2016-2017 Student Animal Legal Defense Fund Program Guide: Captive Wild Animals


Each year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) provides resources to help its student chapters focus on a specific priority issue. The SALDF Program Guide contains an overview of the issue, ALDF’s involvement, and suggested activities, such as film screening suggestions, a reading list, and suggested speakers. This year’s priority issue is Captive Wild Animals.


Many wild animals in captivity are used for “entertainment,” though some are also considered “pets.” Illegal trafficking in rare and exotic wild animals is a $10 to $20 billion-a-year business, the profits of which come at the expense of broken families and countless injured and/or dead animals.

Wild animals often suffer greatly in captivity because they are placed in utterly foreign habitats—obviously a metal cage and a concrete floor is unnatural living for virtually every species, but even changes in climate, topography, and flora and fauna can put wild animals under physical and psychological strain. Captive animals typically live much shorter lives than their wild counterparts: for example, captive orcas have about one-third the average lifespan as wild orcas, who can live to be more than 100 years old!

Legal Protection for Captive Wild Animals

Very few federal laws protect the millions of wild animals who live in captivity in aquariums, circuses, theme parks, and zoos in the U.S. The primary federal law, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), regulates licensing, housing, exhibiting, transporting, and caring for captive wild animals. It was adopted by Congress to protect “warm-blooded” animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or publically exhibited—like tigers, lions, elephants, bears, and nonhuman primates. But it excludes protection for birds, rats, and mice, farmed animals, and “cold-blooded” animals. Furthermore, it establishes only minimal standards of care for licensing exhibitors. It does not restrict the display or private ownership of captive wild animals or prohibit the use of controversial bull hooks, whips, electrical shock, or other devices commonly used in circuses. The USDA inspects circuses as infrequently as once a year and local inspectors are often inadequately trained to look for signs of abuse and neglect.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international treaty adopted by the U.S. in 1975 that regulates wildlife trade for all joined nations. It prohibits the trade in living or dead wildlife for some endangered species and bans the import of certain species for commercial purposes. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects fish, mammals, birds, and plants listed as threatened or endangered in the U.S. and beyond. It outlines procedures for federal agencies to follow regarding listed species, as well as criminal and civil penalties for violations. Neither law, however, directly addresses living conditions for captive animals.

Although strong state laws have been a useful way to protect exotic animals, some states offer little to no protection for captive wild animals. Some states require licenses, and others have bans on owning and displaying captive animals, but some have few guidelines at all. Some states ban the private possession of large cats, wolves, bears, dangerous reptiles, and most nonhuman primates. No state law prohibits circuses or any specific species from being involved in performance.

Increasingly, local jurisdictions are adopting ordinances that ban or restrict the display of captive wild animals, and some cities prohibit circuses. Local laws are often most effective in governing the private possession of exotic animals.

Animals used by the multi-billion dollar display industry—like those found at SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium—include orcas, bottlenose dolphins, and sea-lions. Orcas in the wild exist in tight-knit family groups and can travel over 100 miles in a single day, yet captive orcas are kept in small pools for entertainment in which they cannot dive and must swim circles in shallow tanks. No laws prohibit the display of orcas in captivity, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) allows the capture of wild orcas for the purposes of “education” and entertainment.

Many wild animals may be kept captive in private homes as pets. Common animals kept as pets include lions, tigers, cougars, ocelots, servals, wolves, bears, alligators, snakes, and nonhuman primates. These wild animals are dangerous by nature and cannot be domesticated. A largely unregulated trend is the hybrid breeding of wild cats with housecats, with predictably disastrous consequences.

Every year, thousands of animals enter the captive wild animal trade. These animals are either “surplus” from roadside zoos; captured from their native habitats; sold at auctions, pet stores, or over the Internet; or come from backyard breeders or the black market.

ALDF’s Lawsuits to Protect Captive Wildlife

ALDF has advocated for numerous captive wild animals, including:

  • Candy the chimp, who has lived her entire life—more than 50 years—serving as a sideshow attraction.
  • Lolita the orca, an intelligent and sensitive whale who is confined to the smallest orca tank in North America at the Miami Seaquarium.
  • Lucky the elephant, who was captured from the wild before her first birthday, and has spent the last 53 years at the San Antonio Zoo, where she has been entirely alone for the past three.
  • Ben the bear, who had been confined to a barren concrete cage at roadside zoo, Jambbas Ranch Tours, for six years. He is now free! He lives at the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary, where he can forage, swim, and build his den under trees.
  • Ricky the bear, who after spending 16 miserable years in an undersized chain-link and concrete cage at an ice cream shop, is now residing at the Wild Animal Sanctuary.
  • Tony the tiger, who has endured more than a decade of misery at the Tiger Truck Stop in Louisiana.
  • Bear, a gray wolf, and Baby, a Siberian tiger, who suffer—both physically and psychologically—in their cramped and deprived conditions at Animaland Zoological Park.
  • Big cats who are forced to perform in Las Vegas magician Dirk Arthur’s Wild Magic show.
  • Endangered animals at Cricket Hollow Zoo, including tigers, lemurs, and lions.
  • Orcas at SeaWorld, which announced in 2016 that it will phase out its inhumane captive orca program, but will not retire the remaining orcas to sanctuary.
  • Wolves at Fur-Ever Wild, who are first displayed as pups in a petting zoo, then skinned for their fur.
  • Seventeen wild-caught African elephants imported to be displayed in U.S. zoos.
  • Wild animals at the King Kong Zoo, which shut down in 2015.

Suggested Projects, Events, and Actions

NOTE: To help fund your event, your chapter can apply for a SALDF project grant.

Education and Outreach

Organize an information table on campus to raise awareness about issues relating to Captive Wild Animals. ALDF can provide free tabling materials that include newsletters, stickers, brochures (such as our Captive Animals and the Law brochure), and posters to help with your event.

Guest Speakers

Host a speaker, debate, panel, or even a symposium or conference on issues relating to Captive Wild Animals.

SALDF Coalition Building

When planning a speaker panel or other event, we encourage you to look for opportunities to team up with other student groups. This will bring a wider audience to your event. For example, on the issues relating to Captive Wild Animals, your chapter might pair up with the Environmental Law Society or the International Law Society.

Letter Writing and Commenting

Chapter members can write letters in response to any newspaper, magazine, or online article involving Captive Wild Animals and make the case against keeping wild animals in captivity.


Include news relating to Captive Wild Animals or your events on this issue in your chapter newsletters or emails.

Become Active in State Legislation

Organize your members to write letters and make follow-up phone calls regarding pending legislation in your state.

Film Screenings

Screen films related to Captive Wild Animals.

Film Suggestions

Reading List


Legal Articles

Online Articles

Speaker Suggestions

Animal Legal Defense Fund Speakers

Other Speakers

  • Tim Harrison, director, Outreach for Animals, and former mutual aid responder, responding to national level exotic animal emergency incidents.
  • Delcianna Winders, Harvard Animal Law Fellow and PETA Foundation’s Deputy General Counsel for Captive Animal Law Enforcement.
  • Please note: non-ALDF speakers may require honoraria, which ALDF does not fund.

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