Note: This article’s statistics come from third-party sources and do not represent the opinions of this website.
We see animals in captivity all the time in places like zoos and aquariums. But do you really know what their lives are like? Too few people know what goes on behind the scenes of these places, but more people should know the statistics on what life is like for animals in captivity.
The following statistics are just a few examples of how captive animals are treated.
15 Disheartening Animals in Captivity Statistics
- The U.S. contains more captive tigers in zoos than there are tigers in the wild worldwide.
- Texas may be home to the 2nd largest population of tigers due to individuals keeping them as pets.
- Animals living in captivity, such as zoos, parks, and aquariums, have very little in the way of legal protection.
- It’s estimated that of all animals held by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, 75% of them have been abused.
- Most places that are members of WAZA offer opportunities to pet animals — an activity that causes much stress for captive animals.
- Aquariums that give performances, such as Sea World, often remove a calf from a mother’s care long before they should.
- Most marine animals held captive and bred aren’t threatened or endangered species.
- Bottlenose dolphins who have been captured are more likely to die immediately after.
- Polar bears have far less space than they need in zoos.
- Animal species considered “extremely threatened” shouldn’t be bred in zoos.
- Zoo elephants die much younger than their wild counterparts.
- Zoos “cull” surplus animals.
- Circus animals spend most of the year living in too small boxcars.
- Circus animals spend approximately 96% of their lives caged up or chained.
- All the major U.S. circuses that use wild animals as entertainment have been cited for not meeting the minimum requirements for the standard of care put forth by the U.S. Animal Welfare Act.
General Statistics For Animals In Captivity
1. The U.S. contains more captive tigers in zoos than there are tigers in the wild worldwide.
(Born Free USA)
It’s been estimated that fewer than 3500 tigers remain in the wild. Because their numbers have become so low, their future as wild animals has become precarious. But, in captivity in the U.S. alone, there are anywhere between 5000 and 10,000.
2. Texas may be home to the 2nd largest population of tigers due to individuals keeping them as pets.
(Animal Legal Defense Fund)
There isn’t a wild animal census, but it has been estimated that Texas has the 2nd largest tiger population —all due to private citizens who keep them as pets.
Not only is this dangerous (for both humans and the animals), but wild animals kept as pets often live in terrible conditions because their owners don’t know how to care for them.
There’s also the fact that some people decide to breed wild cats with house cats to create a hybrid, resulting in horrible consequences.
3. Animals living in captivity, such as zoos, parks, and aquariums, have very little in the way of legal protection.
(Animal Legal Defense Fund)
Only a few federal laws are designed to protect wild animals living in zoos, aquariums, etc.
The primary federal law dealing with them is the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), but even it only applies to some animals and not all. The AWA also only covers the bare minimum when it comes to protections.
There is also the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This international treaty was created to regulate wildlife trade. However, critics say that it offers less protection for those species that are valuable economically.
4. It’s estimated that of all animals held by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, 75% of them have been abused.
(World Animal Protection)
The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums is, as the name indicates, a worldwide organization for zoos and aquariums. They offer guidelines for these places, including ones that dissuade cruelty to animals. One guideline says that members shouldn’t have animals engaging in “animal shows, displays, or interactive experiences where animals perform demeaning and unnatural behaviors.”
However, when World Animal Protection queried 1200 WAZA associated zoos and aquariums, they found that the majority participated in just those things.
5. Most places that are members of WAZA offer opportunities to pet animals — an activity that causes much stress for captive animals.
Wild animals in captivity find being petted — and human contact in general — incredibly stressful. Yet, a National Geographic article discussing animal abuse in zoos and aquariums found that many offered activities involving humans interacting with captive animals.
In fact, around 33% of places associated with WAZA let people swim or walk with animals.
Animal Abuse in Captive Marine Life Statistics
6. Aquariums that give performances, such as Sea World, often remove a calf from a mother’s care long before they should.
(Dolphin Project) (NPR)
In the wild, baby dolphins and whales (known as calves) stay close to their mother for 6 years or more. But calves born into captivity are often taken from their mothers within months. Why? Because they need to be trained to do tricks and interact with humans.
One example of this is when Seaworld removed Sumar, a baby orca, from his mother at 6 months, then moved him to a different state soon after.
7. Most marine animals held captive and bred aren’t threatened or endangered species.
Aquariums or dolphinariums will insist they are involved in conservation efforts to justify the animals they have, but most of the time, they are not involved in any conservation work. Instead, these animals are there to entertain and be bred, so replacement entertainment animals are available when needed.
8. Bottlenose dolphins who have been captured are more likely to die immediately after.
(World Animal Protection)
After a bottlenose dolphin has been captured from the wild, it is six times more likely to die soon after — usually on the journey between its natural habitat and its new residence.
Animal Abuse in Zoos Statistics
9. Polar bears have far less space than they need in zoos.
(Freedom For Animals)
And they aren’t the only ones. Most animals in zoos have far, far less space available to roam than they would in the wild. Polar bears must deal with having approximately one million times less open space than they should have.
Lions and tigers also top the list of animals who aren’t given enough space. They have to put up with about 18,000 times less space than they would have in their natural habitats.
