People have been taking day trips to the zoo for generations. Seeing a trip to the zoo as a chance to get an up-close look at animals they’d probably never be able to observe under other circumstances, the zoo has been a staple in “family fun” since the first “zoological park” opened to the public in 1847. Most schools put excursions to the zoo on their list for educational outings – this undoubtedly goes over pretty well as it’s hard to find a kid that would turn down a day trip to check out the meerkat exhibit.

Zoos market themselves as places driven by conservation, where animals are “safe,” and want for nothing. Sadly, that’s not the case. Animals in zoos are put on display for entertainment purposes first and foremost. The vast majority of the animals we see at the zoo are born in captivity, making it virtually impossible for them ever to be released back into the wild. Their environments are, more often than not, an inadequate facsimile for what would meet their needs in nature, lacking the types of social structure and enrichment vital to their well-being.

While it’s true that not all zoos are created equal, even those that endeavor to be the most humane still experience these types of issues. There’s just no way to replicate the wild in captivity. Some try, while some like the San Antonio Zoo in Texas, fail miserably. Celebrating its centennial this year, the San Antonio Zoo is one of the older zoos in the United States. This particular zoo has had a spot on In Defense of Animals (IDA) Top 10 Worst Zoos for Elephants six times in ten years. This year they’re ranked at number one. They were also the only American zoo listed as one of the World’s Worst Zoos by the Global Post in 2010. What earned them these distinctions? It all started with one unlucky elephant…

1. Where do the San Antonio Zoo’s Animals Come From?

Over 9,000 animals, representing 750 different species are kept in captivity at the San Antonio Zoo. Prior to the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, animals were captured straight from the wild and ended up in the San Antonio Zoo to be used as exhibits.  That’s how Lucky, an Asian elephant, arrived at the zoo in 1962 at the age of four. Gertrude, the white rhino also arrived in this manner in 1970 at the age of five.

EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: One of the Worst Zoos in America

After 1973 zoos were prohibited by the Endangered Species Act from capturing animals listed as endangered or threatened from their natural habitat, as well as importing, exporting or trading them in any way. Since then, the zoo has mainly acquired animals that are sent to live there – like Queenie the elephant who was sent after being rescued from a private owner – or they’re traded back and forth with other zoos for the purpose of mating, to produce more captive offspring. As the older generations of animals who were captured from the wild pass on, the vast majority of animals living in zoos today were born there.

EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: One of the Worst Zoos in America

2. How are the San Antonio Zoo’s Animals Treated?

The entire zoo only takes up 56 total acres, meaning their animal population  of 9,000, is crammed into a very tight space. Many animals are kept in small, dated and inadequate enclosures and deprived of the social structure that their species require for their mental well-being.

Prior to her death in 2012 of kidney failure, Gertrude the rhino, languished in a rusty enclosure that was too small for her, lacking in shade or a mud wallow-a necessary item for her species. Her night quarters were no better, containing compact and unnatural substrata for her to lie down on.

EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: One of the Worst Zoos in America

Sam and Gina, a black leopard pair, both passed away in 2010 after only one year at the zoo. Transferred in 2009, after being rescued from a private owner, the zoo gave little details about the cause of death for either animal.

Officially, the zoo stated that Gina had passed away from an illness. Sam appeared distraught and began showing stereotypic behaviors, or zoochosis, following her death-likely due to the sudden disappearance of his companion. He died himself a month later, with no statement from the zoo at all.

EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: One of the Worst Zoos in America

One of the most deplorable cases of animal treatment at the San Antonio Zoo can be seen in the story of Lucky.  Lucky’s care (or lack there of) is one of the main reasons San Antonio has made its way onto the worst lists for zoos.

Lucky lives in a half-acre enclosure with minimal shade and a hard concrete surface known to cause orthopedic issues in elephants. She has also been living in solitude for the majority of her time in the zoo.

When her companion, Alport, died after sustaining a serious orthopedic injury in 2007, Lucky was left alone for the next three years.  During this time the zoo looked for other companions for her but no other zoo was willing to send an elephant to San Antonio (likely because of their reputation). That changed in 2010 when an elephant named Queenie, later renamed Boo, was rescued from a private owner and sent by the USDA to live as a companion for Lucky.

However, Queenie passed away in March of 2013, and the San Antonio Zoo currently has no plans to either relinquish Lucky to a sanctuary or to provide her with another companion. The zoo contends that Lucky is too old to be moved to a sanctuary, and insists that keeping her in an inadequate environment, with no others of her kind to satisfy her needs for socialization, is the only choice for her. Elephants can live up to 70 years in the wild, meaning Lucky could have 20 more years of miserable solitude ahead of her.

Zoo directer Steve McCusker says, “She’s never been kind of a herd elephant. She’s always been kind of a weird elephant that would rather be alone or with people than other elephants. That’s really the philosophy and science behind why we have kept her.”

Elephants are highly social animals, which makes this assertion even more questionable. Lucky shows signs of zoochosis, which often occurs when animals are stressed or live in enclosures containing little stimulation. Keepers explain away Lucky’s stereotypic behavior as excitement for meals.

EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: One of the Worst Zoos in America

3. The San Antonio Zoo: Disregard for Animals and the Environment

EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: One of the Worst Zoos in America

With antiquated water systems, the zoo pumped 707 million gallons of water from the Edwards Aquifer in 2012. To put this in perspective, that is 3 times the amount pumped by neighboring Seaworld San Antonio- a marine park! They’re also the largest discharger of pollution on the river in San Antonio, dumping 2 million gallons of water per day used in the animal pens and contaminated with E.Coli at levels 135 times higher than what the EPA considers safe. This impacts not only the people who come into contact with this water, but the fish and wildlife in the river.

