Animal Captivity Statistics – Deprived of the Right to Freedom!

how many animals are in the zoo

Read this article with an open heart. The subject is not warm and fuzzy but heavy and alarming. It’s time for Americans to be made aware of this crucial information – the statistics of animals in captivity.

Wolves, tigers, elephants, bears, and wildlife were not made to live in cages, fences, or confined in any way. It’s unnatural. 

And it’s people who have caused this predicament due to their greed and need for power and bragging rights.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “captivity” as the condition of being imprisoned or confined. Some think housing wild animals is cool. I mean, who wouldn’t want to show off a cougar if you had one at home? 

But no animal, or human being for that matter, ever wants to be in captivity. So how do we stop it? We’ll discuss that and so much more on our journey to think like animals.

Overview of Animal Captivity

Animals held captive in cages and small enclosures – Would you say it’s someone who owns a wild animal? Is it a circus? Or is it a zoo? It’s all three.

Animals in captivity have long been used for entertainment and selfish reasons. Ancient Egyptian rulers used them to tout their wealth and to satisfy their egos. The Romans repeatedly tortured and killed wild animals in the Coliseum.

 Animal Captivity

When we indulge in animal cruelty, and that’s what captivity is, we become like gladiators.

Circuses started their brutal reign of “training” animals into submission around 1830. Zoos have owners who line their pockets with the money someone pays for a ticket so they can gawk at a suffering animal.

It’s only wild and free animals in natural habitats that do not suffer.  

There are few regulations and laws regarding a person owning a wild animal. The US just hasn’t made the problem a priority. And zoos? Although they have some regulations, they’re just commercial places with animals in cages.

An enclosure, even a large one, is a cage for an animal that can roam for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles in a month.

“It [San Diego Zoo] is a suburban zoo that houses more than 4,000 animals (800 different species) in its 0.4 square kilometers (100 acres)…The San Diego Zoo also includes a wild animal park, which is even more expansive (almost 8 square kilometers or 2,000 acres.).” – speaking about the largest zoo in the US and one of the largest in the world

This may be expansive to a human being, but to wild animals, it’s captivity.

Zoos are exploitation at their finest. “Look over here! We have baby elephants!” And the people ooh and aah as the calf nurses, which should be a private interaction. No passerby seems to care the calf could have been ripped from his mother at a tender age.

“See our rare cougar!” they boast as the white phenomenon paces with anxiety and depression.  

As you learn about animal captivity statistics, we hope you learn about the underlying issue…That animals in captivity languish and deteriorate.

Animal Defenders International (ADI) gives a conservative estimate of 300 wild/exotic animals that are with circuses today. Also, there are 18 that are non-animal. 

We think this number is highly unlikely and that hundreds of more animals are still working for and imprisoned by circuses.

Zoos and aquariums are the most popular attractions and have more visitors than there are people who go to NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB games.

Combined! Over 183 million visitors annually. Over 200 million worldwide. So we’re dealing with people who teach their children, and they teach their children, it’s fun to stare at the monkey and clap. 

But the animals are worth fighting for. 

Animal Captivity Statistics

A 2017 Survey Showed 73% of Adults Strongly or Somewhat Support the Existence of Zoos and Aquariums. (YouGov)

Anything for entertainment? The minds of the masses have become hypnotized into thinking it’s okay to bring children to a menagerie of captive animals.

Around 600,000 Birds and Mammals Are Kept in Zoos Worldwide. (RSPCA)

sad animals in zoos

They’re held captive in the 2,800 zoos and aquariums worldwide.

Black swans and macaws are the two birds among the top 10 birds held in captivity in zoos. They deserve better.

Black swans need about 44 yards to take off and travel long distances when they’re not in the breeding season.

Macaws fly as far as 15 miles a day to feed. They also travel long distances to eat from trees with ripe fruit.

Over 5000 Captive Tigers in China Used for Traditional Medicine (World Animal Protection)

zoos that abuse animals

“There are over 200 tiger breeding facilities in Asia housing up to 8,000 tigers.” – World Animal Protection

Only Around 200 Animal Species Are Included in Zoo Breeding Programs Across Europe (the Independent)

So few that they’re not populating the species, they’re captive breeding more to use. It takes thousands of dollars to introduce a captive animal into the wild. 

Captive Cetaceans Spend 80% More Time on the Surface Than They Would Naturally. (Animal Welfare Institute)

animals abused in zoos

There’s simply nowhere for them to go. In the wild, orcas dive up to 850 feet deep. In a singular study, a female dolphin was observed diving over 1,600 feet.

