In Real Life, zoos have changed a lot throughout time. In the 1800s to early 1900s, they were originally just harsh concrete cages. As time went by and regulations and concerns for animal welfare were established, zoos started to improve more and more, especially after the concept of endangered species appeared, when zoos gained an extra role to play: preserving animal species and breeding them in captivity. Now the US, Canada, and European countries have strict regulations on exhibits and must meet certain standards that give animals large, roomy enclosures made to resemble their natural habitat.
However, in a lot of media, zoos are shown as gloomy, maudlin places. Whilst the keeper(s) are generally portrayed sympathetically, the zoo authorities either care very little for the animals, or care but do not know anything about them. The exhibits are severely undersized, inadequate or simply falling apart and the animals escaping frequently. Visitors either come in order to make fun of the animals and throw stuff at them, or the zoo has hardly any visitors.
Often a character will comment on the poor conditions of the zoo, and sometimes it becomes a plot point. Generally, the story ends with either the animals being transferred to a location more conducive to their needs, be it another institution or "the wild", or the protagonists helping to improve conditions at the zoo.
In period settings, the protagonists may view the conditions as perfectly acceptable (or even revolutionary) and/or the care of the animals is based on outdated knowledge.
Zoos are portrayed, generally, far less negatively than circuses; the animals are rarely deliberately neglected or mistreated and the keepers in such settings are very rarely portrayed as abusive or even malicious — they'll be either well-intentioned, but lacking in knowledge, or simply struggling to provide adequate care but suffering under incompetent/greedy superiors.
If the animals escape from the zoo, expect an Escaped Animal Rampage.
Tropes Are Flexible, so this trope could apply to any collection of exotic animals under human "care" — barring, of course, a circus, which is already covered under the "animal abuse" variant of the sister trope Circus of Fear.
For example, the zoo doesn't have to be public. This trope could include the evil aristocrat's private collection of exotic animals (whether real species, prehistoric ones or fictional creatures), who are neglected, abused (by their owner or his hired thugs) and only viewed as objects/curiosities and/or the occasional Shark Pool (for carnivorous species).
A Sister Trope to Pounds Are Animal Prisons. Compare Bad People Abuse Animals, in that zoos that treat their animals badly often indicate the character of the people who run them. See also Free the Frogs and Hilarity in Zoos.
Debate about whether zoos, regardless of intentions and quality, are ethical or not is still common today. While very inadequate zoos do exist, posting real life examples will just trigger endless flame wars over animal rights and welfare, so No Real Life Examples, Please!
- In The Many Worlds Interpretation, two academically-minded people from the Discworld cross to Pasadena, California. While quantum research Wizard Ponder Stibbons is finding lots of things in common with people like Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter, his co-researcher Johanna Smith-Rhodes, an Assassin by education and a zoologist by vocation, is being shown the animal handling facilities at Caltech by an excited Amy Farrah-Fowler. After a very big wince at Amy's casual terminology — she dismisses orang-utans as mere monkeys note , Johanna looks around her, at bare spartan cages, not big enough for their occupants, in a warehouse room with no windows, and is horrified. Reminding herself not to get angry, she starts reforming the animal-handling culture at Caltech.
- Finding Dory: Zig-Zagged. The film has a major "fish belong to the ocean, not to tanks" message, but also establishes that the Marine Life Institute is primarily a rescue center that releases animals that recovered from their injuries, and its fish habitats are more or less accurate to real-life aquaria. Yet, the "touch pool", from the animals' point of view, is depicted as a terrifying place where the poor starfish and sea cucumbers hide for their lives from the giant hands of human children. Also, the Cleveland Aquarium is referred to as a scary place where animals end up if they are in a too bad condition to be released to the wild.
- Madagascar: Played with. In the first movie, the animals enjoy a life of luxury in the zoo, but a few of them (Marty the zebra and the four penguins) dream of living in the wild. After Marty escapes and his friends follow him to get him back to the zoo, an Animal Wrongs Group declares that they escaped from the zoo because they suffer there, and ship all of them to the wild. Two movies later, the trope is played more straight: after Captain DuBois captures the animals and returns them to the Central Park Zoo, it looks more prison-like with higher fences around the habitats. And even after being locked there, DuBois is determined to shoot Alex with a poison dart.
- Discussed in the Dragnet film, after Joe talks about how good the animals have it at the zoo. Pep expresses skepticism.
Pep: Really? Do you think that before these guys were drugged, roped, crated, and shipped across the ocean that they were jockeying for position saying "Pick me! Pick me! I wanna live on damp cement!"?
