Ottawa photographer sheds new light on zoos in new book, Captive
Going Out

Ottawa photographer sheds new light on zoos in new book, Captive

Ottawa native Jo-Anne McArthur has spent the past 15 years capturing images of animals. From joyful to heartbreaking, these images explore the relationship between humans and animals in over 50 countries. Earlier this year, she made the We Animals archives available to the public, so that schools, charities, and individuals could explore her work and use them to further debate about animals — and how we, as their stewards, care for them.

Captive is McArthur’s latest project, and is done in collaboration with the Born Free Foundation. The book brings to light some of the disturbing experiences we, as humans, have when visiting zoos. Through visits to zoos and aquaria around the world, McArthur widens the lens to show how humans are — and aren’t — interacting with the resident animals.

At an event on October 10 at Bar Robo, McArthur will talk about Captive and the experience of visiting animals in captivity.

Here, McArthur talks about the elephants, orangutans, frogs, and other animals — as well as the people — that are the focus of her book.

Elephant, France, 2016: Gina. Gina is about fifty years old. For the past 16 years, she has been alone in this barren exhibit. Elephants live in matrilineal families and are highly social animals. I hated to see Gina alone for even five minutes, which was the maximum time anyone spent looking at her as she swayed and paced. It was particularly heartbreaking to see her day after day as I went back to photograph, spending long days without companionship, tracing the same steps in the dust.
Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

What early experiences in Ottawa shaped your view of animals?

I grew up in the Alta Vista neighbourhood, and a neighbour’s dog used to live in a backyard, year round. He’d bark a lot and was starved for attention. In the winter he’d sleep in the cold garage. Even as young girl I would knock on their door to ask if I could play with Duke or take him for a walk. He was a Rottweiler/shepherd mix. You can imagine his unruly strength, and the funny sight of him yanking me at the end of a leash when I took him out. I always had a love for animals, but I had a concern for them as well. I felt sad for animals in zoos. I remember visiting Papanack Zoo long ago, which has recently been in the spotlight for countless acts of cruelty and neglect. I remember that I had this sense that we humans were supposed to be there to be entertained; having a nice afternoon out with the family, but it was just a lonely, sad, terrible place for animals. The animals were like ghosts.

Lion Cub, Cuba, 2008. One of the attractions of zoos is having hands-on experiences with animals, and it’s often with the young and cute animals, before they grow and are able to hurt anyone. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

Your work for Captive took you to a lot of zoos and aquariums. Is it difficult for you to be in those spaces? If so, why do you continue to make this part of your work?

Yes, they are really depressing places. A lot of people think so too — that was part of the study for the book. Observing not just those animals but we animals; how we see, and fail to see, animals who are right before us. We go to zoos and aquaria for a nice afternoon out with the family, and so when we are faced with depressed or despondent behaviour from the animals, or when we witness the stereotypic behaviours of pacing and turning in circles, we feel a sense of awkwardness, sort of like we don’t know what to do with what we’re seeing because this was supposed to be a nice day out for the family. And so we turn away. We always turn away. My images ask us to look again, to consider the individuals in zoos, not just as objects and representatives as a species, but as individuals whom through no choice of their own have to sacrifice autonomy or any semblance of a natural life for the inexcusable reason that they are curious to us.

I continue to go back so that I can tell their stories, and ours. In photography, a body of work takes time. I’m able to share a glimmer of the stories of these animals, about how they live, because I return and return again.

Orangutans, Thailand, 2008.
The fourth floor of the Pata Mall in Bangkok also serves as a zoo for all kinds of birds, reptiles, bears and primates. The animals live on concrete and are often housed alone. It is one of the most depressing zoos I have even seen. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

You mention that you’ve witnessed a “disconnect” between the staff at zoos and aquariums. Can you please elaborate on that? Here in Ottawa, we’ve seen employees of Papanack Zoo speak out publicly against their employer.

It’s funny about that. I know a lot of zoo keepers and for the most part, they love the animals in their care. I don’t dispute that. I dispute the antiquated constructs which are zoos. It seems that zoos and aquaria don’t reflect the ethos of our time. Zoos were created by the rich who caged exotic animals on their properties as a display of wealth. Soon these places became playgrounds for the upper class. Zoos have evolved but not much. All roadside zoos must close. They are unequivocally terrible places for animals. Because there will always be a need for facilities where we can care for injured animals as well those who cannot be reintroduced into the wild, government funded and large zoos can become places of compassionate conservation. They can become wildlife centers and take on a more sanctuary model. Zoos need to reform, and they are doing so; they are in the spotlight, and not in a good way. They know this, and my view is that they will have to evolve, or close.


Toque macaque, Germany, 2016.
Over the years, many zoos have had upgrades. Their parks are excellent and there is a lot of space for the visitors, but the animals often continue to live in small, unnatural enclosures with concrete floors. Time and time again, I have witnessed animals straining to reach something natural beyond the bars that enclose them. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

You’ve highlighted the Detroit Zoo as one of the few spaces to have found a good balance in that it provides a positive experience for visitors and animals alike. How would you suggest people assess zoos before they visit?

The Detroit Zoo still has a long way to go in terms of reforming into a place for animals, not just for people. They retired their elephants to sanctuary, which is fantastic. They have rescued over 30,000 animals over the years, and they have a major focus on humane education and experiences that allow us to meet animals up close without having to keep them in cages, like in their 4D theatre.

Generally I don’t recommend people visit zoos. We can visit sanctuaries, of which there are many in Ontario. I definitely don’t recommend anyone ever visit an aquarium, where thousands of fish and mammals have been wild caught. Countless animals of all kinds have died in transport between their natural homes and the zoo or aquarium. Countless more have died in these institutions. There are lots of ways we can learn about animals, such as through BBC films and IMAX theatres, or through volunteering at shelters, wildlife rehabilitation centers and sanctuaries.

When people are interested in visiting zoos, they should simply never visit a roadside zoo. Papanack is a very good example. Unfortunately there are a lot of roadside zoos in Ontario. We need to speak up and encourage zoos to evolve, and to not keep megafauna on display, and to take part in in situ conservation; that is, for example, supporting gorilla or elephant conservation in the lands native to the animals like the DRC and South Africa.

Waxy monkey tree frog, Germany, 2016.
Watching this child continually slam their hand against the terrarium in which this frog is trapped and will spend their lives was incredibly sad. The parents allowed the behaviour and I felt bad for the frog who has no respite from children and onlookers. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

How would you suggest people deal with unsettling feelings following a trip to a zoo, or after viewing your images?

It’s definitely a strange feeling to be at a zoo or to leave a zoo with confusing feelings. I went to have a great time with my family, but I feel sad. Everyone goes to zoos, so it must not be wrong. Visiting zoos is a social norm; a thing that most of us get to experience as children. If we feel saddened by it, I simply ask us to consider that. I ask us to look again, and think again. Those animals are just like us, in that they experience complex emotions including sadness, frustration, jealousy, elation. Like us, they are savvy beasts. Perhaps a good question to ask is: would I like to be in that zoo? Would I like to be taken from the wild and away from my family and natural life? Would I be ok with having my zoo family and friends constantly separated and sent away for breeding programs?

We aren’t so different from other animals. And so I ask us to look again, and to reconsider our actions when it comes to spending time and money at zoos and other places where animals are used for our entertainment.