A thought about zoos

I went to Bristol zoo the other day to experiment with a film camera I am borrowing from my brother. It being winter, and not having access to my own transportation means I’m somewhat limited if I want a quick outing. And it got me thinking about zoos….

Panning on birds

One of the techniques I was practicing at Bristol zoo where you pan on a bird in flight.

Penguin swimming taken with a film camera

This was taken with a Nikon F65 film camera on ISO400 film. Looking pretty ghetto with that line through it.

During the 20th Century

The Nazis were horrible to other humans, without a doubt, but one thing they were good for was their concern over the protection of animals. They introduced strong legislation against those who treated animals as inanimate property and among others banned animal trapping, horse shoeing, as well as passing an order for afforestation. At this time, many such laws had already been implemented in Britain but those in Germany had far more severe penalties. Slowly animals were given more protection in society, especially using animals in blood sports such as hunting using dogs during the 1960s, and in 1980 the cosmetics company Revlon stopped toxicity tests on the eyes or skin of animals. Ecology became a matter of public interest in the 1970s, and some zoos finally started making conservation their main focal point. Considering the attitude and mind set of the younger generation today it is strange for us now to think that the Detroit Zoo still had a chimpanzee show as late as 1983. Today, in most developing countries, animals housed in zoos are either those that have been bred in captivity (and have been transferred between zoos) or animals that, due to injury, are no longer able to survive in the wild. It is better to be able to find a new house for animals that a particular zoo can no longer keep than to put them down – which is often subject to public outrage and uproar. I also think they play a very large part in allowing humans to relate to animals they may not necessarily see in the wild – how many people who support rhino conservation will ever see them in the wild? And how many of those would keep on donating money if they had never ever seen one in captivity?

Zoos & research

Most larger zoos run research departments – first and foremost for captive breeding. The Arabian Oryx had its numbers hunted to extinction in 1972, but as a result of successful captive breeding and reintroduction during a year of good weather there are currently over 1,100 individuals in the wild. Another success is that of the golden lion tamarin, whose population has been brought back from the brink of extinction to around 1600 individuals today as a result of captive breeding programmes around the world. Zoos will support conservation research on location as well as having facilities that research how captivity affects animal behaviour, how to improve animal husbandry and improving medical care. I did my final Bachelor’s thesis on captive behaviour of porcupines and agoutis, and looked at a theory called ‘contrafreeloading’, which is when animals will often work for food despite it being easily available from a different food source. However, PETA (people for the ethical treatment of animals), together with the captive animals protection society, claim that research is only a guise and that they are still places to put animals on show.

Agouti feeding

This was the set-up I used for my contrafreeloading research at Paignton zoo on agoutis.

So where do I stand?

Personally, I am not an avid supporter of zoos unless they are well-kept. I think that the majority of zoos have far too many animals per square metre of land and are better off halving the number of animals, and given those that are left more space to roam. The question then of what to do with those that are not ‘wanted’ any more arises, and most zoos will want to keep the big charismatic animals such as lions and gorillas. And even then there needs to be a similarity in the habitat that they’re in to the one they would naturally be found in. And this does not please those pleading children who want to know where the red panda is. In my experience zoos are also starting to promote the local wildlife and nature of their own country/continent. Which is even better because then the animals are subjected to their normal weather too. To avoid zoos or not? I wouldn’t say so.  I have been to many zoos that have shocked me – the worst of which is probably the zoo in Nagoya, Japan, where there was no enrichment of the concrete cages for most animals. This might be an issue throughout much of the country considering the price of land – the Chiraumi aquarium in Okinawa is known for having one of the largest underwater tanks in the world, but it’s still far from large enough to hold three whalesharks. And the zoo in Asahikawa in Hokkaido holds a lot of animals in very tiny cages, albeit with slightly more entertainment for the animals, of which many are native to the area. I followed country stereotype and decided not to go to the zoo in Mysore, India. This, from what I hear, was actually a mistake and animal welfare seems to be of high importance. I also went to Singapore zoo as most people I spoke to raved about it. True to form, it was one of the better zoos in terms of space the animals have to roam around about it and their habitat enrichment. The nightsafari they offer means that visitors aren’t as ‘demanding’ to see nocturnal animals during the day, and therefore allowing the animals to show more natural behaviours. So in my experience? Before you head to a zoo, speak to people who have been there with genuine animal concern on their minds, and if they approve, then why not?

Singapore zoo goat

This is a very good example of the type enrichment Singapore zoo provides.

Chiraumi Aquarium in Okinawa

Chiraumi aquarium may have one of the biggest underwater tanks, but it is too small for whalesharks, especially 3!

Nagoya Zoo

This is not a happy face at Nagoya zoo.


From a photographer’s perspective, however, zoos can be an excellent place for practice in close proximity. Here’s a few skills that are great for practising at zoos:

  • Wide-angle shots. Experiment with composition, exposure and perhaps flash.
  • Panning. A technique that can work really well with birds if you perfect it, try to put your camera on a slower shutter speed (1/60) and follow the animal so that they are in focus but the background is not.
  • Light.  If the cages have good enrichment, there will be e.g. trees creating shadows, and see what effect this has. Or what fill flash would do.
  • Composition. The animal may move a little, but it won’t suddenly disappear and never come back. Take your time and look around the image through the viewfinder before pressing the shutter button to make sure there are no distracting elements.

But make sure that you always state that the image was taken of an animal in captivity. If you don’t someone is bound to find out.

Bear at Asahikawa zoo

It’s difficult to get this close to wildlife in the wild, so play around with composition.

Night safari at Singapore zoo

This is an abstract shot taken at Singapore zoo on their night safari.

Australia zoo

There can be some great light to experiment with in a zoo setting.

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