- This was a main premise in the film Zebra in the Kitchen (1965). A boy working at the zoo, in a protest against the appalling living conditions of the animals, takes the zookeeper's keys and lets all the animals loose! Hilarity ensues as the jungle animals wander all over town.
- In The Shaggy Gully Times which is a fake newspaper about Aussie animals, a famous zoo with tiny cages that is never cleaned (and is often referred to in typos as a loo, poo or goo), run by Mr. I. M. Nasty is infiltrated by a wombat who is the editor, a ballet-dancing kangaroo called Josephine and a sheep called Pete, and the animals are thus rescued. This leaves the animals to dress up as other animals, like Rory Lion pretending to be a Lyrebird and two Gnus pretending to be people.
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Percy, Annabeth and Grover hitch a ride on a zoo animal transport train that turns out to be mistreating its cargo, keeping them in filthy cages and giving them the wrong food.
- Brass Eye: A bit in the first episode concerns an East Germannote zoo that's so bad that an elephant sticks its trunk up its own arse to escape. Of course, it's all fake.
- The Mighty Boosh: The first season fits this trope well. In "Jungle", Howard tells Vince the zoo has been falling apart since the old manager, Tommy, went missing. Bob Fossil, the current manager of The Zooniverse, is often shown to be incompetent and unable to even remember the names of different animals, often referring to them by describing their appearances instead. He also often makes demands and comes up with ideas that put the zookeepers and animals at risk, such as making Howard box a kangaroo.
- Tiger King takes an in-depth look at various big cat facilities around the United States. How they treat their animals vary, but Joe Exotic's Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park is portrayed as the worst. The facility in general is run-down, animals are kept in cramped cages that are far smaller than anything they would need in real life, the zoo is always in a precarious financial position and so the animals and employees are fed expired meat from supermarkets, and its proprietor gradually becomes more obsessed with becoming famous than actually caring for them.
- The X-Files: The zoo from "Fearful Symmetry" is explicitly stated to have been abysmal in the recent past before the episode, to the point where they actually hired new management along with a scientific adviser to reform the zoo. Also notable in that the (fictional) zoo in question had never once had a live birth of any animal in captivity, ever. The animals are regularly abducted by aliens and made the subject of strange experiments, including the theft of their unborn children.
- The Raffi song "Joshua Giraffe" is about a giraffe who is unsatisfied with his life at the zoo, dreams of going to the Congo, and escapes by flying away after his friends chop his cage in two. The song ends by declaring that all the animals are going to be freed from their cages, not just Joshua.
- Calvin and Hobbes: Hobbes hates the zoo and sees it as equivalent to a prison for animals, as shown in one strip where, when Calvin asks to go to the zoo, Hobbes asks Calvin if they can visit a prison afterwards.
- Planet Zoo: While the game goes out of its way to avert this, making the captive animals' requirements as realistic as possible and encouraging the players to meet these, it still has some Video Game Cruelty Potential if you intentionally ignore these requirements and build habitats obviously unsuited for the animals or place incompatible species (such as predator and prey) in the same habitat.
- Sam & Max Hit the Road: Played for Laughs. Conroy Bumpus, an Egomaniac Hunter, has a large collection of mounted animal heads, which he specifically calls a "menagerie," in his mansion. However, they are somehow alive and can talk. Disturbingly, they say at one point that "none of us can leave, though we all wanna."
- Zoo Tycoon: You can invoke this by making your animal pens extremely small, making the environment inside the enclosure as different as possible from the animal's natural environment, and by not feeding the animal. However, as one would expect, neither the animals nor the visitors will be too happy about this. There are also several challenge mode games that involve fixing up zoos that keep the animals in poor conditions.
- If the Emperor Had a Text-to-Speech Device: The Imperial Zoo in the Tabletop Adventure special is a place of squalid, cramped cells with stone floors and a pile of straw to sleep on. It's no wonder the Dragon goes berserk when it escapes.
- The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin: The Ying Zoo keeps its exhibits (many of whom are actually sapient) in positively tiny cages more akin to prison cells than anything else. At least one animal is kept in a perpetual state of hunger so it can continually eat itself for the guests' amusement, while a nocturnal bat-like creature finds itself constantly illuminated. The Sorceror Of Ying, who runs the place, boasts to have "captured one of everything from Grundo and the Land of Ying" as he extols patrons to come. And he's not above turning his more exotic guests into new exhibits if he can, even charging them room and board, as Teddy and Grubby found out when they attempted to infiltrate the place.
