People have captured and displayed wild animals for thousands
of years. Some of the earliest documentation of this activity
comes from mosaics depicting the menageries, canned hunts and
gladiatorial games in the amphitheaters built by ancient
Romans across their empire. The popularity of these games is
largely responsible for the extinction of certain animal
species in parts of the Roman-controlled world. Hunting and
transporting wild animals became big business across the Roman
Empire for centuries.
Trapping a tiger
Fighting a tiger in the coliseum
Over time, wealthy European hunters would capture animals in exotic locations
and set up private menageries to display their living trophies. As
this practice spread to the US, the menagerie owners would grow
bored with their animals
— or their fortunes would change
— and they would
donate their collections to a nearby city as a local attraction or
public zoo. The first zoo in the United States was established in
Philadelphia in 1873.
Zoos grew in popularity and became a staple part of
a city's public life. By 1924 there were enough zoos to form the
American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AZA).
More zoos needed more animals so professional hunters and dealers
filled the demand by importing them from the wild.
Eventually some of these animals would reproduce
successfully in captivity and by the 1950s these captive-born animals
were available to new city zoos as they were established across the
country. There was no such thing as zoo surplus because there was
always a new zoo to take the offspring of captive breeding pairs.
Then a zoo discovered that if you put a window in
the 'nursery', people would flock to see the cute ones - the tigers
and lion cubs, the baby bears - and then you had to have babies. How
could zoos resist the temptation? They didn't. The constant demand
for new babies led to the dilemma of where to put them when they grew
too large and the public were clamoring for new babies.
While old babies languished in cages out back, a
new industry grew up to transport animals between zoos. When
the number of zoos began to stabilize because the Animal Welfare Act
made them just too expensive to run, the transporters looked for
other ways to take the surplus animals, place them, and still make a
There was a glut of exotic animals that saturated
existing markets and suddenly the zoos could no longer count on the
transporters and other intermediaries to take their surplus animals.
Everyone was scrambling.
Enter the hunting ranches, the backyard breeders,
and the roadside zoos. Tigers are easy to breed in captivity,
and the huge numbers of zoo surplus tigers led to the crazy
overpopulation of tigers held by private owners today
Zoo breeding programs and surplus problems continue
around the world, but especially in America.