March 23, 2023

The Tragedy that Is Zoo Idaho

By: Krishna Strong

Krishna Strong

My name is Krishna Strong. I hold a bachelor of science degree in biology, with a minor in ecology. I specifically chose this degree in order to become a zookeeper. I am a former keeper of 25 years.

The combination of my education and my years of experience caring for captive wild animals has granted me a unique perspective that few other people have.

When it comes to Zoo Idaho’s current practices, there are too many things I cannot un-see or accept.

To begin with, animals should always come first when improving a zoo. But Zoo Idaho’s recent improvements have come at a high cost to the animals.

Shortchanging the Black Bears

Before constructing an impressive new entrance building with a gift shop, ADA accessible pathways, or a new “wetland,” Zoo Idaho should have built a new black bear exhibit. Wild black bears in the western U.S. Need a minimum home range of two and a half to ten square miles. Sadly, our local zoo bears are housed in a tiny concrete cage of around 3,000 square feet!

Bear cage at Zoo Idaho

Zoo Idaho claims that this size falls within “industry standards.” They don’t explain whose specifications they are referring to, but as a keeper, I do know where to look. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) finds an exhibit this size for bears as minimally acceptable and requires that all new exhibits be built almost double this size at a minimum. Also, AZA requires much more than just size in order for an exhibit to be acceptable by the zoo industry. I encourage everyone to educate themselves by visiting and other animal sanctuary accreditation websites to learn about their required rules and standards.

Animals need room to roam. So what happens to their bodies and minds when they’re confined to a relatively small space? Nothing good. Some captive animals that look physically healthy may still be exhibiting unhealthy behaviors, such as pacing, biting on bars, or self-mutilation.

Even if the black bear cage at Zoo Idaho barely meets “industry standards” for size alone, any reasonable member of the public who sees this exhibit inherently knows that it is simply inhumane to keep large intelligent animals in a space this small.



Shortchanging Herd Animals

In order to construct a new “wetland,” three other species of animals—pronghorn, elk, and bison—were pushed out of a large multi-acre exhibit and crowded into tiny lifeless enclosures with little shelter and no running water.

Pronghorn are the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, with running speeds of 55 mph. They need room to move. Elk can travel a dozen or more miles a day.

The American bison is the largest land mammal in North America. It is sacred to our local Native American tribes, the Shoshone-Bannock peoples. At Zoo Idaho it has been disrespectfully sentenced to living without another member of its kind. Not only is this solitude inhumane, it is culturally insensitive to our neighboring tribes. Pocatello acquired this bison from tribes years ago. She came with a partner, and a story. The tribes explained how bison sacrifice the needs of the individual and work together as a community to protect the herd. The tribes also stressed that they brought two animals together instead of just one, because a bison should never be kept without its own kind.

As a zookeeper, my primary focus is always on the animals; providing them with everything they need to be healthy. The health of an animal includes their psychological needs. These herd animals need to be with others of their own species to feel safe and reduce stress.

The List Goes On

Many more animals besides the black bears, pronghorn, elk, and bison need their cages to be enlarged and updated.

Mule deer enclosure at Zoo Idaho

Also, some animals, like the mule deer, appear quite sickly. They are showing ribs and have poor coat condition. Their exhibit is full of six-foot-tall thistles and other noxious weeds. They need hoof trims. Do they have parasites, nutritional deficiencies? Are they being fed and watered enough? Be transparent! Tell the public–the taxpayers, the rightful owners of these animals–what is going on. Put up some signage saying “animal under veterinary care,” if that is even the case. People see these sickly animals and become concerned. It is not a good optic.

A zoo is NOTHING without its animals. Zoo Idaho continually says that its animals are “happy and healthy.” This statement is scientifically inaccurate; it is simply anthropomorphic. We cannot speak for these animals. As keepers we can use many different tools to make a captive animal’s life as comfortable as possible. But we can never remove or completely alleviate the inherent stress of captivity itself.