The San Antonio Zoo repeatedly claims that they don’t have the money it would take to update their re-use and conservation systems, or to update the outdated animal enclosures. This leaves them with the choice of raising the money for these necessary updates, or maintaining fewer animals in an effort to conserve water and minimize their inadequate living conditions. So far, they’ve chosen to focus on raising eight million dollars on a new restaurant and plaza to celebrate their centennial.

“If we don’t make money we go under,”  McCusker said. “We decided for Zootenial we would do something for the public.”

4. Life in the Wild vs. Life in the Zoo

According to their website, “It’s the mission of the San Antonio Zoological Society to foster appreciation and concern for all living things. We are dedicated to providing:

  • The highest standards of care for our animal and plant collections.
  • A diverse educational and high quality recreational experience for all visitors.
  • All the resources at our disposal for conservation of the earth’s flora and fauna.”

This sounds all well and good, but wild animals are living, sentient beings and shouldn’t be considered part of a “collection” like a shot glass from from Vegas or a spoon from a truck stop along Route 66! The San Antonio Zoo has shown that their interest in “flora and fauna” and the “highest standards of animal care” come behind providing an “experience for visitors.”

The bottom line is, animals here-and in any zoo-live lives that are very different than the ones that they would lead in the wild.


 EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: Cruelty, not Conservation!


Animals in the wild live in a variety of habitats suitable to their individual needs. White Rhinos, for instance, hail from sub-Saharan Africa’s grassy plains.  These rhinos are never far from a good mud hole, using the thick mix to coat their skin as a means of cooling it while also providing a natural sun block.

In zoos they, along with other animals, find themselves in an enclosure made of concrete. Some may have the water and mud wallows that these animals need instinctively while others may not. Their enclosures are often antiquated, entirely too small to allow for any roaming and always the same which leads to boredom and frustration.


EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: One of the Worst Zoos in America


In the wild, elephants enjoy rubbing up against and knocking down trees, something that a zoo discourages due to the expense of replacing trees in an artificial habitat. Some zoos have even gone so far as to put trees and stumps up in their elephant enclosures to give the appearance of a “natural habitat” to the public, but then placed electric fencing between them and the elephants so the animals are shocked if they attempt to approach them!

They’re instead given man made items like truck tires, ropes and buckets to play with in an attempt to stave off boredom, which don’t replicate the types of stimulation they would seek naturally.

Family Structure

EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: Cruelty, not Conservation!


Profoundly social animals, elephants select a social group in the wild and stick close to them for life. Rhinos can also establish social groups of about six individuals in the wild and will fight fiercely with outside males looking to disrupt it.

Zoos will often fail to meet these social needs entirely by placing animals alone in their enclosures or by tearing established social groups apart when they “loan out” a member of a small group to another zoo for their exhibits. This not only disrupts the established family group of the first zoo, it can result in a massive disruption at the zoo the animal was sent. One such instance occurred in 2001 when Gertrude’s mate Fred was loaned out from the San Antonio Zoo to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. His presence upset the existing social structure, resulting in a fight that resulted in his death.


EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: One of the Worst Zoos in America


Elephants in the wild can walk up to 3o miles per day. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) minimum space requirement for an elephant in captivity is only 5400 square feet outside and 600 square feet for males or females with calves inside. Without calves, females are only required to have 400 square feet indoors. While many zoos exceed this ridiculous number, it isn’t enough to satisfy the animal’s incredible need for space to roam and wander.

Gorillas also see a large difference in their activity in captivity vs. in the wild, leading to issues with obesity in captive gorillas. Where they’d otherwise be playing and looking around for items to build their new nest each night, gorillas in captivity have a nest supplied for them. Lethargy and prolonged periods of sitting result, which are not observed in gorillas allowed to live outside of a zoo.

5. What YOU CAN and MUST do to Stop This Suffering

After reading this, we’re sure a Green Monster such as yourself is pretty upset about what you’ve learned. So were we! The good news is you have the power to help bring about an end to this senseless suffering by refusing to buy a ticket or a membership to the San Antonio Zoo.

Boycott The San Antonio Zoo

With their centennial celebration happening this year, there’s no better time to tell the zoo that you don’t support their practices than by refusing to buy a ticket or membership. Zoos are for profit organizations and rely on ticket sales for the vast majority of their income. Without patrons, they can not continue to operate.

Leave a Review on Trip Advisor and Other Sites

While your individual decision not to patronize the San Antonio Zoo will make an impact, you can magnify that impact by spreading the word if you have first hand experience with visiting this zoo.

Share this post in the review section of the San Antonio Zoo’s page on Tripadvisor to advise others against checking this attraction out if they’ll be spending time in the area.  Nationally, 26 zoos have discontinued their elephant exhibits, with the most recent being the Toronto Zoo after a successful campaign launched by Green Monsters like you saw their IDA rating and decided to do something about it. Raising awareness makes a difference!

Expose Others

Let us know (in the comments sections) about other animal attractions that should be banned for the way they treat animals.

6. Take Action on Social Media NOW!

Participate in our social campaign and share why you are boycotting the San Antonio Zoo!

Share the graphic below to spread the facts about how San Antonio Zoo treats their animals OR make your selfie sharing why you boycott this zoo.

Post the photo on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr or Facebook. Make sure your update includes 1.#IMAGREENMONSTER 2. @onegreenplanet and 3. a link to THIS ARTICLE (

See the example below:

“#IMAGREENMONSTER because I BOYCOTT #SanAntonio #Zoo! Join me at @onegreenplanet ”


EXPOSED! The San Antonio Zoo: One of the Worst Zoos in America

When you know truth, it is your duty to share, so share away Green Monsters and let’s shut down this cruel zoo!

Lead image source: Robin Jerstad/Express-News