“Good zoos are how humans make amends.” – Katherine Applegate

Growing up, I always loved going to Southwick’s Zoo. It was different than the other zoos I had been to. The animals seemed well cared for and their enclosures were built with each animal in mind. My affinity for the zoo only grew as an intern in May 2012. I remember learning that, unlike other zoos, Southwick’s Zoo only administered veterinary care when needed, rather than scheduling routine blood draws and knocking down animals each week. To learn that they respected the animals and made a welfare decision not to stress them out if it wasn’t necessary, set this zoo apart and showed how much the zoo team cared about the well-being of their animals. When thinking about an example of an ethical zoo that is always striving to grow and improve, Southwick’s Zoo immediately came to mind.

After researching how we can make zoos the ethical and educational havens they are supposed to be, I reached out to Betsey Brewer, Executive of Southwick’s Zoo, whom I had met during my internship, to ask her about her own framework for maintaining an ethical zoo via an e-mail interview.

Where do you get your animals from?

BETSEY. Our animals come from other zoos on breeding loans, loans, trades for genetic diversity, sometimes sold, and sometimes imported for specific reasons. (For example), our rhino’s came from South Africa due to intense pressure from poaching. We have taken in some species as rescues, usually reptiles and birds and sometimes illegal pets such as monkeys.

I have heard rumors that Elmer, the little monkey with no teeth, was rescued from a drug lord. Is this true?


Did you get him from a specific rescue organization?

BETSEY. Typically, in these situations, the animal is confiscated by the US Fish and Game Department.

Do you have any ongoing research projects involving animals at your zoo? If so, what steps do you take to ensure that procedures are as minimally invasive as possible?

BETSEY. We do not have any physical research projects happening at Southwick’s Zoo. Instead, we focus on behavioral research. We are in the process of doing several projects including husbandry of our hyenas, sloths, and African porcupine. We have collected visitor surveys about elephants in captivity and comments on a new reptile building. We also have an on-going project on consumption of rhino horn in Asian cultures and rhino conservation.

What is your regimen for veterinary care?

BETSEY. We only have a regimen for preventative care like heart worm pills for our cheetahs. We test stool samples as well. Our zookeepers are excellent at noticing anything that seems off with an animal feeding or its behavior. We prefer NOT to interfere and stress out the animals if it is not necessary. That is why we don’t do routine blood tests, etc. Knocking an animal down with drugs always has a risk.

Do you ever hold training and education sessions for staff that serve to help them recognize healthy behaviors from stereotypic behaviors?

BETSEY. Absolutely. We are constantly doing staff training for such things and more advanced training, as well.

In what ways do your enclosures ensure that the animals can carry out their natural behaviors, reducing the need for compensatory enrichment?

BETSEY. In captive environments, the goal is to have animals exhibit species typical behavior for their welfare. We do this with fencing for the smaller primates so they have more room to move about, and we use lots of enrichment. We design all of our habitats firstly for the animals’ welfare and safety, and secondly for the viewing public.

What are some examples of enrichment that takes place at the zoo?

BETSEY. The zookeepers are constantly making different types of enrichment. They even do snowmen for the chimps, lions, and tigers in the winter with treats for eyes, etc. All of our animals receive some type of enrichment, like frozen fruit and veggie pops, meat pops, boxes with treats, boomer balls, rolls and paper with treats hidden inside and much more.

During feeding times do animal care staff try to diversify food placement and create challenges to obtain food?

BETSEY. Yes, the zookeepers place most of the animals’ food throughout the enclosure so that the animals must forage. For non-foraging animals, we use different forms of enrichment.

What practices do you put in place to make sure the animals thrive, not just survive?

BETSEY. We always try to make sure that animals are grouped like they would be out in the wild. Often, visitors like to see two animals in a habitat, so we have two tigers together. Tigers are often non-social, and would not be together in the wild, so this is an exception. Sometimes, we have to keep animals from breeding because they are either related or there is no place for them at other zoos. We have a male and a female lion who are brother and sister, but even if they weren’t, they are such prolific breeders that it is very difficult to place them in other zoos.

What does Southwick’s Zoo do to ensure that animals have meaningful choice and control over where they spend their time?

BETSEY. We do have large habitats, but they are still restricted. We try to do mixed exhibits when we can. Sometimes there is conflict with members of a group, and we generally let that work itself out. We do intervene when it becomes a safety issue for the animal.

Zoos serve as places of education on topics about the environment and conservation. What programs does Southwick’s Zoo have to educate the public on these important topics?

BETSEY. We have an entire non-profit organization that deals with the environment and conservation. We are very active. www.earthltd.org.

(EARTH, Ltd. is their non-profit affiliate established in 1999 by Betsey. It stands for Environmental Awareness of Resources and Threatened Habitats. The non-profit focuses on environmental education specifically dealing with ecology, endangered species, and sustainability. Live animal presentations, the training of docents and interns, the traveling ZooMobile, and rhino encounters are just some of the programs that serve to educate the public on animal and environmental related issues.)

What are the benefits to being a privately run zoo as opposed to being in an association like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)?

BETSEY. The AZA has changed dramatically over the years so we prefer to belong to the ZAA (Zoological Association of America). Being private means we receive absolutely no funding whatsoever! So it is very difficult to survive on admission proceeds alone.

Any concluding remarks?

BETSEY. Southwick’s Zoo is a family owned business which my grandfather incorporated in 1963. We are working our business with the 4th generation working at the zoo, and that is very special to us. When you walk through our zoo, I think you will see how much we care for the animals and how important Southwick’s (Zoo) is to all of us!


To learn more about Southwick’s Zoo, visit their website http://southwickszoo.com!

To learn about their non-profit affiliate EARTH, Ltd. visit www.earthltd.org to learn about the extensive education programs that are offered and to learn about other unique experiences at the zoo.

Have you ever been to Southwick’s Zoo? Share your experience below!

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