Zoos and Animal Organizations

Animal Organizations

Many people will visit a zoo, aquarium, circus, or other wildlife organization (“Animal Organizations”) at some point in their life. Major Animal Organizations throughout the country welcome millions of visitors each year.

Animal Organizations can be great educational tools for the public, teaching people of all ages the importance of protecting the planet and its many inhabitants. Further, Animal Organizations provide important opportunities for animal research and study. 

Unfortunately, Animal Organizations in the United States are largely unregulated. Because animals in a zoo or aquarium, for example, are owned by the Animal Organization, these animals are considered property.

In the United States, people enjoy strong personal property rights; and businesses are considered persons under the law. Accordingly, it is difficult to regulate an Animal Organization’s conduct after they take ownership of an animal.

Are Zoos and Animal Organizations Ethical?

If you or your non-profit is considering engaging with an Animal Organization the first thing you should consider is how the zoo treats its animals. Not all zoos are operated the same. One indicator of an ethical organization, although not determinative, is if the zoo is a non-profit organization.

For-profit zoos are notorious for cutting costs to maximize revenue, almost always to the detriment of their animals. Conversely, non-profit zoos are motivated by goals other than pecuniary gain. Non-profit zoos often take extra care in selecting and housing their animals and many of the ethical ones choose to home only sick or injured animals who would not survive in the wild.

As with all non-profits, individuals should do their due diligence before donating or otherwise engaging with an Animal Organization. The following resources provide reputable information on how non-profits do business and spend their donations:

Regulation of Animal Organizations


Animal Organizations are subject to international, federal, and local regulations. On the international level, one hundred eighty-three countries, including the United States, have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (“CITES”).

CITES is an international agreement designed to ensure that international trade in animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild. CITIES covers more than five thousand animal species.


Membership in CITES is not compulsory, and there is no penalty or other enforcement mechanism for violating its provisions. In addition to CITES, airlines are regulated by the International Air Transport Association (“IATA”), which promulgates standards for shipping live animals.

Like CITES, membership in the IATA is voluntary. In 2015, CITES and IATA entered into a Memorandum of Understanding for the purpose of collaborating and strengthening the welfare of animals in the animal trade industry.


On the federal level, the sole piece of legislation regulating Animal Organizations is the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (the “AWA”). The AWA governs the treatment of animals in research, teaching, exhibition, and transport. Although well-intentioned, the AWA falls short in overarching protection for animals.

For example, the AWA does not protect birds, farm animals, or cold-blooded. The AWA authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to administer and enforce its provisions. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”), a unit of the Department of Agriculture, is charged with the promulgation of regulations necessary to carry out the AWA. These regulations can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations Title 9, Chapter 1, here

State Laws

On the local level, states pass animal anti-cruelty laws. Many of these laws, however, were drafted with domesticated animals in mind, not wild animals in captivity, such as those owned by Animal Organizations. Further, state laws vary widely in scope of coverage and penalties.

In Arizona, violating the animal cruelty laws is a misdemeanor or felony depending upon the crime committed. In most states, only local law enforcement will administer anti-cruelty laws and most agencies lack sufficient resources to effectively administer the laws. Therefore, state laws are often ineffective. 

Tax Exemption of Animal Organizations

Many Animal Organizations are tax-exempt entities, which means they subject to stricter regulation under federal law. Animal Organizations can be public charities under Internal Revenue Code (“I.R.C.”) § 501(c)(3) if they are organized and operated for charitable, scientific, and/or educational purposes as well as to prevent cruelty to animals, all within the meaning of I.R.C. § 501(c)(3).

If the Animal Organizations is a 501(c)(3), it is subject to the organizational test. The organizational test is one mechanism ensuring that the Animal Organization is not nefariously operated.


Animal Organizations serve an important purpose. They can be a strong mechanism for teaching the public about wildlife conservation and ecosystem preservation.

Further, Animal Organizations provide researchers access to animals that may be hard to study in the wild. Ethical animal research and study help us better understand how to protect endangered species all over the world. 

If you or your non-profit is considering transacting with an Animal Organization, remember to consult an attorney who has experience with international trade, non-profit, and tax exemption issues.

Kyler Mejia is a third-year law student at Arizona State University law school and legal extern with Caritas Law Group, P.C. Caritas Law Group, P.C. advises nonprofit and socially responsible businesses on corporate, tax, and fundraising regulations nationwide as well as donors with regard to major gifts. To schedule a consultation, call 602-456-0071 or email us through our contact form

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