A Shocking Look at the Conditions in America’s Zoos
by Peter Batten
Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1976. 246 pages, hardcover. Available from major online booksellers at prices ranging from $7.50 to $25.00.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
First aired on March 20, 2020, the six-part Netflix documentary series Tiger King, produced by Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, overnight revived interest in for-profit zookeepers Joe Schreibvogel Maldonado, better known as “Joe Exotic,” Tim Stark, and Kevin “Doc” Antle, along with sanctuarian Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, who for decades has been seeking federal legislation that would stop private exploitation of wildlife.
“Joe Exotic,” sentenced in January 2020, sold his Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park to associate Jeff Lowe, formerly a business partner of Stark, and is now serving a 22-year penitentiary term, which could easily mean life, for having tried to hire someone to kill Baskin. “Joe Exotic” has reportedly appealed for a pardon from U.S. president Donald Trump. Having campaigned for Trump, “Joe Exotic” might even get the pardon, consistent with Trump’s pattern of pardoning political allies regardless of what they have been convicted of doing.
Stark, though stripped of his USDA exhibitors’ permit to keep wildlife in February 2020, after being convicted of 120 Animal Welfare Act violations, is reportedly still operating his for-profit zoo, misleadingly called Wildlife In Need.
Antle is still running his Myrtle Beach Safari tiger cub breeding and handling operation, three months after the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division in December 2019 reportedly served search warrants on the facility.
Baskin is furious, her Facebook postings indicate, over how the Tiger King series depicted her as a personality little different from the wildlife exhibitors she has long tried to put out of business. Though Big Cat Rescue is also open to paying visitors for escorted tours, it fundamentally differs from the “Joe Exotic,” Tim Stark, and “Doc” Antle operations in not doing any breeding and not allowing any handling of animals other than socialized domestic cats from local animal shelters who are offered for adoption.
“Joe Exotic,” Tim Stark, & “Doc” Antle were once the norm
For-profit zoos like those of “Joe Exotic,” Tim Stark, and “Doc” Antle were just 50 years ago the norm in U.S. zookeeping, and still are in much of the rest of the world.
Wildlife sanctuaries like Big Cat Rescue did not exist. The only destination available for exotic or otherwise dangerous animals impounded by law enforcement, or whom private keepers wished to surrender, was a zoo.
The American Association of Zoological Parks & Aquariums (AAZPA), founded in 1960 to represent zoos based in municipal parks, would not adopt even a rudimentary code of ethics until 1981, and represented just 185 of the U.S. facilities then called zoos or aquariums, not even half of the total of more than 400.
Zoos did not always own their animals
Many and perhaps most municipally owned zoos, as of 50 years ago, did not actually own any animals. Instead, they typically contracted with a private concessionaire, who would bring a menagerie for exhibition each spring, operate the zoo through the summer, and take the animals away for the winter.
Baby animals bred to attract summer crowds would replace the older animals among the next year’s exhibition stock, or be sold through brokers as exotic pets. Older animals, along with exotic pets who failed in homes (as almost all of them inevitably did) would be sold to taxidermists or captive hunting ranches.
Though this remains a common “roadside zoo” business model, few accredited zoos have been caught selling animals to either taxidermists or captive hunting ranches in more than 25 years, following repeated reinforcement of the American Association of Zoological Parks & Aquariums code of ethics.
Endangered Species Act changed the model
This in turn followed federal legislation that introduced permit requirements for keeping endangered and threatened species, and fundamentally changed how accredited zoos do business. Since the Endangered Species Act came into effect in 1973, animals recognized as endangered in the wild can no longer be readily replaced from abroad or through U.S. dealers, and their entire lives must be documented, from birth to disposition of remains after their deaths.
Over the past several decades, meanwhile, changing public perceptions and expectations of zoos have increasingly widened the gap in almost all respects between those zoos winning accreditation from the American Zoo Association, as the former AAZPA is now known, and so-called “roadside zoos” and scam “sanctuaries,” some with nonprofit status, operating as if they were for-profit zoos.
Countless mass media exposés, dozens of books, and especially the rise of the animal rights movement in the mid-1970s, with zoos among the first and most accessible targets of protest, have contributed to the transition. Accredited zoos today are expected to upgrade at least one major exhibit per year, participate in captive breeding programs that discourage producing surplus animals, contribute in some manner to conservation in the wild, do conservation education, have at least one veterinarian on staff, and have trained and credentialed personnel in all other key roles.
To be acknowledged, however, is that even the best accredited zoos still fall well short of keeping most animals in conditions approximating their natural habitat, tend to offer “conservation education” focused almost totally on the most popular exhibits, and often partner to do “education” with so-called “hunter/conservationist” organizations whose agendas are at odds with practicing compassionate conservation.
While acknowledging the many shortcomings of today’s zoos, much credit for inspiring the reforms leading to the difference between them and the likes of the “Joe Exotic” and Tim Stark menageries might be allocated to Peter Batten, author of Living Trophies, accurately subtitled “A Shocking Look at the Conditions in America’s Zoos.
Published in 1976, Living Trophies was the first exposé of its kind, long preceding any others. Living Trophies was, within a year of publication, favorably reviewed by more than 200 U.S daily newspapers, and is still often cited as a source for allegations––most of them anachronistic––amplified by animal rights literature.
Author Batten, however, after publishing Living Trophies, took little if any active part in effecting the changes he recommended, and indeed dropped almost completely out of sight. Born circa 1910, Batten last appeared in the public record as an advisor to a long defunct municipal zoo in Destin, Florida, in 1984. ANIMALS 24-7 found no death record for him.
