Views from the inside out: Our fascination with other species manifests with a startling disregard for their well-being

I've known about renowned photographer Jo-Anne McArthur's book Captive for quite a while, and couldn't wait for it to be published. Now that it is available, I'm even more amazed at what a wonderful book it is and how compelling the images of animals in zoos -- zooed animals -- truly are. The images and the accompanying text aptly show the animals' perceptions, many from the inside out, and will surely make viewers see zoos differently. They enable readers to bear witness to just what is happening to these beings. The description for Captivity reads as follows:

Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur
Source: Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur

In recent years, the role of zoos and aquaria as centres for conservation, education, and entertainment has been placed under scrutiny. From the controversy surrounding the confinement of orcas at SeaWorld to the killing of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, questions have been asked about the place, if any, of zoos and aquaria in a world where so many animals need resources and protection in the wild and many other means of learning about the natural world exist.

For more than a decade, Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur has turned her forensic and sympathetic camera on those animals whom we have placed in zoos and we animals who look at them. As with her first book, We Animals (Lantern, 2013), McArthur s aim is to invite us to reflect on how we observe or ignore one another through the bars, across the moat, or on either side of the glass. Captiveis a book that will challenge our preconceptions about zoos and aquaria, animal welfare, and just what or who it is we think we see when we face the animal. 

I was able to do an interview with Ms. McArthur, and it is a nice follow up to a number of other essays and interviews including "It's Still Not Happening at the Zoo: Sharp Divisions Remain," "Zoo Ethics and the Challenges of Compassionate Conservation," and "The Whale Sanctuary Project: Saying No Thanks to Tanks." I could go on and on about just how moving Ms. McArthur's book is, but the interview I did with her tells it all. 

Why did you write Captive?

I wrote Captive because, after shooting for Born Free’s EU Zoo Inquiry in 2016, I had a wealth of material that could be made into a book. I combined it with a decade of photographing zoos, and the book contains over 140 images. I also made the book because I knew it would be timely. The conversation about the ethics of captivity is happening now, in the mainstream, and I wanted to make a contribution to that conversation. Documentaries like Blackfish, and the deaths of Marius the giraffe and Harambe the gorilla propelled the conversation about zoo ethics into the spotlight and that`s where it needs to be. Zoos in their current form are antiquated. They can reform and evolve, becoming places of compassionate conservation, rescue and sanctuary. All roadside zoos must be closed down immediately, and I address this in the book as well. [Please also see "Why zoos must become places for compassionate conservation."]

Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur
Source: Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur

What is your book about?

Captive is about animals who live their lives on display and yet who are so rarely truly seen. Captive seeks to reveal the experiences of animals in zoos and aquaria around the world. I’m looking at the experience of individual animals in captivity. The images ask the question: is this really worth it? Is an afternoon’s entertainment worth this chimpanzee living in a small enclosure for twenty years, having her babies taken away for a breeding program in another zoo? We go home after we leave the zoo, but the animals stay there, day after day and year after year. Captive draws our attention to these questions, and away from the go-to responses for why zoos are immutable. The goal of the book is to see these animals anew, to make their lives visible, and to get us to think about captivity from their perspective.

How does this superb collection of photos and text follow up on your previous book We Animals?

We Animals looks at the invisible animals, as I call them. Those we have a close relationship with and yet they remain invisible in our lives. Those we wear and eat, those we keep in labs to be used in research, those we use for entertainment. All my work will continue to focus on these individuals, bringing their lives to light in a new way. It's interesting with zooed animals, who are on display in plain sight, and yet we fail to really see them. We see them as ambassadors of a species, perhaps, but rarely as individuals. We don’t take the time to. We look at enclosures for a few moments and then go to the next. We’re out for a day of fun; the last thing we want to think about is that our actions have terrible consequences for the captive animals we are there to be amused by. Zoos and aquaria aren’t there to engage our critical thinking. Since the early days of zoos, they have been there for our entertainment. It must change and thankfully we are starting to see that change.

Where were the photos taken?

The book includes images from over 20 countries on five continents, with many of them shot in 2016 while I was working with the Born Free Foundation in Europe. Some of the images are also from commissioned work on a cross-Canada investigation of zoos for Zoocheck Canada in 2008-2009. The images come from everywhere from roadside zoos to the modern establishments where we expect to have the highest standards possible. All in all, the book compiles a decade of work visiting zoos around the world.

Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur
Source: Courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur

How are the images being used, apart from in the book?