That said, it is imperative that the captors themselves operate out of the highest standards possible. That means much, much more than the lowest or even the average standards accepted by the industry. We need to put the animals first, above new “wetlands,” new entrances, and new paths.

Captive wild animals should always have access to adequate space, water (preferably running instead of stagnant), nutritional food, shelter, companionship, safety, medical care, and appropriate psychological stimulation. Once the animals have appropriate habitats, elaborate entrances and pathways can follow.

An Empty “Wetland”

This algae pond sits unused, providing no current new wildlife habitat or educational value to the city, state, and federal taxpayers who paid many thousands of dollars to construct it.

Besides destroying Zoo Idaho’s largest, most natural mixed exhibit, the “wetland” now sits empty. There was NO progress here. Instead it was a huge step backwards, and it was cruel to the displaced animals.

Zoo Idaho Wetland

I must also stress that within that large mixed exhibit a similar-sized pond, or wetland, with fresh flowing water had already existed for decades. In reality, no new habitat was really created here. Zoo animals just lost their homes. Bats have always frequented the zoo because the basalt cliffs provide the perfect habitat for them. Wild Canada geese and a variety of ducks were well established in that mixed exhibit long before the “wetland” was ever dreamt of, along with insects that frequent bodies of water. Wild marmots, red foxes, coyotes, deer, and even badgers were also regular visitors of the zoo before this “wetland” was built. The “wetland” accomplished nothing new except displacement.

This “wetland” was created specifically for trumpeter swans, for conservation purposes. It was primarily funded through a grant (taxpayer dollars) from the Fish and Wildlife Service over a period of years. According to the grant, the project started in 2015 and ended in 2020. Additionally, City of Pocatello equipment and employee labor was used to construct it. Zoo Idaho also claims it has planted “thousands” of wetland plants with volunteer help. In 2023 the “wetland” still sits empty and has yet to house any swans.



Shortchanging Patrons

Zoo Idaho has repaired some pathways and created a new ADA accessible pathway to the upper level. But the upper level is still in desperate need of toilet facilities and drinking fountains.

The zoo touts the success of its educational and outreach programs, yet fails to provide even minimal on-site educational interaction, which makes me question their real commitment to education. Signage on animal exhibits and directional signage on pathways between exhibits is sparse to non-existent. Physically vulnerable patrons may end up at dead ends and have to back track after wandering around aimlessly.

This all-encompassing “construction” has been going on since 2014! It is being used as an excuse for a never-ending mess. The zoo is full of trash and construction debris in public areas that are not roped off properly. Ongoing conditions are not safe for the public, especially for children, the handicapped, and the elderly.

The grounds and the exhibits are full of non-native, noxious weeds. The City of Pocatello requires its citizens to control these weeds on private property, yet turns a blind eye when it comes to the zoo?

Staffing Shortage

Another concern I have for Zoo Idaho is their self-admitted staffing shortage. This is unacceptable. If the City of Pocatello and the zoo director cannot provide adequate staffing for animal care, public safety, and proper attention to management of the aesthetics of exhibits and grounds, then Zoo Idaho needs to close or get better management. Poor financial decisions have obviously already been made, affecting the quality of life for the animals. Historically, the zoo was properly staffed, had many more animals in good condition, and showcased beautiful grounds—all on a similar operating budget.

My Own Experience as a Zookeeper

My responsibilities as a zookeeper went far beyond animal care. Daily I was charged with public safety. In the event of emergencies, zoo policy mandated that public safety came first. I updated signage on exhibits and pathways to eliminate confusion. I did groundskeeping, exhibit maintenance, and public education via tours and keeper talks. I was always present and readily available to assist the public, to monitor their actions, and answer questions. I kept public pathways clean and clear of tripping hazards. I made sure ALL exhibits were clean, whether occupied or not, and that my hoses and tools were sanitized and stored away neatly. I also maintained animal exhibits and surrounding areas so they were free of safety hazards, for the public and animals alike. I removed trash, debris, and noxious weeds that harmed animals and hindered the public’s ability to view them. I took great pride in my education, my years of experience, and in the professionalism of my work as a zookeeper, because I was not only working for the animals and the public but also for every taxpayer.



