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Organizing a Campaign to Help Captive Wildlife

Published 08/01/03

Thousands of captive wild animals — elephants, lions, tigers, ocelots, servals, wolves, bears, alligators, venomous snakes, monkeys and other nonhuman primates, and more — are privately held, displayed at roadside zoos and menageries, and used in traveling circuses all across the country.

The sale, possession, and use of captive wild animals is regulated by a patchwork of federal, state, and local laws that generally vary by community and by animal. What results is very little protection under the law. These animals need our help! We must pursue legislation on all levels to ensure stronger protections.

Getting Ready

You may be apprehensive or think you do not speak well in public. Perhaps you have never been involved in an activist group and you don't know a thing about them. Maybe you feel that you have no support system. You simply must recognize that as an individual you can educate hundreds of people in your community and effect change.

Anyone can be an activist. It does not take any special skills or exceptional abilities. You just need to care enough about animals to want to help them. So let’s get started!

The Elements of the Campaign

The two main components of any captive wild animal campaign are

  1. Educating the general public; and
  2. Convincing decision-makers to enact the change you seek.

Most people have a basic understanding that keeping animals in captivity is wrong, even if they don’t oppose it. You may find people who enjoy the circus, don’t disagree with private possession of captive wildlife, and think that captive wildlife is of educational value. Your challenge is to provide these people with factual information. Educating the general public can also help you influence decision-makers.

Credibility is your key to success! Campaigns must be based on facts, not misconceptions. Remember, if your credibility begins to erode, so will your support.

Choosing a Campaign

The first step is choosing a campaign or animal issue to focus on to pursue through the legislative process. One can pursue three types of campaigns using the legislative process on city, county, and state levels to help captive wild animals. The focus can be on private possession of captive wild animals as “pets”; the display at roadside zoos or menageries; traveling circuses, which use captive wild animals; or a combination of the three. The campaign/issue should be one that is feasible and can be legislated on.

Private Possession
Captive wild animals, such as lions, tigers, ocelots, servals, wolves, bears, alligators, venomous snakes, monkeys and other nonhuman primates, are privately possessed as “pets” all across the country. By their very nature, these animals are wild and inherently dangerous; as such, they do not adjust well to a captive environment. They are incapable of being “domesticated” and/or tamed. They require special care, housing, diet, and maintenance that the average person cannot provide. As a result, individuals who possess captive wild animals often attempt to change the nature of the animal rather than the nature of the care provided. Such tactics often include confinement in small barren enclosures, chaining, beating “into submission,” or even painful mutilations, such as declawing and tooth removal.

Roadside Zoos and Menageries
Thousands of second-rate wildlife attractions exist throughout the United States, ranging from backyard menageries to so-called “sanctuaries” to drive-through parks, most of which display for a fee various species of captive wildlife. Disguised as conservation, education, or rescue facilities, roadside and menagerie zoos are among the worst abusers of captive wildlife. The animals are kept in deficient, makeshift conditions and suffer from problems such as neglect, abuse, malnutrition, unsuitable social groupings, inappropriate climate, and unsatisfactory veterinary care. With little opportunity for mental stimulation or physical exercise, animals often become despondent and develop abnormal and self-destructive behaviors that include pacing, rocking, swaying, bar biting, pulling out hair and feathers, and biting themselves.

Traveling Circuses
Performing captive wildlife — elephants, lions, tigers, bears, baboons, monkeys, camels, llamas — travel thousands of miles each year without water, in railroad cars or trucks not air-conditioned in summer or heated in winter. Animals used in the circus and other traveling acts endure years of physical and psychological pain and suffering to “entertain” an uninformed audience. Elephants are forced to stand in their own waste, chained to a post for up to 100 hours at a time, while being transported from one performance to another. Just as in roadside zoos, these performing animals do not receive the proper care, nutrition, and environmental enrichment required for their well-being.

The best way to determine which campaign to select is to figure out what types of animals are in your state/city/county. Ask yourself: Do circuses come to town? Is there a roadside zoo in your town? Do your neighbors or people you know have exotic “pets”? Have there been any incidents where captive wild animals have escaped and/or injured people? You do not want to lump all three together in one campaign. It is best to focus either on circuses or on roadside zoos and exotic “pets” together.

When deciding what type of campaign to mount, keep in mind that anything that makes it more difficult and/or expensive for individuals to carry on the activity or make a living off the animals may discourage these or other individuals from possessing these animals altogether.