Lots of ways! The images shot in Europe last year were exhibited in the EU Parliament and form the bulk of the Born Free Foundation’s EU Zoo Inquiry. The photos I took for Zoocheck Canada have since been used in support of their public campaigns. Some of the images have been used in specific campaigns, like the push to have three elephants from Toronto Zoo relocated to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in California––that campaign was successful and the elephants were moved. The photos have been used in many more public campaigns, like the ongoing ones to end keeping cetaceans in captivity in Canada, and to shut down some of the most notorious roadside zoos, like Guzoo.

In the past few years there have been some high profile incidents at zoos that have captured global attention, including interest from people who have never previously gotten involved in issues centering on zoos. One is the killing of Marius, a young and very healthy giraffe at the Copenhagen zoo because he didn't fit into their breeding program. Would you have chosen to kill Marius or other animals in this same situation? [For more information about Marius please see note 1.]

Oh dear. It’s awful, isn’t it? If zoos claim to care about the individuals, why would they kill Marius? Killing someone shows you don’t give a stuff about them as an individual. And yet, it’s “funny”, zoos do a lot of marketing of their new babies, giving them a name, “Come see so-and-so!” etc. Zoos profit off this personalization of animals, and claim they care so much about the animals in their custody. With Marius and the thousands of other “surplus” animals, killing them tells another story. It says “we don’t care at all about any of the individuals here at the zoo.” I know a lot of zoo staff and I know that they care very deeply about the animals incarcerated there, so what’s going on? Who are these “conservation experts” making the decision to kill the zooed animals? Well, we met a lot of them (you and I) at the recent Detroit Zoo symposium on animal welfare, and they did indeed refer to the Copenhagen zoo's scientific director as a hero. A lot of people clapped. So, what’s going on here? We need to discuss this. We need to have big, public, discussions about what zoos are doing.

Incidentally, we do know that zoos were prepared to take Marius, and that the Copenhagen zoo didn’t bother making the transfer. I imagine the reason was financial. What else can we deduce from this, other than zoos as businesses don’t fundamentally care about the individuals in their care?

Among the guiding principles of compassionate conservation are "First, do no harm" and the life of every individual matters. Just what can compassionate conservation contribute, or better yet add, to debates about whether zoos should exist in the first place and that it's ok to keep animals in cages either for their supposed good or for purposes of education and conservation?

Some zoos are renovated, multi-million dollar complexes that can and should be used for real compassionate conservation. Zoos can transform into places of rescue, rehabilitation and sanctuary. They must go in this direction. It will reflect the changing ethos of our time, towards empathy instead of dominion and ownership. There will always be a need for places in which humans can care for animals who genuinely need our help.

Don’t zoos contribute to conservation and education programs?

They do, to a small extent, and that is the go-to response when anyone questions zoos. There are indeed some conservation programs at zoos but many of those efforts are unfruitful. Unfortunately, zoos have a history of marketing and talking about conservation that just isn’t happening. Most animals kept in captivity aren’t endangered. The breeding programs for endangered species don’t necessarily result in any animals being reintroduced into the wild. You almost never see zoos encourage visitors to reduce their meat consumption, even though that’s one of the biggest things we can do to protect wild animals. Zoos are well-placed to run incredible conservation and education programs, but in most of the zoos I’ve visited, what I’ve seen is distracted visitors rushing past information panels, visibly unhappy animals, and a gift shop at the end. Zoos openly euthanize excess animals like Marius the giraffe, rather than putting in the work to place them in sanctuaries or return them to the wild.

There are zoos making changes. The Detroit Zoo, for example, moved their elephants to a sanctuary in warmer climates because they felt it was the right thing to do and they used it as an opportunity to talk about the ethics of zoos. Their polar bears are rescued and have enough space to hide from the public. They’ve rescued over 30,000 animals. There’s a real focus on humane education programs. They have a 4-D theatre, where visitors can see animals in their natural habitat. Zoos can be a place where people actually go to learn about animals, they just have a long way to go to get there, and they have to want it.

Who is your intended audience?

People who visit zoos. Animal lovers. Parents of young children.

Do you have hope that things will change for zooed animals? In her book, Jenny Gray writes, "Unfortunately the bulk of zoos in existence today still fall short of meeting the requirements of ethical operations. At best, 3% of zoos are striving to meet ethical standards, with perhaps only a handful meeting all the requirements." (p. 208) This is not a very promising picture." 

