Guest blog by Dr Clifford Warwick

Call them what you will: ‘mobile zoos’, ‘animal assisted interventions’, ‘traveling shows’, or increasingly - mobile live animal handling experiences (‘MLAPs’) – these events can be similarly characterised as keeping and transporting semi-domesticated and wild creatures for (so-called) ‘educational’ outreach efforts. Or, one could put it another way, and label them as exploitatively shifting animals from pillar to post to make yet another buck.

Shopping centres, schools, private homes, children’s parties, hospitals, care homes, and even weddings can be the recipients of MLAPs. A wide range of species are used, including giant constrictor snakes, crocodiles, lizards, bullfrogs, birds, and all manner of small furries.

Conventional zoo versus mobile zoo – is there a difference?

Zoos have raft of problems addressing animal welfare – zoos know that. Toward this, many zoos nowadays have dedicated welfare biologists, adopt welfare screening protocols, and conduct welfare research. Zoos are far from perfect, and cannot offer animals the same good diversity and life-quality experienced by animals under natural conditions. But, and it’s a big one, conventional (or ‘static’) zoo animals are not regularly subjected to transport and handling as part of a business model - in fact, quite the opposite. The promoted paradigm for conventional zoo animals is to provide environments that are as naturalistic as feasible, largely because leaving animals alone in such conditions is better for their welfare. 

Contrast that approach with mobile zoos and the common confinement of wild animals in highly restrictive cages (e.g. where snakes cannot stretch, birds cannot fly, and rabbits cannot jump) covertly stacked away in some back room. Such confinement is poor enough, but now add-in the further complication of humans grasping these wild animals, hauling them from their (often miserable) spaces, and re-packing them into sacks and boxes ‘to go’.

Contrary to many claims, animals (especially non-domesticated forms) rarely appreciate being held. To these animals, being held is likely to reflect being assaulted by a predator. An animal may freeze - or become confused, but ‘like it’ – unlikely.

Recent academic work has shown that even the most docile of lizards – bearded dragons, which are frequently and wrongly sold and kept as ‘easy’ pets, actually indicate handling stress even when apparently calm.

And again, add in the probability of more stress during the drive over to the venue. Many animals possess far greater sensitivity to sound and other vibrations than do humans, and what some may regard as a simple trip in a van could mean significant disturbance for even the most apparently stoic of species. 

Moreover, predator and prey species are often kept in close-quarters during housing and transport. Yet, there will be more stress to come.

Unpacking those animals, more handling, and then also often further grasping by an interested audience. Importantly, research shows that while both free-living and captive animals deal well with occasional stressors, repeated (even very minor) stressors – or microstressors – may have a cumulative effect, due to the absence of essential rest and recovery times between each challenge. MLAPs demolish the necessary rest space, and thus chronic stress is the likely outcome. Such stress can bring reduced health, disease, misery, and death. Accordingly, there are clear and significant differences between conventional and mobile zoos, and I’ve only touched on a couple.

Human health & safety – at risk!

Animals used for MLAPs are not the only individuals at risk: two human health and safety issues can be directly linked to these events – zoonotic diseases (animal-to-human illnesses) and injuries (bites and scratches) are well-known significant and major threats posed by keeping wild animals where they should not be – in captivity.

There are over 60 zoonotic diseases harboured by the types of animals used in MLAPS. Some of these diseases, e.g. reptile-related salmonellosis, are fairly common (annually 70,000 cases in USA and 6,000 in UK), but not usually life-threatening. That said, numerous children have died from the disease in the UK and elsewhere, and a shocking 27% of children admitted to hospital with salmonellosis contracted it from reptiles.

Other diseases, e.g. rabies, are rare but invariably fatal. Of note, a single reptile may harbour around 40 different human pathogens, and because of the way animal importation functions, many could have been in a disease hotspot in another country just 24 hrs earlier. Because these zoonoses superficially resemble things like flu, stomach ailments, and skin conditions, doctors often misdiagnose them. But they are all out there, every day. 

