What You Didn’t See at the Zoo: Captive Animals Stare Back in Resignation

Puffy monkey presses hands against the glass

Puffy monkey presses hands against the glass

You might not have noticed the animals’ misery during your visit to the zoo. Yet you must have seen it because photographer Gaston Lacombe took these photos standing outside the enclosures just like any other visitor. Was your last zoo visit a great day with popcorn and a sea lion feeding? Gaston’s photos capture something else: the resignation of animals trapped inside their exhibits.

Lacombe’s photos waste no pixels on cuteness or entertainment. These photos just show animals – some majestic, some not – and their misery. A tiger naps by a small, dingy pool. A monkey earnestly lies a hand against his enclosure’s foggy glass wall.

According to Lacombe, though some zoos do a better job than others at providing animals livable habitats, there is no zoo that doesn’t force at least some of its animals into inadequate exhibits. He told My Modern Metropolis:

Not all zoos are equal. Some make great efforts to provide their animals with adequate and comfortable habitats, and some others can only be described as animal torture chambers. However, in all zoos, there are always some animals wedged in habitats that are inappropriate, inadequate and uncomfortable. I still haven’t seen any exceptions to this.”

To drive home the message that every zoo houses uncomfortable animals, Lacombe has avoided identifying the zoos pictured in this series. In an interview with Wired the photographer acknowledged that his series is more about raising awareness than advocating for change. “I want this body of work to reach a certain level where it’s part of the discourse,” he said. “But I harbor no illusions that my project can change the world.” Species used to large territories or intense social interactions are miserable even in the best zoo exhibits and won’t benefit much from slight improvements to their enclosures. Still, zoos are important educational institutions where many children first learn to care about animals. The heartbreak you’ll feel seeing these photos may have its roots in the wonder you felt on your first visit to a zoo in your neighborhood.

Tiger sleeps by dingy pool in zoo
Ape In hammock
Bear sits by doorway
Fox smells glass at zoo
Tortoise enclosure
Polar bear lies down in enclose
Lion in dingy room
Groundhog in enclosure

Leora Rosenberg

By Leora Rosenberg

Leora writes about the environment, science, and the intersection between technology and art. She attends New York University and has previously written for the Wildlife Conservation Society's website, The Huffington Post's Compylr blog, and NYU's Washington Square News. Her mom uses Twitter incorrectly.