10. Animal species considered “extremely threatened” shouldn’t be bred in zoos.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t, however. And, to be fair, breeding in captivity can be used as a last-ditch effort to save a dying species. As Dr. Paul Dolman laid out in a 2015 study, the problem is that captive breeding won’t help if a population can’t be rebuilt in the wild.
And, often, with programs breeding these species in captivity, this doesn’t occur for a variety of reasons. However, animals being bred in captivity can destroy the desire and resources to care for those in the wild.
11. Zoo elephants die much younger than their wild counterparts.
(RSPCA Science Group)
While, generally, animals in captivity have longer lifespans than their counterparts in the wild (due to a lack of predators and less disease), a study by the RSPCA Science group found that in European zoos, elephants died much younger than those in the wild.
Wild Asian elephants have been reported to live up to 79 years; African elephants up to 65 years. These animals in captivity, however, tend to average 15 and 16 years, respectively.
12. Zoos “cull” surplus animals.
(Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation) (IDAUSA)
Sometimes zoos breed more animals than they need, and those extra animals have to go somewhere. Unfortunately, they won’t be released into the wild.
In some cases, these animals will be sold to laboratories, hunting facilities, shows, or even to people as pets.
In other cases, such as in European zoos, animals are instead killed — even if they’re whole and healthy.
Circus Animal Abuse Statistics
13. Circus animals spend most of the year living in too small boxcars.
(People Helping Animals)
The circus moves from place to place and is on the road a good portion of the time. This means that circus animals spend up to 11 months of the year traveling with it — usually in boxcars that aren’t temperature regulated, and where they are expected to sleep, go to the bathroom, and eat all in the same place.
14. Circus animals spend approximately 96% of their lives caged up or chained.
(World Animal Protection)
It’s not just when they’re traveling that circus animals are locked up. They spend most of their lives in either cages or chains.
This constant inability to move around contributes to the top causes of death in elephants who are captive — arthritis and foot infections.
15. All the major U.S. circuses that use wild animals as entertainment have been cited for not meeting the minimum requirements for the standard of care put forth by the U.S. Animal Welfare Act.
(Born Free USA)
This is partially because the law only covers minimal standard care for certain species and because the USDA — which is supposed to conduct inspections — does so infrequently. There have also been complaints that these inspectors aren’t adequately trained in what to look for.
Even worse? Violators of the U.S. Animal Welfare Act are often repeat offenders.
Frequently Asked Questions About Animals in Captivity
How Many Animals Are in Captivity?
It’s hard to say just how many wild animals are being kept in captivity across the spectrum of zoos, circuses, aquariums, as pets, and more.
However, we know that approximately one million vertebrate animals are kept captive in just zoos alone. That’s a lot!
The number of animals in captivity altogether will be much, much higher, though. (Animal Ethics)
Do Animals in Captivity Suffer From Depression?
Given the circumstances they live in, many animals in captivity suffer from depression and anxiety. The psychological consequences of how they live are seen in what is known as zoochosis.
Zoochosis is when animals engage in repetitive behaviors that serve no specific function. These behaviors can include excessive grooming, pacing or swaying, head bobbing, and neck twisting.
Zoochosis occurs from various aspects of captivity, such as being forced to be idle and in one place constantly and the loss of a species normal social groups, amongst other things. (Wildlife New Zealand)
What Percent of Animals In Zoos are Endangered?
While an exact percentage is hard to pin down, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), amongst their members, there are about 900 species that have been classified as anywhere from Vulnerable to Extinct by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The AZA also says that there are over 50 reintroduction programs for endangered and threatened species that the Endangered Species Act has listed. (Association of Zoos and Aquariums)
How Many Animals Die in Zoos Each Year?
Unfortunately, this is another number that’s hard to track down as zoos don’t like to advertise animals dying.
However, In Defense of Animals estimate that at least anywhere between 3000 and 5000 surplus animals are killed in European zoos each year.
Add to those accidental deaths and animals dying young due to captivity, and you’re looking at a lot. (In Defense of Animals)
Are There Still Circuses That Use Animals?
Unfortunately, yes, some circuses are still using animals in their acts. The good news is that many no longer do (or have shut down entirely, such as Ringling Bros).
But there are still a handful that use wild animals — mostly elephants and big cats. These include the Loomis Bros Circus, Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, and the Royal Hanneford Circus. (CompassionWorks International)
Related Read: 20 Disturbing Animals Abuse Statistics & Facts to Know
The life of animals in captivity is heartbreaking, whether they be in a zoo, aquarium, circus, or other confinement. While some places do some work in conservation, the majority do not do as much as they say they do (if at all). Overall, profit is put over the lives of captive animals.
It may seem like there isn’t much you as an individual can do. But now that you know just a few of the disheartening statistics, you can avoid places that have wild animals in captivity. You can also share this info, so more people know what these animals face.
Hopefully, one day — sooner rather than later — more people will take notice of this situation, and animals in captivity will be a thing of the past.
Featured Image Credit: Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz, Pexels
Oliver (Ollie) Jones – A zoologist and freelance writer living in South Australia with his partner Alex, their dog Pepper, and their cat Steve (who declined to be pictured). Ollie, originally from the USA, holds his master’s degree in wildlife biology and moved to Australia to pursue his career and passion but has found a new love for working online and writing about animals of all types.