The spotlight is on zoos and aquaria. I actually think things are starting to change and they will change quickly. Dolphinaria are being banned. Captive breeding is being banned. Just this week in Mexico, a ban on dolphinariums was approved. And we saw at the welfare symposium recently that zoo officials know that things need to change. Some of them genuinely want to create change while indeed it was clear that others were just trying to figure out how they could create spin. For example, we could see some zoo CEOs latching on to the idea that they should rescue an animal and then promote that, rather than the usual promotion of new baby animals. However, there spotlight is on them, due to a series of incidents, and photos and documentary work, and a changing ethos, and I do have hopes that zoos will evolve. Soon, it will be sink or swim. We are already seeing great changes, like at the Detroit Zoo. I believe they will all continue on that path, and that with laws changing and bans being enforced, we’ll see an end to displaying animals for our entertainment.

Many activists would want to see zoos shut down all together. Is that your message?

Not necessarily. I know that’s controversial in the animal rights movement! Zoos in their current and historic form are archaic and, indeed, all road-side zoos must be shut down and abolished. There will, however, always be a need for places where we can care for animals who cannot be (re)introduced into the wild. Zoos have incredible potential for good because they have funding, they have the facilities, and they have dedicated experts who love animals. They have a chance to reform and really become about what’s best for individual animals, as well as conservation and humane education rather than just saying they are. Zoos have so much potential and they need to be pushed in a direction that reflects the ethics and ethos of our time. Zoos right now have an opportunity to reform into something of value to animals and society, closer to a sanctuary model.

What can people who read the book do to help captive animals?

It’s encouraging to see how many messages I get from people who want to know how they can help. There is a page on our website that goes into more detail, but basically: don’t visit establishments that don’t put the animals first. Get involved, sign actions from groups like Born Free, Zoocheck, and others. Support documentaries like Blackfish and books like Captive to expose the reality for the individual animals trapped in this industry. Support legislative efforts to protect wild animals, like the proposed bill to ban keeping cetaceans in captivity that’s moving through the Canadian Parliament right now. Do your research and support wildlife sanctuaries and reputable conservation efforts. And one of the biggest things anyone who cares about wildlife can do is look at their diet: animal agriculture is devastating the habitats of wild animals, we know that. Every individual can make the choice to reduce their support of these industries by cutting back on or giving up animal products entirely.

What are some of your current and future projects?

The larger body of work, We Animals, will always continue. I’m really excited about my current international project, with my co-author Keri Cronin and some incredible writers and videographers, called Unbound. It’s about women on the front lines of animal advocacy, both contemporary and historical. We tell the stories of women worldwide who are trailblazing in the field of animal rights and protection, from lawyers to sanctuary founders to artists. This is an historical time to be a part of the animal movement, so we are documenting it as it unfolds. It’s a really lovely project!

Where can people get the book?

The book is available on Amazon. I’ll also be visiting lots of veg fests and speaking events on the east coast this summer and fall. Keep an eye out on my social media pages for details! You can also follow our companion social media project, A Year of Captivity, a photo-a-day project that will run all year on Instagram and Facebook.

The see-er becomes the seen

Thank you Jo-Anne. And, I'm sure the animals would thank you as well for speaking out for their well-being. As I wrote above, Captive is a game-changer. The images -- the views from the inside out -- are compelling and show clearly that major changes are needed to give zooed animals better lives. As Jessica Pierce and I stress in The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, the life of every single individual matters. And, of course, a better life is not necessarily a good life. Your images allow readers to bear witness to what is happening in zoos worldwide, are worth millions of words and I hope Captive enjoys a broad global audience. It well could be one of the most influential books ever published on what life in zoos is like for their residents. 

1In an interview I did with Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria (Australia) about her recent book called Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation, I presented this scenario: Many zoos partake in what they call "management euthanasia" of so-called "surplus animals." I have many problems both with the use of the word "euthanasia" and the phrase "surplus animals." In a section of Ms. Gray's book she poses some very interesting and challenging thought experiments that raise a number of issues with how zoo administrators deal with different sorts of animals. On pages 214-215 Ms. Gray's book she considers the topic of "Killing Surplus Animals," focusing on the fate of Marius, a young and healthy giraffe who was killed (not euthanized, despite what they claim) at the Copenhagen zoo, because it was decided that Marius couldn't contribute to the zoo's breeding program. A bit after Marius was killed, four lions were killed at the same zoo for the same reason. At a meeting at the Detroit Zoo in May 2017, where we met, someone referred to the scientific director of the Copenhagen zoo who decided that it was perfectly okay to kill Marius as a hero. I frankly find this to characterization be perverse and the slaughter of Marius and the four lions to be unacceptable. Ms. Gray did not answer this question with a "yes" or a "no," but I asked and was hoping she would. 

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.

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