Zoo. Photos: Britta Jaschinski, text: Randy Malamud. (3/5)

Asian Elephant, Zoo Series, London 1992.  © Britta Jaschinski.

Randy Malamud writes: 

Zoo animals are removed from their own contexts, their own habitats, and resituated in a context that makes it more convenient for spectators to see them.  The disjunction between where an elephant really lives and this Regent’s Park pied-a-terre is surreal.  Zookeepers tell their audiences that the point of zoos is for people to establish connections with other animals, and to inculcate a sense of ecological awareness as human expansion threatens animal habitats.  But paradoxically – perversely – the zoo features animals divorced from their world.

The elephant people see in the zoo is not a “real” elephant.  The real elephant lives in her place, in her habitat, in her environment, among and alongside many other animals of her own species, as well as many animals of other species, predators and prey, friends and strangers.  She lives there because her lifecycle is predicated upon a certain seasonal climate, a certain range of movement, an environment comprised of certain plants, trees, water, dirt, stones, topography, and so forth.  It is fundamentally impossible for zoos to reproduce any significant amount of this animal’s habitat.

As people expressed feeling of guilt about seeing caged animals in prison, some zoos began to modify the enclosures, largely to alleviate the spectator’s discomfort.  Perhaps the designers who created this brutalist elephant compound thought that the “brutes” inhabiting it would feel at home here. But the zoo’s architectural spectacles do not alter the fact that the constrained animal on display lacks most aspects of the environment in which he or she naturally lives.  Zoo-goers cannot see an elephant who acts or feeds or sleeps or eats or mates or nurtures or fights in the way a real elephant would.  Depressive, anxious, and fearful behaviour – learned helplessness, self-injury, stereotypic repetition — is rampant among captive animals on display.

© Randy Malamud.

Zoo by Britta Jaschinski is published by Phaidon.