- The Angry Beavers: In the episode "The Zooing Time", Norbert gets arrested for a crime Daggett committed and is taken to a zoo, building up the expectation of this trope. But the zoo itself turns out to be an aversion, being the equivalent of a luxury resort with beautiful open enclosures (a lot like modern zoos in real life), although the animals have to behave naturally when guests come to look at them. Norb immediately settles in and has the time of his life. Unfortunately, a guilt-ridden Dag believes this trope to be the case and ends up destroying the zoo, so the animals lock him up in a cage that actually looks like a prison cell.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: Justified and eventually defied. In "The Tales of Ba Sing Se", Aang visits a zoo in Ba Sing Se, where the animals live in tiny, cramped exhibits. The zoo has very few visitors and the place doesn't look very lively. This is because the government wouldn't give the zoo any more money to improve conditions because kids weren't visiting the zoo, so the zoo had a budget cut and thus couldn't get enough money to fund itself. Aang suggests to the zoo's manager that the animals should roam free for once — which leads to the animals stampeding across Ba Sing Se. Luckily Aang gets an idea: using his Appa whistle, he herds the animals to the city border, then uses his earthbending powers to make a better-looking zoo with more lush and habitable landscape. As a result, the new zoo gets more visitors and the animals are now happier and living comfortably.
- Happy Tree Friends: Exaggerated in "From A to Zoo", where the cast goes to a zoo. The zoo is bad both for the animals, who have tiny, cramped environments and lax safety and protection; and the guests, with all the animals being fiercely violent and homicidal (resulting in the majority of the episode's deaths) and no security, employees, or first aid being available at any point.
- The Life and Times of Juniper Lee: In "The Great Escape", June's class visits the zoo but the animals are less then lively. The zoo itself isn't too bad with some decent conditions. But the inhabitants turn out to be monsters glamored to look like animals and kept prisoner by a Demoness named Gigi who uses their energy to remain beautiful. Naturally anyone who isn't magically inclined can't hear them and they're taken down to an even worse prison underground after closing hours which does have cramped cages (though oddly get free time like a prison yard). June ends up captured, turned into a lemur and stuck there for a bit when she initially tries to break them free.
- Muppet Babies (1984): Defied and discussed in an episode where Rowlf thinking zoos just keep animals locked in cages. Even after Nanny explains most zoos don't use cages anymore, he's still unconvinced and the rest of the episode is spent explaining the benefits zoos offer such as protecting endangered species. By the end, Rowlf changes his view and is now anxious to visit the zoo, but now Gonzo is scared to go, fearing he is an endangered species and the zoo will want to keep him there.
- The Replacements: In one episode, Riley is concerned about the welfare of animals living in a zoo. Fitting in with this trope, the animals live in tiny, cramped concrete cages with steel bars. Initially, she blames the grumpy zookeeper and has him replaced with a crazy animal rights activist who releases all the animals. Naturally, this turns out to be a bad idea, and Riley soon learns that the conditions weren't the zookeeper's fault: the owner of the zoo, a rich Corrupt Corporate Executive, didn't bother having conditions improved because he wanted to keep the money for himself. Eventually, they threaten him into converting his golf course into a nice, roomy zoo for the animals.
- She-Ra: Princess of Power:
- The Evil Horde maintains its own zoo where they keep more exotic animals of Etheria... whether they want to be or not. Kowl and his new friend Kowla were taken there and it was used as an allegory for the whole "gilded cage" idea, along with a nasty caretaker named Vultak. The And Knowing Is Half the Battle PSA afterward went out of its way to explain that real zoos are not animal prisons and often the last chance for endangered species they harbor.
- A second zoo is mentioned to be maintained by Horde Prime, home to unique and one of a kind animals found throughout his empire. When Hordak captures Swift Wind to send as an exhibit, he takes great pleasure in telling the winged unicorn how he'll be fed the best food and kept fastidiously groomed, but will never see the sky again as his wings wither and his feathers dull from disuse and captivity.
- The Simpsons: In "Eight Misbehavin'", Apu and Manjula seek financial aid for their Too Many Babies by becoming a zoo attraction. In that zoo, the kangaroos are miserable and the koalas are fed meat instead of eucalyptus leaves.
Mr. Kidkill: What? Everybody loves my zoo. You don't love my zoo? I dare ya to look at a kangaroo and not laugh. I dare ya.
[he walks past kangaroos looking out of their cage, slumped and miserable]
Mr. Kidkill: Well... they're usually funnier...