesses as long as they use live animals, as we feel by their very nature they cause animals to suffer.”

Many mobile zoos justify their businesses through claims that they aim to educate and raise awareness of animal conservation. However, the charity states that their research shows that only 10 out of 180 species used in mobile zoos are classified as threatened with extinction, so the majority of species used in this industry are therefore not considered endangered or vulnerable to extinction.

From the figures the charity noted that almost 22% of the businesses identified in 2013 had shut down in just over 2 years, raising questions on the future of the animals after the mobile zoos shut down.

This closure rate seems very high but we think it perhaps reflects our concerns that many people are setting up these businesses with little business or animal welfare experience who are then failing to succeed in making it work. From the ‘founding’ stories we see put out by mobile zoos many of them started as a hobbyist, collecting exotic animals as pets, who then decide a mobile zoo business would be a good idea. That many of these might be realising this is a more serious situation, does not surprise us but does give us concerns for the animals they were using.”

Freedom for Animals holds an annual Zoo Awareness Weekend at Easter each year, which this year focuses on the mobile zoo industry. It is calling on members of the public to report mobile zoo events, so it can build up a database on the number of animals used around the Easter period.

Download the new report here: The Growth of the Mobile Zoo Industry