Found his way to San Jose
A field engineer for Shell Oil before becoming a zookeeper, Batten amassed a considerable private animal collection while working in Indonesia and Venezuela. When he retired to the U.S. circa 1963, Batten no longer had the means to maintain his collection, so gave many of the animals to several different zoos, notably in California and Texas.
Extremely disappointed, after many of the animals died soon after transfer, while others were traded, some were sold to private dealers, and some may have been fed to other animals, Batten settled in San Jose, California and lobbied successfully to become the first director of the city-owned Happy Hollow Zoo.
This zoo in 1967 replaced two older zoos, one of which, also called Happy Hollow, was located right next door, while the other was situated about seven miles east at Alum Rock Park.
So did I
Moving to San Jose in September 1970 to attend San Jose State University, I soon became familiar with both the new Happy Hollow Zoo and what remained of the old zoos, by then no longer housing animals. I did not, however, meet Batten, to the best of my recollection.
My impression at the time was that Batten’s administration of the Happy Hollow Zoo was only marginally better, if at all, than the norms for zoos of that era––although Batten, with the help of animal contraception pioneer Wolfgang Jochle (1927-2013) was among the first zookeepers to use birth control to prevent surplus births of animals.
The U.S. federal Animal Welfare Act was not extended to zoos until 1971, the Endangered Species Act did not exist until 1973, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act did not exist until 1976, so neither Batten nor any other zookeeper had to pass any of the inspections or meet any of the standards that all zoos now have to meet, even the worst of the worst, until very late in his tenure.
Batten vs. HSUS
Parting company with San Jose and the Happy Hollow Zoo circa 1974, Batten embarked on a nationwide tour of zoos throughout the U.S., taking extensive critical notes that he later shared with Humane Society of the U.S. president John Hoyt (1932-2012, in office 1932-1996.)
Upset that Hoyt and then-HSUS staff members Roger Caras and Sue Pressman appeared to do little with the notes except to make use of them in fundraising appeals, Batten devoted one of the last chapters of Living Trophies to a critique of the HSUS modus operandi.
“HSUS bulletins have two definite themes: that HSUS is the first and best organization,” and that “HSUS needs money––lots of it,” Batten wrote. “The former is not true. The latter is factual; HSUS pays its staff well, and overhead expenses to support a building with plush offices and numerous personnel are high.
“Hostility between HSUS and other organizations of a similar nature may be heightened by HSUS’s sanctimonious attitude,” Batten concluded, in perhaps the least dated passage of Living Trophies.
Batten favored for-profit zoos
Reclaiming his notes, Batten authored Living Trophies as essentially a collection of anecdotes, grouped loosely by topic, in sections entitled “The Zoo Story: Fiction & Fact,” “Life & Death In The Zoo,” and “The Future of the Zoo.”
Among Batten’s recurring themes were his belief, which I do not share, that privately owned and operated zoos at least at that time provided better care to animals than those owned by cities and counties. The best zoos I had visited at the time, in San Francisco and San Diego, were municipally owned and operated, and were head-and-shoulders better for the resident animals, despite evident shortcomings, than any others.
Of the 100-plus zoos Batten reviewed, I had visited seven before he wrote Living Trophies, and saw 14 in all when they were at least still partially recognizable from his descriptions.
Of the rest, about half were privately owned “roadside” zoos, never accredited and now long defunct, while all of the larger AZA-accredited zoos have been extensively rebuilt, some of them several times, since Batten wrote.
Batten denounced at length the civil service hiring practices of zoos owned by the public. Self-educated in animal care, Batten also scathingly criticized the deficiencies he perceived in zookeepers from academic backgrounds, even as he solicited volunteers from nearby San Jose State University.
(I was not among them, but was acquainted with several fellow students who briefly were.)
Batten appears to have had mixed motives in writing Living Trophies, which was partly a very influential and effective critique of U.S. zoos as they then existed, and partly a collection of often deeply sarcastic quick-hit slaps at people and organizations against whom he had grudges––sometimes perhaps for good reason, but more who-what-where-when specificity and fewer unsupported blanket statements would have produced a book standing up more persuasively over time.
Forty-four years after publication, it is clear that Batten would not have approved of how “Joe Exotic,” Jeff Lowe, Tim Stark, and Kevin Antle operate, in any way whatever.
Paradoxically, however, if all of Batten’s recommendations had been followed, the small park-based public zoos of 50 years ago would have been replaced by for-profit zoos having more in common with the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, Wildlife In Need, and Myrtle Beach Safari than with the big city and county zoos of today.
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing to socials with gratitude and all of the other emotions, as usual.
Thank you for this article. When I heard about this Netflix show, I knew the subject matter immediately, thanks to your reporting. I’ve been going back and forth to as whether I want to bother watching this documentary. It sounds like it’s more about sensational images than actually educating people about the plight of wildlife in private hands.
Netflix unfortunately isn’t above glamourizing animal abusers for ratings. For example, they created a documentary on an individual who sought public infamy by filming himself murdering cats and ultimately, a human being. By creating this film and apparently also including lengthy clips of his snuff videos, Netflix gave this person exactly what he wanted.
This seems to be exactly what has happened. The popularity of this series and people’s desperation for escapist entertainment has made “Joe Exotic” a trendy star.
People are making memes, crafts, and t-shirts with the animal abuser’s image, and there are even fundraisers and petitions to get him out of prison.
I wonder if this was the filmmakers’ intent or if they are just enjoying their popularity at any cost. I think an article I read on Uproxx summed it up nicely: Imagine if “Blackfish” had totally ignored the whales and instead focused on a trainer’s funny haircut.