I would also like to point out that not all AZA accredited zoos are good and live up to the AZA standards. The Memphis, TN zoo is one of them. They're very lacking in terms of space for their animals. The cats are often in small enclosures and pace around so much that the ground has ruts in it from their pacing. I know that repetitive behavior isn't always a bad thing, but to the point of having ruts in the ground? The elephants also look malnourished. They have very saggy skin.
So, yesterday we were talking about how as a guest it’s really hard to make judgement calls about the animals in a zoo because you don’t know anything about their history or how they’re being cared for, and that that’s why it’s really important to ask staff when you’ve got concerns? This ask is a pretty good example of that.
I reached out to some Memphis staffers after receiving this ask, and was totally honest about why: I said we’d been discussing zoos on my blog and that someone had written in with a couple of specific concerns. Within a day or two, I’d been put in contact with the correct keepers to get answers to my questions.
What you’re likely seeing as abnormal pacing in the big cats is anticipatory behavior, since that’s a very common thing their animals do when they can see or hear keepers near their exhibit. Trails do wear down naturally in exhibits if animals have preferred walking paths, more so in wet periods such as spring, and in older exhibits the routes most commonly taken by residents are fairly well developed. Since you didn’t specify what species of big cat you were referring to, I wasn’t able to get more specific information, except that there is one big cat who does display some abnormal pacing behavior due to some of her history and that the staff are aware of it and actively working on it.
I couldn’t find any good photos of their cat exhibits to embed in this post as an example, but what I did see when searching google for images is that almost all of the photos of their cats are taken on perches in the exhibit, such as logs or rock outcroppings. It’s important to remember that for large cats, vertical space is just as important a factor as horizontal space - an exhibit that seems too small in square-footage may in fact have a large amount of usable space comprised of climbing structures, hammocks, and hidden perches.
As to the elephants, they have saggy skin because they’re, well, elephants - and in one case, one of the oldest elephants in North America. AZA also recently did a large elephant welfare survey that’s being used to improve their elephant care standards, and according to the scale for that study the elephant at Memphis are in good body condition for their age and size. What’s more, they’re in phenomenal health: the Memphis Zoo staffers have been running a metabolic study on the three elephant ladies at their facility, so they’ve got the data to back up that claim.
I would hazard a guess that if you’d taken the time to ask any Memphis staffers while on grounds, or to reach out to their social media team with questions after leaving, you’d have gotten the same information that I did. I know people really want to think they can make informed judgement calls about the welfare of animals in zoos, but unless you happen to have personal animal management experience with that specific species, it’s probable that you’re going to be completely off-base. Especially at AZA zoos, assume there’s information you don’t have and something you’re probably seeing, and ask a keeper for clarification.