Additionally, bottlenose dolphins regularly swim from 4-10 feet per second.

I tried to go to the horse’s mouth and obtain facts about how deep Sea World’s tanks are. They conveniently don’t discuss it on the website, but other sources repeatedly report they’re from 35-50 ft. deep.

The Whale Sanctuary Project notes that there are still more than 3,000 whales and dolphins (marine mammals) in captivity globally, including 60 orcas and more than 300 belugas at marine parks and aquariums. 

Globally Zoos and Aquariums Do Have an Educational Role (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums – WAZA)

abused zoo animals

WAZA is the voice of a global community of high‑standard, conservation‑based zoos and aquariums and a catalyst for their joint conservation action.” Also, from, there are 400 members worldwide. 

Sure, some zoos and aquariums contribute greatly to conservation and education. That much energy should be given to closing admission to any more animals and correctly handling the ones who can’t be returned to the wild. 

More Tigers Are Kept in Captivity in America Than Free-Roaming Tigers Globally. (Advocacy for Animals, World Economic Forum)

zoo abuse animals

If all the people/institutions who “own” tigers were to release them back into the wild (and it’s almost impossible to do that for various reasons), they wouldn’t be on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered list.

They are two steps away from being extinct in the wild, and their numbers are decreasing.  

According to a 2016 Survey, 20 States Have Banned Private Ownership of Exotic Animals. (Born Free USA)

Currently, 20 states have “comprehensive bans” that classify dangerous animals as wild cats, large non-domesticated carnivores (big cats), reptiles, and non-human primates. Private ownership would be prohibited.  

Texas May Have the 2nd Largest Tiger Population Due to People Keeping Them as Pets. (Animal Legal Defense Fund)

are zoos animal abuse

Besides cities like Dallas and Houston that prohibit owning a tiger, pet tiger ownership runs wild in Texas. 

There Is Very Little Legal Protection for Animals Living in Captivity (Zoos, Parks, and Aquariums). (Animal Legal Defense Fund – ALDF)

“Laws about zoo animals exist on international, federal, and state, and local levels.” The problem is oversight is practically nonexistent.

Plus, although institutions like zoos and circuses claim the AWA (Animal Welfare Act) has the animals’ welfare covered, the reality is, it does very little to protect animals in captivity.

zoos abuse animals

“This federal law [the AWA] establishes requirements concerning the transportation, sale, and handling of certain animals…” 

The key word being “certain.” It prevents the theft and sale of pets to research laboratories and regulates the humane care and handling of dogs, cats, and other laboratory animals.

The Calves Are Removed Very Early From the Mother’s Care in Aquariums That Give Performances, Such As Sea World. (Dolphin Project, NPR)

Until intense scrutiny was shone on Sea World’s aquatic life, and even still, captive calves weren’t allowed to be with their mothers.

Captured Bottlenose Dolphins Are Likely to Die Soon after They’re Captured. (World Animal Protection)

animal abuse in zoos

Captive dolphins are kept in aquariums 200,000 times smaller than their habitats in the wild.

75% of Snakes, Tortoises, Lizards, and Turtles Die Within a Year of Becoming a Pet. (World Animal Protection)

zoos abusing animals

Most owners don’t know how to properly care for these animals. Captive snakes, in particular, display at least 30 signs of stress. 

A 56-Year-Old Orca, Tokitae, Has Lived Alone in Captivity for Over 50 Years. (World Animal Protection)

She has lived at the Miami Seaquarium in the smallest orca tank in the US and has had animal activists calling for her release for decades.

Animal Abuse in Zoos Statistics

There Is Animal Abuse in 75% of WAZA Facilities. (World Animal Protection)

zoo animal cruelty

Wild animals kept in zoos, aquariums, marine parks, theme parks, and other types of captive establishments endure severe mistreatment, both due to the inherently stressful nature of captivity as well as certain conditions within these facilities that exacerbate the mistreatment. – – Spring, 2021

Around 5,000 Zoo Animals Are Killed Yearly, Only in Europe. (In Defense of Animals – IDAUSA)

The Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark killed four healthy lion cubs and a young male giraffe named Marius in 2014.

43% of WAZA Partners Offer Petting, the Most Stressful Captive Animal Activity. (National Geographic)

sad zoo animals

Captivity statistics lead us to conclude that wildlife isn’t meant to come in contact with human beings, and when it happens, it can cause irreparable damage to the animal.

