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What's In A Word: Why It's Time to Retire "Roadside Zoo"

The term "roadside zoo" has become over-used recently as a way to denote a "bad” zoological facility. Since there is no consensus among the groups that use the term regarding what it actually indicates about a facility, “roadside zoo” itself has by now lost any pre-existing operant definition and its continued use serves mainly to provoke an emotional reaction.

What's In a Word? Why it’s time to retire “Roadside Zoo”

April 7, 2017 - Rachel Garner

(Photo Credit: M. Hummel)

The term "roadside zoo" has become over-used recently as a way to denote a "bad” zoological facility. Since there is no consensus among the groups that use the term regarding what it actually indicates about a facility, “roadside zoo” itself has by now lost any pre-existing operant definition and its continued use serves mainly to provoke an emotional reaction. Let’s look at exactly how confusing the term has gotten, and then delve into the relevance of the concepts the regular public associates with the term.

The question, "what do you think makes a facility a roadside zoo?" was originally posed to the Why Animals Do The Thing blog audience because of the the frequency with which the term was occurring in zoo-related discourse. During the summer of 2016, “roadside zoo” was heavily used in messaging surrounding zoos, but rather than being a well-defined term used for public education, it seemed be an amorphous label that could be slapped on pretty much any facility in order to condemn it. This was especially confusing as the term “roadside zoo” was present in messaging from both the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) (a highly influential regulatory body in the animal management world) and organizations that heavily influence the creation of animal-related legislation (which must by nature be accurate and precise in wording) such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Curiosity arose - it seemed important to find out if the general public understood “roadside zoo” to mean the same thing as the organizations that were using the term frequently in their messaging. However, in order to do that, it was crucial to first define what those organizations considered the operant definition of the term. 

During the 2016 AZA conference, "roadside zoo" seemed to be used by various presenters to refer to bad zoological facilities, but it wasn't clear what process was being used to differentiate between actively bad facilities and smaller, non-AZA - but not necessarily low-quality - zoos. Upon an informal sampling of AZA conference attendees, the only consensus about the term “roadside zoo” was that that there was no operant definition for the term within the professional animal management community. When prompted to define things that attendees themselves would personally consider to compose a “roadside zoo," no consistent list of characteristics was produced - the most frequently mentioned characteristic of what might be considered a “roadside zoo” was that it was a facility without AZA accreditation. Overall, it appeared that that there was a general unspoken understanding that "roadside zoo" was simply an informal and ambiguous term used by AZA members to describe facilities that their organization didn’t accredit.

“Roadside zoo” is also a term used frequently by HSUS and PETA, in both their public campaigns and the legislation and petitions they draft. However, in many cases, such as this HSUS-backed petition, the term “roadside zoo” is frequently used but never actually defined within the piece of writing. In fact, the only definition of a “roadside zoo” that can currently be sourced from HSUS documents is in a publication from 1980 - which contains a multiple-paragraph exposition about bad facilities, but no concise operant definition that can be applied to modern discussions. (HSUS’s definition from the piece in 1980 says: “the roadside menagerie is usually a place created to attract and entice people to other facilities such as amusement parks, service stations, diners, motels, and gift shops.” They go on to say that in what they call roadside menageries “crowding can be a major problem in cages and enclosures”,  “housing is often built with no consideration for the specific needs of individual species”, “poor diets are commonplace”, and “medical care is almost nonexistent.”)* PETA also has dozens of mentions of the horrors of “roadside zoos” on their website, but only defines the term once, in the middle of an article. PETA’s definition of “roadside zoos” describes places that “often involve small-scale operations where animals are kept in ramshackle concrete and chain-link cages. Most don’t even have a blade of grass, much less any meaningful enrichment. Animals are often deprived of adequate food, water, shelter, and veterinary care.” Why is the term so frequently used among animal rights activists but so rarely defined? It is likely because the organizations utilizing “roadside zoo” rhetoric prefer to leave the term ambiguous, allowing it to adjust to fit any facility. It appears that more than being a useful, static term that indicates something about the quality of a facility, “roadside zoo” is instead a vague but emotionally damning phrase used to condemn facilities by animal rights organizations in communications with the public.

