Rebuttal: Thinking Critically About Anti-zoo Images

Recently, you may have seen that sources like the Washington Post, The Guardian, and IFLScience published stories about a book released by a Canadian photographer who traveled across Europe photographing animals in zoological facilities. Now, I won’t speak out against said book as I have not read it and, therefore, it would be improper of me to do so.

However, I will speak about some of the images found in the aforementioned articles. More importantly, I’m going to ask you to think critically about them and this situation. So take a moment to click on the links above and glance over the some of the images we’ll discuss.

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Photo of a polar bear playing in its beautiful exhibit at the San Diego Zoo to start us out on the right note.

Okay, ready? Good.

If the articles and interviews promoting the book are any indication, the photographer has published a biased, one-sided view of the life of animals in human care. At first glance, most of the photos seem haunting, telling of a captive animal’s endlessly depressed state, complete and total lack of stimulation, or inadequate living environment.

Judging from comments via social media, some members of the public were, in fact, disturbed by the images. But, I am here to remind you that while the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, what is not pictured is worth at least twice as much.

I’ll start by reminding you that the images captured and featured in these articles only display a fraction of that animal’s day.

According to the ever-reliable internet, a standard DSL camera can take a picture in roughly 1/8000th of a second. That means that each image captured and featured portrays exactly 0.000125 seconds of that animal’s day (PS. That’s WAY faster than a human being even And being that there are over 86,000 seconds in a day, each photo portrays a negligible percentage of not only that animal’s day, but also an infinitely tiny, microscopically minuscule fraction of the animal’s lifetime.

I could keep going with all of the mathematics, I suppose, but instead of boring you, I’ll encourage you to ask yourself: What happened during the rest of the day?

Is the reason the jaguar is right in front of the glass because his keepers put scent enrichment on the window to stimulate his olfactory senses?


(This image was featured in article by the Washington Post. Photo credit to JoAnne McArthur/Born Free Foundation)

Are these three arctic wolves lazily laying on their platform because they just spent an hour scouring their exhibit for the pieces of food their caretakers painstakingly placed in order to encourage foraging behavior?

When the dolphin in The Guardian article finished the interaction with the guests, was he or she given his or her favorite toy for the rest of the afternoon?

Now, I can almost hear some of you screaming at me, “You’re just making that up!” So, let me say that I understand that there is no proof that these things took place. But, while I have no proof that it did happen, you have no proof that it did not. These activities are absolutely possibilities being that zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are required to provide animals in their collections.

So, this is where I am asking you to think critically.

If I had taken a picture of you at 3:43pm today, what were you doing during that minute? Were you sitting at your desk? Were you mowing the yard? Were you napping on the couch to the drone of a television? Is what you were doing at 3:43pm today an accurate representation of your entire existence? Is it the only activity you ever do?



It is not accurate to assume from this photo that this is the only behavior that this woman ever displays. Nor is it accurate to assume this is the only location in which she spends time. (photo from

Just because you were creating an Excel spreadsheet during that moment, does that inherently mean that you did not play video games at some other point during the day?

If you were mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the time, does that mean that you never play catch in the backyard with your son or daughter?

Were you biting your nails out of boredom? Does that mean you are never entertained by or interested in any other activity?

Regardless of who you are or what you were doing, the behavior you displayed at 3:43pm this afternoon is not a reflection of your existence as a whole.

Now, ask yourself: Why?

Why are the lechwe antelope from the Washington Post article indoors? Are you sure that this where they are kept all of the time? Or were they moved inside temporarily while their exhibit was renovated? Do they have access to an outdoor habitat as well as the one pictured so they have a choice between the two? Is it winter and the temperature outside is currently unsuitable for them? Were they moved inside to wait for a storm to pass? All are viable and realistic options.


(This photo was featured in the Washington Post. Photo credit to JoAnne McArthur/Born Free Foundation)

Why are the tigers in this French zoo peering out of their exhibit on their tiptoes? Was this photo taken first thing in the morning when the keepers are bringing them their breakfast? Is it all of a sudden disgraceful for a carnivore, or any individual animal or person for that matter, to look forward to eating? If so, I know some humans that should be very worried. Are their keepers bringing them a new toy and they can see them approaching? Is their excitement and anticipation disgusting? If it is, I guess we humans can’t be enthusiastic toward Christmas anymore.

Here’s one that I’m going to throw into this category because I have your attention and for the life of me I do not understand this: Why is it that every couple of years a photo of an animal sleeping at a zoo goes viral and is labeled as ‘depressing’? WHY???


(This photo was featured in The Guardian. Photo credit to JoAnne McArthur/Born Free Foundation)

Why is it that an image of a sleeping tree frog is meant to be ‘haunting’? Animals sleep no matter where they live. Lions sleep on the plains of Africa. Seals sleep near the shores of Maine. Tapirs sleep in the jungles of Malaysia. And, yes, they sleep in zoos too.

This is literally a fact: animals sleep.

If I take a picture of your dog sleeping at the foot of your bed, I have no evidence that your dog is not properly cared for. I only have evidence that he or she sleeps. That’s not profound. Neither is your picture of a sleeping walrus.

There. Now that it’s been discussed, ask yourself a tough one: Am I seeing only what they want me to see?

In what way could I have been manipulated into thinking worse about a situation?

The oldest trick in the book is to change a colorful image to that of only black and white. We as humans naturally associate bright colors with happiness and joy, but associate dull or dark shades and shadows with sadness or dreariness. What would the image look like if it had not been doctored?

