My Life is [in] a Zoo

By: Elana Kalkanis

Working at a zoo might sound like an idealistic occupation for many, who imagine a place where employees are met with constant excitement and the ability to interact with the world’s wildest. “Some people think we just spend all day playing with animals,” says zookeeper Melissa Knutson of the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah, “but it’s so much more than that. It’s a lot of work to take care of another living thing.”[1]  Recent breakthroughs in animal protection laws, specifically those focused on zoo captivity, have simultaneously begun to expose the realistic working conditions that employees endure in some of America’s most popular zoos.[2]

Federal statutes such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act, hereinafter “OSHA,” enacted in 1970[3], and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations, of 1999[4], hold local authority health and safety officers wholly responsible for carrying out inspections at zoos.[5] The purpose of these inspections is “to enable the enforcing authority to satisfy itself that hazards have been identified, and risks suitably and efficiently controlled.”[6] Inspections may also be carried out by a zoo operator, who allocates any possible risks to both employees and non-employees, which may occur during any given day of operation.[7] Additionally, the regulations require employers to ensure that employees are not given work “beyond their capability,” or which may be hazardous to themselves or others.[8] But even with such provisions put into place, zoo employees are still threatened by the inherent dangers of working in such an environment.[9]

Unfortunately, some of the greatest dangers to zoo employees take place in the presence of the very animals they’re meant to take care of.[10] Daily tasks for zoo employees include: feeding the wild animals, transporting them, monitoring their health, and handling them for exhibition purposes.[11] In these situations specifically, wild animals tend to act just that, wild. Employees are often attacked by animals who feel threatened by a human’s presence in the unnatural zoo environment, which leads to their sedation, in order to minimize hazards.[12] On October 5, 2013, “an employee at the G.W. Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, suffered serious injuries when a tiger nearly ripped off her arm.”[13] A four-month investigation led to a citation for numerous violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act’s general duty clause, finding that G.W. Exotics “did not adequately protect employees.”[14] In addition, G.W. Exotics created a risk of death or serious physical harm to their employees by exposing them to wild animals, which resulted in an unjustly low monetary penalty.[15] “Being struck, mauled or bitten by such animals is now a recognized industry standard,” yet some animal entertainment facilities refuse to recognize it as such.[16] In a similar case, OSHA issued a “general duty clause” citation to SeaWorld for exposing trainers to “recognized hazards of drowning or injury,” following the death of an orca trainer.[17] SeaWorld objected that human interactions with orcas pose a hazard and failed to further enforce safety measures for their employees.[18]

Even under the best circumstances at the best zoos, “captivity cannot begin to replicate the wild animals’ habitats.”[19] An Oxford University study, conducted over four decades to observe animals in captivity, found that zoo animals such as bears, lions, tigers, and cheetahs, “show the most evidence of stress and/or psychological dysfunction in captivity.”[20] Wild animal attacks on zoo employees, and the public in general, are attributed to these exact conditions.[21] Animal exhibitors are supposed to enforce the federal Animal Welfare Act “AWA,” which sets minimum standards in caring for, handling, transporting, and housing exhibited animals, but the standards are embarrassingly trivial.[22] The dark truth is that thousands of animals, many endangered, continue to languish in roadside zoos and menageries.[23]

On May 28, 2016, at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio, a lowland silverback gorilla named Harambe was shot dead after a three-year-old boy climbed into his enclosure.[24] The outpour of media attention from this incident revealed that Harambe was not only born into captivity and intended to be used for breeding, but also that his habitat enclosure was not adequately built.[25] The below-standard exhibit was a violation of the Health and Safety at Work Act, and undoubtedly put the employees and the public in imminent risk of death or harm.[26] Harambe’s tragic death sheds additional light on the horrific treatment of captive animals, and furthermore, the inevitable cycle of danger imposed on zoo employees.

[1] Sara Royster, Working With Animals, Bureau Of Lab. Stat. (Apr. 2015),

[2] Kali S. Grech, Overview of the Laws Protecting Zoos, Mich. St. U. (Animal Legal & Hist. Ctr., 2004),

[3] 29 U.S.C § 651 (1970).

[4] Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations of 1999, Pub. L. No. 3242.

[5] See also Health and Safety Executives, Managing Health and Safety in Zoos, at 9-10 (also available at

[6] Id. There are many approaches to an inspection; they will commonly consist of a physical inspection of the zoo or parts of it, and an audit of some or all the zoo’s health and safety procedures and control measures. Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 10. (Explaining that work which may be considered “beyond their capability” is assessed by weighing an employee’s knowledge, experience, training and learning capability.).

[9] Zoos: An Idea Whose Time Has Come And Gone, PETA, (last visited Oct. 2, 2016).

[10] Health and Safety Executives, supra note 5, at 15.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Daniel Lutz, Laws That Protect Animal and Human “Workers,” Animal League Def. Fund (May 1, 2014),

[14] Id. (Discussing the “general duty clause” is not sufficient enough to replace an industry-wide rule, requiring permanent physical barriers between employees and animals, yet it is noteworthy in OSHA’s enforcement of regulations in similar cases.).

[15] Id. “The agency proposed a $5,200 fine (negotiated to $2,400) for failing to protect employees, via protective barriers, from contact with wild animals.” Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. Dominic Delorantis, Terrors from the OSHA: How SeaWorld’s Working Conditions Pose A Whale Of A Problem For Their Employees, The Ledger (Nov. 8, 2015, 9:40 PM),

[18] Lutz, supra note 11. In the D.C Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Judith Rogers wrote that SeaWorld’s workplace and the unusual nature of the hazard to its employees performing with orcas, does not remove SeaWorld’s obligation to protect employees under the General Duty Clause. Id.

[19] Zoos: Pitiful Prisons, PETA, (last visited Oct. 2, 2016).

[20] Id.

[21] Health and Safety Executives, supra note 5, at 21.

[22] Zoos: An Idea Whose Time Has Come And Gone, supra note 9.

[23] The Humane Soc’y Of The U.S., Zoos: Working to Improve Zoo Conditions and Promote Natural Habitats,

[24] Bob Cesca, Human Ignorance and Narcississm Killed Harambe, As Well As Millions of Other Innocent Animals Every Day, The Daily Banter (May 31, 2016)

[25] Id.

[26] Health and Safety Executives, supra note 5, at 16.


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