Not only do the these three major usages of the term “roadside zoo” not coincide, they actually indicate entirely different levels of animal welfare at a facility. PETA’s definition supposes active deprivation of basic resources, whereas HSUS’s definition supposes a facility where there is no intentional deprivation of the animals but there is also no knowledge about how to properly care for them. AZA’s colloquial usage simply includes any facility that is not a member of their organization and therefore in compliance with their standards. This lack of consistency in messaging about “roadside zoos” and lack of easily accessible definitions of the term might create more confusion than clarity for the public about what makes a zoo a facility whose practices are not worth supporting.

The above supposition appears to hold true: when the followers of Why Animals Do The Thing’s blog were asked what they thought a "roadside zoo" was, responses were all over the board. There was no consistent, specific set of criteria that respondents could outline as defining what made a zoo a “roadside zoo.”  An overwhelming trend in the responses was that they contained a mix of good indicators of facility quality and completely erroneous assumptions of the sort often perpetuated by the animal rights movement. Most respondents focused either on quantifiable aspects of animal care such as exhibit size, animal health, or physical proximity to a road or on examples of organizational ethos such as the breeding of color morphs, for-profit status, or official licensing. Some did think that a “roadside zoo” was any facility not accredited by the AZA, but others had never encountered the term before. Overall, the only consistent feedback  was a sense of confusion conveyed from respondents. This suggests that the appellation of "roadside zoo" is not only unhelpful for effective communication with the public, but in fact actively detrimental to successful engagement with those zoo-goers who want to know how to discern for themselves which facilities they don’t want to support.

A focus of this year's AZA conference was the importance of promoting transparency throughout the field; the modern zoo guest needs to feel knowledgeable enough about the field to have faith in their own ability to be a critical consumer of captive animal experiences. The ubiquitous, yet inconsistent, usage of “roadside zoo” in field messaging actually undermines this push towards transparency, as it asks the public to align themselves behind a term they don’t actually understand, trusting that the organization utilizing the term knows best. At the moment, responses from Why Animals Do The Thing’s readers indicated that the general zoo-going public is not aware that “roadside zoo” is an amorphous appellation - they assumed that it had an operant definition within the animal management field, although one that had never been fully explained to them - upon clarification, readers were frustrated at being asked to simply accept it as an indicator of facility quality without being given any indications of why it was applied in each case. Current public opinion regarding zoological institutions has already shown a strong trend toward skepticism of large organizations when they position themselves as infallible experts, independent of their academic or professional credibility; an educated public is unlikely to be receptive to assertions about facility quality that require blind faith in the neutrality of the determining organization, and such autocratic communications regarding “roadside zoos” are likely to eventually damage the already tenuous relationship between the public and the animal management field. 

The first step in rectifying the confusion around what makes a zoological facility worth supporting is to examine the different characteristics that the public thinks are associated with the term “roadside zoo” (and therefore, bad zoos) and parse their importance to a critical assessment of a zoological facility. This discussion was addressed recently in this blog post. 

To address the larger problem of the public being confused by inaccurate terminology, the animal management field should switch to using the term “menagerie” for communications with the zoo-going public, rather than continuing to use “roadside zoo.” There is an extant definition that delineates the difference between historical menageries and modern zoological gardens, and the relationship between the two is highly analogous to what the public wishes to be able to differentiate between: captive animals in legitimately bad welfare situations for the purpose of entertainment, and good-quality facilities that exist to further education and conservation efforts. Read Why Animals Do The Thing’s full proposal for the switch to “menagerie” here.

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Rachel is an educator and animal science writer. With prior professional experience in zookeeping, visitor education, shelter behavior management, and more, she works to translate pertinent field-specific knowledge into comprehensive explanations about current animal related topics.