Whichever type of campaign you select, everyone involved must agree on the rationale and anticipated outcome. Unless these are spelled out from the beginning, activists who have rallied in support of a state legislative bill or a city ordinance may become disillusioned and even angry when they discover the bill had no chance of passing.

Starting Your Campaign

The best way to start your legislative campaign is to learn as much as you can about the captive wild animal issue you have selected. A good campaign will be well planned, factually based, and have the right amount of emotional appeal. To succeed you must gather as much information as possible about the campaign prior to approaching your state legislator or city councilperson. To start your campaign you should do the following:

  1. Know comprehensively the reasons you encourage the state legislators or city council to enact the prohibition.
  2. Become familiar with your state and city laws on the issue.
  3. Become familiar with recent incidents involving exotic animals in your city and state.
  4. If the targets of the campaign are circuses or roadside zoos, become familiar with the facilities’ exhibitors record under the Animal Welfare Act.

1. Become Familiar with the Issues Concerning Captive Wild Animals

You will no doubt be asked why you think exotic animals should be prohibited from being displayed in the state/city. You should be able to answer these questions. Therefore, become familiar with the three main reasons why captive wild animals should be prohibited from private possession, roadside zoos and menageries, and traveling circuses. There may be a different emphasis depending on where you live.

The three main reasons are:

Public Safety
Across the country captive wild animals on display or privately held have attacked humans and other animals, and escaped from their enclosures and freely roamed the community. Children and adults have been mauled by tigers, bitten by monkeys, and asphyxiated by snakes throughout the world. These incidents are documented. Choosing public safety as your main focus is a very effective way of getting the attention of the local or state government and community members because these entities have authority to adopt laws based on public safety.

Public Health
Many captive wild animals carry zoonotic diseases, such as Herpes B, Monkey Pox, and Salmonellosis, all of which are communicable to humans. Health experts warn that petting zoos are notorious for infecting children with potentially lethal bacteria. In September and October 2000, as many as 61 children became infected with E. Coli during a visit to Merrymead Farm, a petting zoo in Pennsylvania. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 130,000 cases of salmonella every year result from casual animal contact, and young children are at increased risk of becoming ill. Infections can spread through direct animal contact or simply by touching the surroundings near an animal exhibit. In September 1998, an estimated 380 children developed salmonellosis after visiting a Denver zoo. Most of them became sick after touching a wooden railing around an animal exhibit that was teeming with bacteria. Public health is an excellent way to grab attention to your case.

Animal Welfare
In the hands of private individuals or on public display, the animals themselves suffer. These animals do not adjust well to a captive environment, for they require special care, housing, diet, and maintenance that are rarely provided.

Traveling circuses house and confine animals in small cages and force them to perform unnatural and often painful acts. Animals are often drugged or have their teeth and claws surgically altered. They are trained to perform by the use of electric prods and food deprivation. The treatment of the animals during travel is also inhumane. Animals used in the circus are forced to travel thousands of miles each year without adequate water, in railroad cars or trucks, not air-conditioned in the summer or heated in the winter. Circus animals live in unnatural environments where they do not receive appropriate care or nutrition. They are never allowed to exercise nor are they provided with any environmental enrichment required for their well-being.

Although animal cruelty is prevalent, it is sometimes best to make this your least important focus. Remember, you need to change the minds of people who may see nothing wrong with using animals for entertainment purposes. Focusing on the human element is often your initial key to success.

2. Research the Laws Governing Captive Wild Animals

You must gather as much information as possible about the laws relating to the possession and display of captive wild animals in your city/county and in your state. You can do this by contacting your city/county clerk and the state agency that regulates captive wild animals. Also, API has available a summary of state laws relating to private possession of captive wild animals, roadside zoos, and captive animals on display.

Materials to ask for on the city/county level:

  • Any ordinance or municipal code relating to the possession of captive wild animals.
  • Any ordinance or municipal code relating to the display of captive wild animals.
  • Any regulations or policies relating to the possession or display of captive wild animals.

Materials to ask for on the state level:

  • Any statute relating to the possession of captive wild animals.
  • Any statute relating to the display of captive wild animals.
  • Any regulations or policies relating to the possession or display of captive wild animals.

