BY: CONNOR BRIAN
Photos: Gaston Lacombe
The last time I visited a zoo, I got this weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. Between visions of children gawking, and snotty teens smacking the helpless animals’ glass enclosures it felt more like a sideshow than a conservation. Despite zoos claiming preservation, the sad eyes of these animals often tell a different story.
Peering into cages designed to be in the shape of rock formations , everything feels artificial. These “frustrated animals spend much of their time pacing, walking in tight circles, swaying or rolling their heads, and showing other signs of psychological distress.” says animal rights organization PETA. Underneath florescent lights, surrounded by four impending walls, their living space looks more like an office cubicle than a habitat.
Despite claiming concern for animals in the name of conservation, research, and education, with a gift shop on every corner, zoos feel more similar to a theme park then they do a scientific nexus. Jacques Cousteau, the pioneer of Marine Conservation once wrote “There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement”. With captive animals so far removed from their natural habitat, zoos provide an entirely false view of the animals themselves and the urgent environmental issues many species face in their natural home.
For any zoo to claim its main goal as “preservation” is extremely misleading. Most wildlife captive in zoos are not in fact endangered, as zoos often favour exotic crowd-pleasers over threatened animals. You cannot replace an animal’s wild habitat, and often the cramped conditions of enclosures put the wellbeing of endangered animals at risk, in a study including 4,500 elephants comparing those in captivity and the wild, it was found that the median lifespan for an African elephant in the wild is 56 years, while one confined to a zoo lives for only 16.9 years.
This is not much of a surprise when you consider the mundanity of existence. Animals confined in zoos are prevented from running, foraging, climbing, choosing a sexual partner, and roaming with their own kind. With zero mental or physical stimulation, each day stretches into endless purgatory.
Observing captive animals we consider inferior indulges our gluttonous lust for superiority . It’s moral ignorance at best, and sadism at worst. Zoos are more comparable to a car collection than they are an educational conservation effort—they are a city’s opportunity to show off their exotic purchases. Hiking is an example of one of the many other ways city dwellers can reconnect with nature.
There is hope however, many progressive zoos are beginning to recognize that they cannot adequately provide for the demanding needs of certain animals. In 2013, the Toronto Zoo sent three elephants to an 80-acre sanctuary. The Detroit Zoo did something similar, with its director declaring ”Just as polar bears don’t thrive in hot climates, Asian elephants should not live in small groups without many acres to roam. They clearly shouldn’t have to suffer winters of the North.”
These photo series entitled “Captive” by Gaston Lacombe shows us the conditions that many animals live in each day, detached from their natural origin, who only experience trees when made of plaster, flowers when painted on walls, and sunlight when confined to a 54 -watt fluorescent tube.