People often ask me where my love of animals came from. Like any life-long passion, it was slowly cultivated through many moments, thoughts and influences that one fine day, merged and became greater than the sum of their parts. But I do know that some of my most monumental memories were made through “entertainment” that many of us now find unethical.
It was the late 1970’s and Ringling Brothers was the Greatest Show on Earth. Gunther Gebel Williams was my hero when I was 5 because he worked with exotic animals; communicated with them, spoke to them. Next Shamu rocked my world when he jumped straight up and “kissed” his trainer at Sea World. My parents didn’t know what we know now about the lives of elephants in circuses or the cruelty of Sea World, they only knew that they wanted me to see and be inspired by the amazing animals that inhabit our planet. And it worked.
Now in 2016 I am making decisions as a parent and animal activist. We don’t go to circuses that use wild animals, we certainly don’t go to Sea World, we are perennial downers at barbeques because our whole family is vegetarian- but we do go to zoos. Many people are surprised by that, and in fact, I’m kind of surprised too. However, throughout my career, I have had the unique opportunity to work behind the scenes at a number of zoos, photographing and interacting with some of the most amazing animals alive, yet what has surprised me the most about my zoo collaborations is just how much I found myself on their side.
Zoos have changed almost beyond recognition in my lifetime alone. One of the bodies of work that was most influential to me as a fledgling photographer was Garry Winogrand’s The Animals shot in 1960’s New York City zoos. In these images there are no lush habitats, no waterfalls or enrichment toys, just bars and acres of cement pits where unfortunate animals sit and “interact” with the endless stream of gawking, mocking visitors in order to pass the time in their desperately sad lives. These are profound photos on a number of levels, but from an animal welfare perspective they are devastating.
Fortunately Winogrand’s series now serves, as the New Yorker put it, as a “time-capsule document of very antiquated notions of zoo design”. In the 70’s and 80’s zoos began modeling enclosures after natural habitats, increasing the distance between humans and animals, and introducing crucial enrichment activities for all species. Yet still I see dozens of images from students every year depicting sad primates, wistful lions and many, many “behind bars” shots. Are these coddled but captive animals truly longing for a life they have never known or is the photographer simply projecting his or her own emotions onto the animal through their choice of what and when to photograph? Perhaps a little of both.
I once did an exercise with one of my photography classes where we went to a family farm that I know very well. I asked them all to pick an animal and then create two photos of the same animal, one showing a “happy” farm animal, the other depicting an exploited, neglected animal. They found to their surprise, that it was all in the timing. The happy goat that was jumping for joy in the grass was photographed seconds later with its head drooping down looking sorrowful (he was actually going to eat some grass). The pigs that were ecstatically rolling around in the mud were photographed five minutes later looking trapped and forlorn with their snouts poking through the chicken wire that surrounded their pen (they were trying to get closer to smell us). My point was for the class to understand how subjective photography is, that there is no one photographic truth but instead endless truths and endless constructions. I wanted my students to understand the responsibility that they are undertaking in choosing to tell a story with their lens. Just like in life there is no absolute truth beyond our highly personal experience of our own reality.
It is hard to refute the idea that wild animals are not meant to live in captivity. Technically they’re not. If you take a wild born animal and put it in captivity it will suffer. I watch animals come through wildlife rehabilitation time and again. Wild animals who have known no walls or boundaries or human interference but suddenly find themselves living in a Tupperware bin or wire cage, confused and terrified by the splint on their leg or the formula that must be stuffed down their throats every few hours. They all cycle through the same stages of fear then acceptance followed by tentative trust. But as soon as they are released, most of them have no trouble remembering how to be an owl or an opossum or a raccoon- and they don’t look back.
But what and where defines “wild” is changing, fast. Many species are adapting with these changes, but many are not. As the terribly destructive and violent species responsible for the dissolution of said “wild” we are now making desperate attempts at stitching back together the immense fissure we have made in the ecological landscape. And accredited major zoos are a big part of this conservation effort.
The overwhelming majority of animals in accredited US zoos are captive born and bred. They have never experienced a “wild” life and in fact zoo life, a life that is undeniably intertwined with human edifices, human voices and human schedules, is all they know. Would they prefer a truly wild life? We can’t ask them, but even if we assume that they would, they can never be released into said wild because they simply wouldn’t survive. As a solution, many people cite “sanctuaries”, places where species conservation can continue but animals can be animals, with little interference: no schedules, less people, far fewer gawkers.
The problem with sanctuaries is that the public doesn’t like to fund what it cannot see and experience directly. For better or worse, folks tend to need to see something and be able to buy a souvenir in order to care about it. Most sanctuaries without government funding that do not allow visitors struggle to make ends meet. It’s incredibly expensive to feed just one elephant every month, imagine feeding a whole herd that will live another fifty years. Many sanctuaries therefore decide to admit visitors, to charge admission in order to make ends meet, and then you have what is essentially a modern day zoo with a non-profit bottom line. That’s not so bad but there are only so many of these that can thrive.
Major zoos are businesses, and all businesses are profit driven which is always a problem when animals are the currency for that profit. Putting animal welfare first isn’t always easy when visitors complain that the snow leopard isn’t out at noon-even though they are nocturnal- and want their money back. The balance is difficult but there are many modern zoos that manage to always put the safety and welfare of their animals as the top priority.
When parents ask me about the ethos of taking their kids to zoos I remind them that these days we rarely even go out to dinner without checking Yelp reviews or scanning Trip Advisor write ups- do the same with zoos. Take five minutes and Google them, read some customer reviews, seek out some some press both good and bad, see what is being said and determine whether or not “your” zoo is a place that you want to give your support and your children’s trust to.
Because of my job, my daughter has opportunities that I only dreamt of back when I was watching Gunther and his sleek tigers. She gets to play with coyotes cubs, hold baby otters, touch elephant trunks, feed porcupines sweet potatoes and watch baby meerkats scurry around inside my portable studio, but these days most kids learn to care about animals -and therefore about extinction and conservation issues- by going to the zoo, it’s a day out that almost every family can afford at one time or another. Animal Planet, IMAX and all of the amazing media that we have now can certainly pique a kid’s interest, they can teach kids loads of facts about animals, but none of it is a substitute for sharing a moment with a real live animal, occupying the same air as a giraffe or a lion for a few minutes. Those are the moments that are often life changing as they were for me and countless other kids who have gone on to work for a more humane future for animals.
There is a balance between exploitation and invisibility, and it's our job to find and maintain it.