Animals that appear at MLAPs will harbour relevant bugs, but could experience what is called ‘delayed onset of disease’, so they may only appear healthy. Similarly, another human diagnosis problem can emerge where a person gets infected at an event like an MLAP, but experiences a symptomatic lag-phase. This underascertainment of cause, incidence and prevalence of diseases makes tracing an infection to MLAPs difficult.

Many if not most people can detect when a dog or cat is unwell, and go straight to the vet. But because of species differences, some animals do not manifest the same signs, and their conditions can go unnoticed until they are sick or infect people.

MLAP presenters are often keen to portray their animals as ‘safe’ and will ‘never bite’ – claims that are amusingly dismissed by such presenters who get an embarrassing face full of snake teeth on camera for their arrogance. Bites and scratches will result from frighted and unpredictable animals that defend themselves if they feel threatened.

Education – not really!

Education is only ever as good as the message – and the messenger. In my experience, as someone who has assessed the technical content of many MLAP presentations, the scientific (I’m being generous) standard is low, very low – indeed often fallacious.

Claims that animals are ‘adapted to being handled’, ‘enjoy the experience’, ‘live longer than their free-living counter-parts’, and ‘pose no threat to their handlers’, are but a fraction of the false and misleading messages sold (yes, literally sold) to ignorant and trusting adults and children as part of the MLAP experience. 

If one were to at least try to defend MLAPs, then education ought to stand a little ground – not that such would balance the stresses imposed on animals for that purpose. However, delivering speculative information and bad education is so commonplace within the exotic animal keeping sector that science even has a name for it – ‘folklore husbandry’.

The basis of folklore husbandry refers to knowledge and animal care by trial and error – sadly all too often with error. And this underpinning of erroneous information, unlike many of those animals that are managed with it, survives all too well in the exotic animal community.

The deleterious aspect of using poor-quality handed-down guidance by peddlers of animal keeping generally and MLAPs specifically results in the destructive normalisation of bad practices. Observant biologists and clinicians can detect bad practices, but sadly, so many vets only get to face the result when all is too late.

So, in my view, MLAP presenters and their businesses should start calling what they do for what it is – low grade entertainment, and stop calling it what it isn’t - good education.

What next?

MLAPs appear to be growing in popularity, and arguably, for many of the wrong reasons. A lot is known about their operation, but little is known about their scale and other features. However, animal problems remain constant, and compounded by at least two significant scientific findings in recent years: first, that study after study concludes that exotic species are being failed by their carers, who frequently have either a highly deficient or outright erroneous knowledge base of their life histories and requirements; and second, that the more science uncovers the true welfare biology of animals, the greater becomes the distance between what can be provided and the extent of their welfare needs. 

Read more on the issues of mobile zoos and how you can help animals.

Dr Clifford Warwick qualified in biology through research in 1990 and later trained in primary health care at The University of Leeds School of Medicine, graduating in 2004. His professional and academic qualifications have been awarded for non-invasive research work in reptilian biology, biological strategies, and in human medicine—specialising in zoonoses (transmission of disease from animals to humans), including an advanced diploma in human medical science and a PhD in reptile welfare biology. Clifford’s animal science projects and publications include welfare, behaviour, captivity-stress, euthanasia, anatomy, physiology, wildlife biology, ecology, and species and environmental conservation. For more than two decades his fieldwork has included both conventional and high-risk investigations and studies into human use of animals, often in remote jungles and deserts. Clifford was one of the first and remains one of the few scientists to have SAS-personnel training in survival, infiltration, escape and evasion. He was made a Fellow of The Royal Society of Biology for his distinction in biological research, and he also became a Member of the European Communities Biologists Association. In 1992 he won the British Veterinary Association Intervet Animal Welfare Award. More recently he was awarded Chartered Scientist status by the Science Council and the Society of Biology. Clifford has produced over 150 peer-reviewed publications in biology animal science, and human medicine, as well as innumerable popular articles.

Views expressed are the author's own and may not reflect FFA's position.