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"Menagerie": A Proposal for Replacing the Term "Roadside Zoo"

Why Animals Do The Thing

"Menagerie": A Proposal for Replacing the Term "Roadside Zoo"

Rachel Garner

In order to provide an accurate picture of which zoological facilities are "good" facilities, and labels that help the public understand which good facilities to support, it’s important to move beyond the confusing terminology of "roadside zoos." As explored in a previous article, “roadside zoo” is not a useful label, because it communicates no tangible information to the zoo-going public and it’s usage is often loaded with political connotation.

The current movement towards critical consumption of zoos and the array of animal experiences available is going to continue to gain momentum, and so it is crucial to the survival of reputable facilities that the field shift to providing clear and less-politicized language to help guide potential guests in their decision-making process. Terminology promoted to the public should have consistent operant definitions that designate a comprehensible set of characteristics simple enough that laypeople will be able to use them to assess a facility. What is needed is a word that intuitively summarizes the problems the public associates with a “bad” zoological facility: low quality of animal welfare, a high density of animals in close proximity, animals living in cages rather than exhibits, pay-to-play schemes or other public/animal interactions, and a prioritization of entertainment and/or profit over education and conservation messaging. It turns out that there is no need to re-invent the wheel, as a term that describes the most basic aspects of a “bad” zoological facility already exists: menagerie.

The term “menagerie” describes a facility that hearkens back to a different era of captive animal management mentality: facilities that existed for entertainment before society created the ethos of current good zoological institutions. In historical menageries, large numbers of animals were kept in small, barren cages, and were considered replaceable and interchangeable, exhibited for their curious exoticism as a living museum for the wealthy and royal rather than as a collection of sentient, individually valuable entities.

During the 19th century, societal pressure shifted entertainment-centric, privately owned menageries instead towards animal welfare and education, becoming cultural institutions of scientific value with increased oversight. Animal husbandry and exhibition standards improved drastically, creating the facilities we now think of as modern zoos. In his comprehensive history of zoo and aquarium history throughout the ages, Kisling defined the differences between menageries and modern zoological institutions:

“In a menagerie, as many species as possible are exhibited, animals are exhibited in taxonomically arranged rows or barred cages, staff is somewhat knowledgeable about animals, and there are limited education and science programs; the main emphasis is on recreation or entertainment. (...) [Zoos] have more naturalistic animal exhibits arranged ecologically or zoogeographically, staff that is increasingly knowledgeable about animals, and improved education, research, and conservation program (2001).”

The aspects of “bad” zoos that the public is averse to are those that are left over from a more primitive form of zoological exhibition. These are the facilities that appear to cage animals primarily for entertainment. The difference between a historical menagerie and a modern zoological institution is analogous to the difference between the more accurate connotations of “roadside zoo" and the features of a good zoo. Kisling’s definitions of both “zoo” and “menagerie” describe the fundamental characteristics of each type of facility and succinctly highlight the differences between them, utilizing wording that is accessible to the general public. Historical context supports the usage of this terminology as well: the public’s intuitive understanding of the more crowded, less nuanced nature of a “menagerie” matches up nicely with the outdated nature of low-quality facilities. What’s more, the term is already present in the public awareness: for example, in Animal Planet’s new mini-series “The Zoo”, the Director of the Bronx Zoo describes modern zoos as “not just well-run menageries” but instead facilities that “exist for a purpose.”

Why Animals Do The Thing proposes that the term “roadside zoo” be replaced in dialogues surrounding captive animal management with “menagerie.” Some of the highest barriers currently faced in promoting the importance of good zoological facilities stem from communication gaps caused by the current ambiguous rhetoric used to describe “bad” facilities. Having widely understood, clearly defined terminology will lead to more successful advocacy efforts by opening discussions to the public and empowering them to make informed decisions about supporting zoological facilities. Embracing the term “menagerie” is an elegant solution that will facilitate clear conversations about the crucial role modern zoological facilities play in our world.


Kisling, V. N. (Ed.). (2000). Zoo and aquarium history: Ancient animal collections to zoological gardens. CRC press.

(Cover Photo Credit)