Polar Bears Have a Lot Less Space in Zoos Than in the Wild. (Freedom for Animals)

A polar bear’s range/habitat changes depending on the season and the year. This is due to shifting ice. A small range is 19,000-23,000 square miles. Some polar bears in zoos live on one or two acres of land. 

Even Healthy “Surplus” Animals Are Often Killed in Zoos. (IDAUSA)

When an animal doesn’t contribute enough to profits, if their genes are overrepresented, or if they’re too old are three reasons why animals die in captivity. If that’s not being abused, what is?

animal cruelty zoos

Zoo Elephants Died Much Younger Than Wild Ones (RSPCA Science Group)

Elephants live 48-70 years in the wild, while some only live in captivity for a few decades. It’s usually due to foot- or joint-related problems. They can roam up to 30 miles a day in the wild.

facts about animals in zoos

Animals In Entertainment Statistics

Circus Animals Spend Most of the Year in Tiny Boxcars. (Do Something)

bad facts about zoos

This ludicrous captivity so that animals perform for the entertainment of humans is barbaric. Elephants, tigers, bears, and many more animals spend 11 months out of the year this way. 

Almost a 96% Chance That Elephants in the Entertainment World Are Treated Poorly. (World Animal Protection)

how many animals are in zoos

There’s a reason why free animals are called “wild.” worldwide They’re not born to be tame, so handlers use cruel tactics to force them into submission. 

Circus Animals Spend Almost 96% of Their Lives in Cages or Chains. (World Animal Protection)

We’ve probably all heard of an animal who “went crazy” in the captive environment of the circus, broke chains, and harmed people.

Animals are sentient beings that have been scientifically proven. They have emotions. Their mental capacities can only take so much until they eventually snap.

Major US Circuses Don’t Meet Minimum Standard Care Requirements Set by the US Animal Welfare Act (Born Free USA)

statistics about zoos

The US AWA is arguably the only legal protection animals have. 

“The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was signed into law on August 24, 1966. It is the only Federal law in the United States that regulates the treatment of animals in research, teaching, testing, exhibition, transport, and by dealers. The Act is enforced by USDA, APHIS, Animal Care.” – National Agricultural Library – US Department of Agriculture

But there are entirely too many zoos, circuses, and the like for authorities and animals foundation to adequately uphold the law.

Which Animals Are Held in Captivity

Here are the animals most often held in captivity (individuals) in the US:

  • Lions
  • Tigers
  • Cougars
  • Ocelots
  • Servals – Wild cat native to Africa
  • Wolves
  • Bears
  • Alligators
  • Snakes
  • Nonhuman primates – Like chimpanzees

Zoo Conservation Statistics

Annual Investments in Wildlife Conservation Are Over $350 Million. (WAZA)

animal abuse in zoos statistics

This is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of money wildlife has made for companies that keep them in captivity.

Where is that $350 million used for endangered animals like African elephants? They’re endangered and critically endangered (African forest elephant) as we speak.

Conservation efforts don’t make up for holding animals in captivity worldwide.

Zoos make their money “from a combination of admission, merchandise, private donors, institutional donors and aid from city and state governments.”

They don’t have a lack of resources and use tax revenue for almost 40 percent of their budget.

At Least 9 Species Have Been Saved by Zoos. (AZA)

sad animals in cages

Here are five: California condor, Black-footed ferret, Przewalski’s horse, Golden lion tamarin, and American red wolf.

Only 18% of Captive Zoo Animals Are Endangered, Which Shows That Zoos Aren’t That Involved in Conserving Rare Species. (PETA)

Have most zoos helped in the conservation of animals? Yes. Is it worth the pain and anguish they’ve inflicted on the animals they’re responsible for? It’s up to each of us to make that call, and we say no, it’s not. 

Highly Threatened Species Are Not To Be Bred in Zoos. (Science Daily)

But they are. Zoos do use captive breeding to prevent the extinction of threatened species. But in the early 2,000s, I saw a rare tiger in captivity in Galveston, TX, and they weren’t sending him anywhere.

animal cruelty zoos

Instead, they were promoting it, and people responded to the tune of 3-people-deep in the crowd. The animal was pacing in a tiny enclosure. It was sickening.

In April 2018, It Was Reported Only Two Northern White Rhinoceros Females Remain in Captivity, the Rest of This Captive Endangered Species Is Almost Extinct. (World Economic Forum, Access Science)

animals in captivity statistics

As of today, the IUCN Red List now classifies them as “Near threatened.” This is due to decades of protection and management, mostly by concerned individuals/groups. There are now many thousands in protected areas and private game reserves.