3. Become Familiar with Recent Incidents Involving Exotic Animals in Your City and State

Search newspaper databases and the Internet for stories about exotic animals who have escaped from their enclosures, freely roamed the community, and attacked humans (including handlers and trainers) and other animals. This information is extremely important to document that exotic animals should not be used in traveling shows and brought to cities and towns.

Keep a list and copy of all articles that deal with exotic animals in your town. By establishing the public safety component, this information is vital in demonstrating that captive wild animals should not be privately possessed or used in traveling circuses.

API has lists of animal incidents on all areas addressing captive wild animals.

4. Become Familiar with the Facilities Exhibitor’s Record under the Animal Welfare Act if the Campaign Targets Circuses or Roadside Zoos

All entities that are open to the public must obtain a license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The AWA regulates the care and treatment of warm-blooded animals. However, the AWA does not protect reptiles, birds, rats, and mice used for research purposes, or farm animals used for food, fiber, or other agricultural purposes.

The AWA and its regulations set minimum standards of care and treatment for animals used by circuses, zoos, wildlife parks, and sanctuaries open to the public. Individuals who operate facilities in these categories must provide their animals with adequate care and treatment in the areas of housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures. Although federal requirements establish acceptable standards, they are not ideal. Regulated businesses are encouraged to exceed the specified minimum standards.

Within USDA, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is responsible for administering the AWA. Its Animal Care unit handles licensing and inspection of animal exhibitors. Animal Care field staff, which consists of veterinary medical officers and animal care inspectors, makes pre-licensure, compliance, and complaint inspections. Exhibitors are inspected approximately once each year.

To learn about an individual exhibitor’s record with the USDA, you may submit a request for the information to the USDA by mail or electronically at the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) section of its Web site at https://foia.aphis.usda.gov/request.html.

API provides a list of all exhibitors charged with violating the AWA since January 1995. Anyone observing the mistreatment of exhibited animals should report the incident to the USDA (eastern region: 410-571-8692; central region: 817-885-6910; western region: 916-857-6205).

Determine the Legislative Route of Achieving Your Goal

Now you have educated yourself about captive wild animals in your city/county and state, and you have decided which campaign area you want to pursue (private possession, roadside zoos, and/or traveling circuses). You must consider whether you want to approach the city/county council or the state legislature. Knowing your state law on this issue will help considerably when deciding which legislative body to approach. You can always contact the Animal Protection Institute for advice.

If your campaign is directed at the local level, you will have to work with the city council, county board of supervisors, or some other local government entity vested with the authority to adopt or amend laws. If your campaign is directed at the state level, you will have to work with your state Representative and/or state Senator to adopt or amend laws.

Once you have decided which legislative body to target, you will need a model ordinance or model legislation to present to the legislative body. API has model legislation and ordinances to prohibit the display of exotic animals and private possession of exotic animals as pets, which also covers roadside zoos.

In some situations an all-out ban may not be appropriate or may not pass depending on the makeup of your state legislators or city council. In these cases you should consider presenting a strict regulation that will make it very difficult for captive wild animals to be possessed or displayed in your town.

It is often difficult to initiate your own legislative campaign to help captive wild animals. If you want to become involved to help captive wild animals, but you do not want to spearhead a legislative effort, you can also help through the following means:

  • Support introduced legislation at all levels to prohibit private possession and use of captive wild animals at roadside zoos and circuses through writing letters.
  • If your city, county, or state does have a law prohibiting or severely restricting the possession and/or display of captive wild animals, determine whether the law is actually being enforced. Often you will find that laws and regulations designed to protect captive wild animals are not enforced.
  • Protect captive wild animals through the administrative rulemaking process. This entails monitoring your state agency that regulates captive wild animals. Generally, the agency sends proposed changes to the oversight commission for approval. During this process, most states publish proposed regulation changes and hold public hearings where any citizen can testify about particular proposals and/or submit written comments.

Reach Out to Allies

Developing a broad base of support will greatly increase your chance for passage of the ordinance or legislation. Perhaps there are no animal rights groups in your area. But there is one animal rights person — you. In most cases, allies are just waiting to be discovered. Start with the most likely places, such as animal and environmental advocacy organizations. Next, contact state and local humane societies, shelters, veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitation organizations, other sanctuaries, other grassroots activists, individuals who have been injured and/or frightened by a captive wild animal, people who are outspoken on captive wild animals and traveling circuses, progressive political parties such as the Green Party, and well-known and/or influential individuals. Before introducing the proposed ordinance or legislation, you should contact key groups in your state or local area to make sure their concerns are addressed. Then they are sure to be on your side. This will also help you demonstrate a broad base of support.