A Comprehensive Solution

Zoo Idaho seems to be having an identity crisis. Lately it has been referring to itself as a “rescue” or “sanctuary” instead of a zoo. But since its inception in 1932, it has always housed native animals that are unable to survive in the wild. This is nothing new and should not be used as an excuse to pull on the heartstrings of the public in order to make up for current shortcomings. Zoo Idaho really is a zoo, as indicated in its very name. It’s a far cry from the definition of a sanctuary, where animals roam large areas in natural environments undisturbed.


If Zoo Idaho insists on defining itself as a rescue or sanctuary, it needs to change its name, practices, and mission to match.

Regardless of what the zoo calls itself, it needs to improve its standards–for animal exhibits, animal care, staffing, safety, grounds, and signage. Accreditation as a zoo with AZA would ensure that a comprehensive higher set of standards are being met. It would provide objective, professional outside oversight. Pocatello’s zoo is the only non-accredited zoo in Idaho, and it shows!


Admittedly, accreditation is a comprehensive, long-term, expensive goal. But it is worth pursuing. And the guidelines are free! Even if Zoo Idaho can’t achieve accreditation right now, this doesn’t mean that it can’t change its practices and start behaving as if it were accredited.

Every decision, every action within the zoo should operate as if accreditation were already in play. This mindset alone would ensure higher standards.

Let’s set the goal high and start with the elephant in the room—or in this case, the black bears and their unacceptable cage! Pocatello and surrounding communities, let’s rally! Please go see the black bears. Go see the chaotic condition of the entire zoo. Help build the black bears a new exhibit. And don’t stop there. Make things better for all the animals.


Captive animals have psychological and physical needs. The moral and ethical responsibility of meeting these needs rests upon their captors. In building a new entrance, pathways, and an empty “wetland,” Zoo Idaho has prioritized these projects above basic animal needs. The poor condition of the exhibits and grounds and the lack of staff and educational signage is also telling. Zoo Idaho’s priorities do not lie with animal care, overall standards are lacking, and the zoo’s animals are paying the price.

As a zookeeper, a citizen of Pocatello, a property owner, and a taxpayer, I demand much higher standards from my zoo.

Pocatello’s zoo was beautiful and humane in the past; and I believe that with proper management it can be again. I want this zoo to succeed. I want it to be even better than it was in its glory days!

I am urging the citizens of Southeast Idaho to visit Zoo Idaho with a discerning eye. It opens in April. Zoo Idaho belongs to all of us, and it MUST do better, especially for the animals.

Krishna Strong holds a bachelor of science in biology with a minor in ecology. She has worked and volunteered for the Forest Service, Idaho Fish and Game, and The Nature Conservancy of Idaho. Krishna was a zookeeper for 25 years. She is the author of a non-fiction book about herself as a zookeeper and a captive Canadian Lynx that she cared for, Spirit of the Lynx—Dakota’s Story. Krishna is a member of Concerned Citizens for Pocatello’s Zoo Animals (CCPZA). CCPZA advocates for the psychological and physical wellbeing of captive animals at Zoo Idaho (Pocatello’s Zoo).



  1. Anything good for Pocatello, is always in the backseat of the mayor. He’s bought and paid for and does nothing except get sued. The citizens of Pocatello are always complaining about the zoo and horrible conditions, but as you can tell…. They don’t care. You should have seen it when I was little… I’m 60 now… Bears barely had room and paced…. Smaller animals were in a little wooden shelter and they paced as well. It was sickening. That’s why I think people now are OK with the way it looks now…. Because it was a huge improvement from what it was. We all can hardly wait until this lazy mayor gets done ruining Pocatello with all his yes men. Go to a city council meeting, and you will see for yourself. Anything he says, they all agree with him… And if you dont, he will bully them into submission. Think he has 3 years left…counting down the days. Soon as he is gone, trust me… There will be some good changes.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.