A captive wildlife bill that would remove state regulations at roadside zoos in Wisconsin is close to becoming law. Senate bill 347 would remove Department of Natural Resources regulations on native wildlife at facilities that are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a Class C exhibitor; a subset commonly referred to as roadside zoos.
If state regulations are removed at roadside zoos in Wisconsin, the only agency protecting the animals would be the U.S. Department of Agriculture, operating under the regulatory scheme work of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The USDA has repeatedly issued licenses to facilities that continuously violated the AWA.
Whistleblowers at one roadside zoo in Wisconsin, Special Memories Zoo, documented severe animal neglect over a six-year period that resulted in the death of dozens of animals that were left to rot in their enclosures. The USDA repeatedly cited Special Memories Zoo for failing to clean enclosures, failing to give animals water to drink and for an employee who was bitten by a bear. Despite the repeated violations, Special Memories Zoo retained their USDA license and was only shut down after the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the roadside zoo in 2020.
In March 2022, Animal Haven Zoo in Weyauwega, Wisconsin, was fined $6,450 for repeatedly violating the Animal Welfare Act but was allowed to retain their USDA license.
The USDA has been criticized for being understaffed and for overlooking violations and citing issues as “teachable moments.” The organization enforces the minimum standards of animal care, designed only to ensure animal survival. DNR regulations, in comparison, often exceed USDA regulations.
In the wake of documentaries such as Tiger King and The Conservation Game, other states have been increasing their regulations on wild animals at roadside zoos. A bill in Indiana that bans direct contact with big cats and bears was recently signed into law. SB 347, however, would remove state restrictions on dangerous practices such as public interactive sessions with adult bears, cougars and lynx.
Roadside zoos are frequently responsible for animal attacks, escapes, neglect and the transfer of zoonotic diseases. They often participate in the breeding and trafficking of wild animals for profit. It is imperative that Wisconsin continues regulating native wildlife at these facilities.
SB 347 has passed the Wisconsin Legislature and is awaiting review by Gov. Evers. Please urge Gov. Evers to veto SB 347.