Wild Animals in Professional Zoos


Professional zoos (which can also include aquariums, regional zoos, drive-through safari park zoos and specialist zoos) are organized facilities that display a diversity of wildlife species to the general public, usually for an admission fee. Famous examples include the Toronto Zoo, Calgary Zoo and San Diego Zoo. Most professional zoos employ staff with formal education, qualifications and experience and they operate at or above a minimum professional industry standard. They may, but are not always, affiliated with national and/or international zoo associations.

While professional zoos usually operate at a standard exceeding their roadside zoo counterparts, that doesn’t mean they are immune from issues or problems. Throughout the years, various professional zoos have been criticized for animal welfare issues, human safety concerns, outdated infrastructure and exhibits, controversial practices and lack of bona fide conservation programming, to name just a few of the issues that have surfaced.

Approximately 35 of Canada’s zoos (and aquariums) can reasonably be characterized as professional zoos. To see a comprehensive list of Canadian zoos and zoo-type facilities of all kinds CLICK HERE.


The fact that wild animals in captivity can suffer physically, psychologically and emotionally and that good animal welfare means far more than just providing the basic necessities of life is now accepted by responsible professional zoos and in some cases has led to a critical reevaluation of how wild animals are kept and whether or not some species should be kept at all.

Socially isolated Lucy at Valley Zoo

While the professional zoo industry is dynamic, change often occurs at a slow pace. And there are still professional zoos that resist change. For example, the Edmonton Valley Zoo has refused to move their socially isolated female elephant Lucy to more appropriate accommodation elsewhere where Lucy can have more natural space, a better climate and the company of other elephants. And many professional reptile zoos still provide rudimentary, cookie-cutter enclosures, instead of living spaces that address the biological and behavioural needs of each particular species being held.

As the body of new biological, behavioural and husbandry knowledge grows, it suggests that change is almost a necessary constant for zoos. Many zoos understand that fact, but keeping up with that knowledge can be a challenging and, at times, impossible task for zoos. Most zoos are always playing a game of catch-up. Once their oldest, substandard exhibits are renovated or updated, other exhibits have become dated and inadequate and require updating too.


Zoocheck has been working for many years to change the professional zoo paradigm in Canada. We are:

  • Working methodically and comprehensively to establish new laws and to improve existing laws to protect the health and welfare of all wild animals in captivity,
  • Pushing for zoo industry reform through engagement with industry members and reviews of zoos and zoo practices,
  • Advocating for adoption of welfare-oriented exhibition and husbandry principles that are evidence-based and precautionary,
  • Challenging abusive and/or outdated folklore husbandry practices and campaigning to address specific animal welfare problems in specific facilities,
  • Highlighting alternative captivity models and new non-animal methods and technologies aimed at conservation education.
  • Examining zoo conservation and education claims and providing informed, relevant input to members of the public, NGOs, media, academia, government and industry.


For nearly 40 years Zoocheck has been advocating for a change to the professional zoo animal paradigm in Canada, including adoption of evidence-based, welfare-focused animal housing and husbandry practices and for professional zoos to make animal welfare a foundational tenet of their operations. We have also highlighted alternative captivity models and new non-animal methods and technologies aimed at conservation education of the public.

To this end, Zoocheck has organized zoo issue-based conferences and symposiums (including in cooperation with individual zoos), delivered invited presentations at zoo industry conferences and participated in a broad range of meetings and events with zoo industry professionals across Canada and abroad.

Zoocheck has also been pushing across Canada for new and/or improved laws, regulations and policies for wildlife in zoos and better enforcement of existing laws. Our numerous individual and provincial zoo reports have been used to highlight the need for more comprehensive, zoo laws across the county and to support various proposed wild animal captivity legislation. We have also facilitated numerous training programs for enforcement officials, animal welfare professionals, animal control personnel and others in pursuit of that goal. 

In addition to producing many reviews and reports about professional zoos throughout Canada, as well as reviews of zoo industry accreditation programs, a report on captive elephants in Canada and specific reports about facilities housing elephants and whales or dolphins Zoocheck has also assisted with numerous documentary film productions about zoo issues and controversies.

Zoocheck has taken a stand on certain, often controversial, modern zoo practices that we believe are  outdated and/or inappropriate in Canada, such as the keeping of severely problematic wild animal species (such as elephants, whales and dolphins), the breeding of animals that have no bona fide conservation value or that are already in a surplus situation in captivity and the use of animals in mobile zoo programs, photo ops and lengthy road tours, to name just three. 

Thika at the PAWS ARK 2000 sanctuary

Zoocheck facilitated the release and relocation of Tina the elephant from the Greater Vancouver Zoo to the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and campaigned for the release and conducted the transfer of Toka, Thika and Iringa, the last three surviving Toronto Zoo elephants to the PAWS ARK 2000 sanctuary in California.

Zoocheck has also conducted a 17+ year campaign to help Lucy, the Edmonton Valley Zoo’s socially isolated Asian elephant. That effort has included six court actions, multiple expert reviews and a broad range of other investigative, lobbying and public awareness activities.

Significant assistance and support was also provided to regional organizations working to relocate elephants Chai and Bamboo from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to more appropriate accommodation elsewhere.

We are pleased to see a gradual shifting in attitudes and practices of some professional zoo industry members, but there are still many captive wild animals that are living their lives in sub-optimal conditions. Every week we receive numerous complaints about wildlife in professional zoos. So, while pushing for broader systemic change, Zoocheck also tackles specific, complaint-based, animal welfare concerns on a case by case basis with the goal of alleviating animal discomfort, stress and suffering. 

With the zoo industry having such a diversity of constituents, many with aging exhibits and infrastructure, and a lack of or limited capacity to make significant changes, Zoocheck has also advocated for decommissioning of zoos or zoo-type exhibits that don’t have the capacity or motivation to improve. Examples of successful closures Zoocheck has helped facilitate include the Springwater Park Zoo and London’s Storybook Gardens children’s zoo in Ontario.


  • Learn about zoos and animal welfare and make an informed decision about whether you want to support facilities/businesses featuring wild animals in captivity.
  • Make your family, friends and co-workers aware of the reality of wildlife in captivity.
  • Write a letter-to-the-editor, so even more people are informed. Letters to the Editor are often the most read section of a newspaper.
  • If you work in a zoo, wildlife display or zoo-type facility and don’t like what’s going on, consider becoming a whistleblower. Insiders have been instrumental in exposing and correcting neglect, cruelty and mistreatment.
  • If you work in a zoo, wildlife display or zoo-type facility, become an advocate for the animals in your facility by pushing internally for improvements and change.



If you encounter captive wild animals in need of immediate help, call the Ontario animal welfare hotline at 1-833-9-ANIMAL (264625). Note: The hotline is for verbal complaints only.

To submit reports, photographs and other evidence about a wildlife in captivity situation, contact the:

Ministry of the Solicitor General
18th Floor, 25 Grosvenor Street
Toronto ON, M7A 1Y6

PHONE: (416) 326-5000

ONLINE FORM: Feedback form Ministry of the Solicitor General

Copy your correspondence to zoocheck@zoocheck.com