Know Your Opposition

Once you have picked your target you must become knowledgeable about the various people and entities the proposed ordinance/law will affect. For example, if you target private possession and roadside zoos, determine if a lot of individuals possess captive wild animals as “pets” and what roadside zoos are in your town and/or state. This information will help when you go before the city council or legislature and talk about the need for the legislation. Determine whether there have been any incidents in your area with captive wild animals. If you target roadside zoos, research the zoo's exhibitor's record on animal care and treatment (see above on how to do this).

If you propose to prohibit traveling circuses, determine what traveling circuses come to your area/town and research the traveling circus’s exhibitor’s record on animal care and treatment. This information will be useful at a public hearing to demonstrate that these animals are not properly cared for and pose a public safety threat.

Introducing Your Proposed City/State Law

Now that you have determined what type of law or ordinance you will introduce and are knowledgeable on the animal issue, the next step is to find a friendly legislator who will introduce the bill. There are various ways to determine who this friendly legislator is:

On the city level:

  1. Try to find an animal-friendly city council person you can approach to ask whether he/she thinks that an ordinance will pass.
  2. Often this person can give you useful information on how to approach the other council members and other useful lobbying tips.

On the state level:

  1. Many groups who lobby on animals have put together voting records, rating legislators on how they voted on animal bills. You want to target legislators with high ratings.
  2. You can look at who has introduced animal legislation in the past and target them.

Of course, you can always ask your own state legislator to introduce the bill.

When you have a sponsor and a bill number, it is time to lobby the bill to help in its passage. Have packets of information on the bill to provide to legislators. The information contained in the packets should illustrate the need for the proposed ordinance/legislation.

Next, gather a group of people (national animal groups, grassroots groups in the state/city, residents) to help with action alerts, letters to city council persons and state legislators, etc. Also, feel free to call on the people, such as national groups, who have been working on this issue for guidance, support, and help with the bill’s passage. Coalitions work well in the passage of animal bills (see Reach Out to Allies above).

Once the ordinance/legislation is introduced, you will likely receive a public hearing. If a public hearing is scheduled, arrange for the best witnesses, with diverse backgrounds, to testify — an animal control officer who inspects traveling circuses, a person who was injured by a privately owned captive wild animal, a veterinarian who has seen the injuries inflicted by captive wild animal trainers, a concerned citizen who doesn’t want tigers living in her neighborhood, or any other expert in the field. Rally your supporters to attend the hearing as well. If there is no public hearing but a vote is to take place, have as many supporters as possible present to let the decision-makers know that a large number of people care about the issue.

Lastly, it is time for the vote. If you win, celebrate! But make sure to plan your next move such as guarding against any legal or legislative challenge to your successful measure. If you lose, take all you have learned during the campaign and put it to good use when you try again as you should! Also, remember that you educated a number of people with your message. Public education is key to the success of any animal campaign and, over time, an educated public can push for positive changes for animals!

Using the Media

Local media newspapers, radio, television, even the Internet and billboards, can play a major role in helping your message reach both the general public and the decision-makers. Prepare fact sheets for the media that explain your campaign, and what kinds of laws exist in your state. Include the actual text of your measure. Make it clear what your campaign will do (e.g., ban circuses which feature exotic captive wildlife) and will not do (e.g., ban animal-free circuses). If your opposition speaks out against your proposal, prepare a rebuttal fact sheet with succinct responses to their criticisms. Always have one or more knowledgeable persons available to speak with the media about your campaign.

Try to interest the media in covering your campaign, but realize they will probably present “the other side” as well. Encourage news coverage by notifying the media of specific events such as a public demonstration, or a legislative or administrative hearing on your proposal.

Be prepared to contact the media immediately if a captive wild animal tragedy occurs in your area. If anyone alerts you to a situation in which a captive wild animal, on display or privately owned, escapes, injures a human, etc., verify the facts, and then notify the media.

Even when the media have little or no interest in your campaign, there are ways to get your message out. Almost all newspapers run Letters to the Editor and some publish reader’s columns on their opinion pages. Many papers have “Speak Out” phone lines where readers may voice opinions. If a newspaper has a daily phone-in or email poll, suggest a poll with a question on circuses. Radio and television stations also offer their own versions of public forums. Investigate what is available and use these media outlets to advance your cause. Diligent and consistent use of these forums can inexpensively keep a campaign before the public and generate continued support for your goals.

