As Long as There are Humans…

Using a Silverback as a backdrop to a family portrait

Even as a child I remember being uncomfortable at the zoo. There was something about the foul smell, the stark cement-floor cage, but it was even more about the look of the animals that I recognized as vacant, sad and in distress. I couldn’t put it into words at first, but I knew the feelings. Watching the animals chewing on the bars, banging their heads against the wall, pacing back and forth or in circles, I now ask why would anyone want to go to a zoo to see that? I never consciously related to these creatures, but their prison-like environment and the whole idea of their incarceration for our entertainment offended me.

Orangutan allowing people to get a good look

In more recent years, the animals have been allowed a little more space, along with the ability to be inside or out, and are given plastic toys. Some walls are painted or papered with murals of mountains and forests, and the rocks and trees in their cages are made of cement and plastic. Calling these animal collections a Wild Animal Park, or Safari Habitat, may seem like progress, but is it?

Tiger pacing around and around oblivious to the crowd

Although I am still in awe of their beauty and exoticism, and it’s still interesting and thrilling to be able to stand that close to animals I would probably never see “in real life,” there’s still that same gnawing and prickly feeling of guilt, shame, and embarrassment when I witness imprisoned wildlife. The assault of negative feelings never weakened.

Deer behind bars

These photographs weren’t made to make you smile or to amuse. It’s difficult to explain why I was compelled to photograph animals in zoos. As Lewis Hine said, “If I could say it in words, I wouldn’t need to photograph.”