Since the gross act of poaching is rampant today, as of 2020, they remain in the “Near Threatened” category on the IUCN Red List (the gold standard of ranking animals into categories as to how close or far away they are from extinction).

Most Marine Animals Held Captive and Bred Aren’t Endangered. (Humane Society)

animal captivity statistics

Where is the conservation portion of the program when it comes to aquatic wildlife? Marine life in zoos continues to be constantly bred and killed at a blistering rate.

How Many Animals Have Died in Captivity?

This answer is tricky to find due to the horrible light it would shed on institutions that hold animals in captivity.

The one number everyone seems to agree on, including In Defense of Animals, is “In Europe, it is estimated that between 3,000 – 5,000 “surplus” zoo inmates are killed every year.” 

It’s hard to imagine how many are killed in the US. Let’s just be straight…Animals are culled to make room for more profitable ones.

Exact numbers go unreported, and those in the “captivity industry” have their lips zipped.  

How Can We Help?

As per AL

  • Visit animal sanctuaries instead of going to zoos, marine parks, or circuses. 
  • Say no to businesses that profit from cruelty and abuse of animals. 
  • Post to social media and write letters to your local newspaper To help inform others
  • Inform lawmakers you stand by animal-friendly laws and local bans on using animals in entertainment.

I would add:

  • Raise awareness. Talk to your friends and family about it. I have, and now my sister will never visit another zoo or circus again.
  • Protest outside a circus or zoo.

I once protested at a circus. A lady was walking in and asked about the sign I was holding with a picture of an elephant’s leg in chains. I gently explained to her that this is what happens in circuses. She thanked me and turned around, and left.

Just be kind. Your message and compassion will shine through.


How Many Animals Are in Captivity?

Millions of animals are in captivity. There’s no way to know an exact number.

Are Animals in Zoos Happy?

Would any of us be happy living in a cage? Zoos have people thinking constant reintroduction programs and conservation projects are going on, but that would be untrue. 

Why Are Zoos Bad for Animals?

PHYSICAL – Joints, ligaments, and muscles begin to deteriorate.

Stress affects organs like the heart. Any part of the animal begins to atrophy.

Paws or hooves can split and become infected. Musculoskeletal disorders are created. Diseases and infections can occur.

PSYCHOLOGICAL – Symptoms of trauma can begin. Animals lose their natural/wild behaviors. Things like:

  • Pacing a boundary
  • Chewing on themselves
  • Intense psychological distress
  • Repetitive behaviors like head bobbing
  • Attacking another animal or person (Many captive elephants have escaped and created havoc. And rightly so.)
  • And there have even been instances where animals have deliberately harmed themselves (self-harm). There is even a name for an animal exhibiting one or more of these symptoms…Zoochosis.

At the Miami Seaquarium, a whale named Hugo repeatedly rammed his head into a wall, had an aneurysm, and died. 

These neurotic and atypical behaviors occur as a result of boredom, depression, frustration, a lack of mental and physical enrichment, and removal from their natural habitat and social structures. –

Also, any zoo that allows human contact is signing a death certificate for that animal since most can never be (re)introduced to the wild again.

What Percentage of Zoo Animals Are Endangered?

Anywhere from 10-30%. Most zoo animals are not endangered.

Are There Still Circuses That Use Animals?


In Conclusion

It has all been said. Just like 2+2 is 4, animals should never be held in captivity. It’s disastrous, inhumane, and unconscionable.  

Not everyone thinks animals are sentient, even though it’s a scientific fact.

However, I do think most of us believe animals have deep, embedded instincts. Instincts that move them to be wild in the wild. Who are we to stop that from happening?

It’s one thing to rehabilitate, it’s another to confine.

Trapping animals in captivity for entertainment purposes is like putting a human in prison, except the animals have done nothing wrong to bring about the confinement.

Do the right thing…Never patronize a zoo, circus, or aquarium. Never keep an animal in captivity. And never stop being an advocate for the animals. 

They’re born as we are – To exist in harmony with each other. They’re born to fulfill their given purposes. They’re born…to be free.

Jen Flatt Osborn
Born with a pen in her hand and a deadline (and probably a tail), Jen considers writing a vocation, an art, and a release. She’s a freelance copy/content writer who specializes in the pet industry. Previously, she was the founder/director of an animal sanctuary for 12 years, taught classes to middle school students about dog behavior, and has lived a life full of devotion to animals and their welfare. As a vegetarian, Jen advocates for the humane treatment of every living creature. She currently lives with one delightful canine who encourages her to put her head out the car window more often.

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