Taking Your Message to the Public

In addition to using the media, you can reach the general public directly through regular tabling at busy locations (always check to see if you need a permit from the police department); by leafleting during demonstrations such as when the circus comes to town, outside a roadside zoo, or other public gatherings; and/or by contacting social, civic, and other groups and offering to provide a speaker for any upcoming meetings. You can reach the public in as many ways as you can think of.

When engaging the public, always have printed material available telling people, very simply, what you propose, what they can do to help, and how they can contact you or your group in the future. If you have a specific legislative or regulatory proposal under consideration, tell the public how they can contact the decision-makers (by mail, email, phone, or fax) to express support for your measure.

Have pen and paper or postcards available at your table, and extra chairs, so individuals can sit down and write a supportive note to decision-makers right on the spot. You want to make it easy for people to act right away, when they are motivated. Petitions and emails are not especially effective since they carry little weight with decision-makers. Even pre-formatted letters that require only a signature do not hold nearly as much influence as personal communication from a constituent.

Holding Public Demonstrations

Remember, when you’re presenting an animal rights point of view, your appearance and actions must reflect your concern. If you’re munching on a hamburger while discussing how badly animals are treated in roadside zoos or picketing at a circus with your dog standing near you baking in the sun, others may dismiss you as a hypocrite. Cynics are swift to notice and take advantage of inconsistencies.

Dress neatly. Society has many prejudices, and, despite the old adage, people do judge a book by its cover. By adjusting your clothing to the style of your audience, you're saying, “Hey, we’re the same! You can understand what I’m saying.” Rather than being distracted by your appearance, people will hear your message.

Public Speaking

The notion of speaking in front of a group may frighten you, but one day you’ll need to speak publicly to help animals. If you plan your speech and build your confidence, you may still be nervous but at least people will listen. Your first step in preparing a speech is to understand the nature of the people you’ll be speaking to.

Try to determine the age, sex, religion, occupation, and political affiliation of the group. How much do they already know about your topic? Do you share any beliefs or experiences with them? Try to put yourself in their shoes.

You also need to consider how you want your speech to affect your audience. What do you want them to feel, think, or do after they’ve heard your speech?

Don't be afraid of “alienating” people by talking about captive wildlife. You need to introduce them to new ideas. How you speak is also very important. A harsh, aggressive presentation will push people away; a composed voice and pleasant manner will encourage them to think twice about those new ideas.

Don’t Overextend Yourself

Think practically about how you’re going to fit campaigning into your life. You may have a full-time job and may have to juggle time with family and friends. Think of ways you may be able to change your schedule or transfer some duties to a coworker or partner, to allocate yourself time to concentrate on your campaign.

Maybe you can include some campaign work into the office, family, or political activities you’re already involved in. For example, you can take your family or co-workers to see Cirque du Soleil to promote non-animal circuses. Or ask friends to support only those political candidates who will champion humane legislation.

You do not want to exceed your limit, only to burn out in six months. Think carefully about how you’re going to mark your calendar with activism so it slips easily into your daily routine.


Much of the work you will do as an activist requires no more (and no less) than caring and motivation. On the other hand, making fliers, setting up tables, and forming groups also requires some money to cover costs. Use your imagination to develop ways to raise money. Many people in the community may want to help, but will not devote as much time to the campaign as you. Here are some good ways to raise money and get more people involved.

Product sales: If you have some money to invest, you can purchase animal rights T-shirts, buttons, bumperstickers, and books to sell when you set up tables and hold meetings.

Food sales: Vegan bake sales can do well either as an independent fundraiser or when combined with another event. Pick a busy spot or a street fair or festival to set up. Make sure you check ahead with the police and health department about permits and food regulations.

Garage sales: Presentation sells the product. You’ll make more money if your goods are clean and well displayed. Attach sizeable labels with clearly marked prices to the clothing.

Raffles: The two recipes for a profitable raffle are a good prize and lots of ticket sellers. Print the name of your group, the date and place of the drawing, and a list of the prizes you’re offering. Make sure ticket sellers always have enough tickets on hand.

Miscellaneous: Sponsored events, chores and odd jobs, recycling, parties, art shows, concerts, etc.

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