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It took me all of twenty seconds to add a black and white filter to this image to make this little bird’s life look less vibrant.

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This is the original image I took of a weaver at home in a free-flight aviary at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

Another favorite used by anti-zoo propagandists is simple: cropping and framing. What was going on outside of what the photographer published? Just because only one animal is in the frame, does not mean he or she was the only one in the exhibit. And just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean there weren’t toys in the environment. Though it might not be included in the image, you cannot prove that there is no fresh water or food for the animal to drink and eat. Even amateur, Instagram-only photographers show solely what they want their audiences to see.

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First of all- this gorilla is SLEEPING on some kind of straw substrate. That is all this image shows. It does not speak to the well-being of this gorilla, the adequacy of the exhibit, or the number of animals that accompany this individual. Just around the corner, in fact, in this several-acre exhibit, the rest of the troop foraged for food. The pictures below were taken within just a couple minutes of the picture above at AZA-accredited Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL.


I write this post not to shame this photographer, not to blindly defend these zoos from which the images originated, nor to stop you from raising questions about animals in captivity. I say this to remind you that anti-zoo propaganda is often manipulative and without balance. It is also nothing new and will happen again.

Don’t get me wrong, zoos are not perfect entities. And the people who work with animals in zoos know that. That’s why they’re constantly striving toward being better tomorrow than they were today.

What is often left out of the anti-zoo sentiment is that modern zoos dedicated to rescue, education, and conservation deserve a lot of praise. Species like the Przewalski’s horse, black-footed ferret, California condor, and more would be extinct without them. Hundreds of individual manatees, thousands of pinnipeds, and hundreds of thousands of birds have a second chance at life because they were rescued and rehabilitated at zoos. Every year, zoos donate millions of dollars to conservation projects around the world to try to ensure a future for endangered species. Scientists and researchers are even working with zoos to try to salvage functionally-extinct species through groundbreaking scientific techniques.

If you believe the public should have the opportunity to learn about animals, that individual animals deserve a second chance after injury or illness, and that the extinction of entire species is not an acceptable option, then don’t let these images fool you.

If you believe these things, you are a supporter of zoos.


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Vancouver Board Makes Irresponsible Decision for Whales and Dolphins

Two days ago, on March 9th, the Vancouver Aquarium’s role in conservation, rescue and rehabilitation, and research was forever altered after the Vancouver City Park’s board voted to prohibit the housing of cetacean species, which includes all whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums called the decision “troubling”. And, in a politically correct world they’re right. But, let’s not be politically correct for a second. Let’s be blunt. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call this ultimatum what it really is: irresponsible.

The Vancouver Aquarium has been a major contributor to cetacean research and conservation for the last fifty years. Notable projects include data collection of killer whale vocalizations, the metabolic rates of pacific white-sided dolphins, communication patterns between beluga mothers and offspring, echolocation abilities of multiple species, and the rescue and rehabilitation of several whales, dolphins, and porpoises, three of which still call the Vancouver Aquarium home.

Currently, the Aquarium houses only three cetaceans, Helen (Pacific white-sided dolphin), Chester (false killer whale), and Daisy (harbor porpoise). ALL of which were RESCUED.


Helen (foreground) and Chester interacting with members of their care team. (Image from

So, let’s walk through this step by step with Daisy as an example. Stranded for unknown reasons in 2008, Daisy was rescued as a one-month old calf suffering from severe dehydration, emaciation, and muscle loss. At first, she was so weak and malnourished, she did not have the ability to hold herself up in the water, let alone swim. After nearly a year of rehabilitation, during which time the Vancouver Aquarium’s animal care staff members gave her the best possible support through their knowledge and expertise, Daisy beat epically long odds and thrived. Deemed non-releasable due to the fact that she never learned to hunt and survive in the wild, the Vancouver Aquarium became her permanent home in 2009.

In the years that she’s lived at the Vancouver Aquarium since, Daisy’s story has touched hundreds of thousands of people. She’s helped educate the public about her species through presentations called “Porpoise Talks”, connected and interacted with guests as she displays her curious side, and participated in research studies that have helped reveal details about porpoises that are assisting researchers and conservationists in saving multiple cetacean species today.

Her journey also mattered when Levi, an adult male harbor porpoise stranded several years later in March of 2013. In the same way Daisy was not able to support herself in the water, neither was Levi, and in similar fashion to the previous situation, the experts at the Aquarium fashioned a custom-made raft and cared for him during his several months of rehabilitation. As he improved, Levi became a candidate for return to the wild. And, in September of 2013, six months after he was found stranded on the shore of Saanich Inlet, Levi was swimming in the ocean again.

But with the foolish decision made just two days ago, successful stories like Levi’s and Daisy’s, stories of survival and scientific progress, will become few and far between, if not completely nonexistent.

What happens next time? When an animal flounders, in need of help, who will be there to assist? Where will that animal go? Without the Vancouver Aquarium, which is one of Canada’s only teams with the expertise and availability  to save stranded cetaceans, the next time a porpoise, dolphin, or whale strands, that injured/ill animal will have to be transported several hours to the next rehabilitation center *IF* there is one available. And let’s hope there is, because the only other option is for the animal to be euthanized by drug or bolt gun.

There are repercussions for the actions set forth by this reckless decision. This vote, made for political reasons alone, in hopes to appease the, admittedly loud, but small, unqualified minority, is a setback in the scientific study of cetaceans and also jeopardizes the lives of future animals in distress.

Yet, while I am angry and distressed by those consequences, as all cetacean-lovers should be, I am not surprised that the board caved to aforementioned uninformed protestors.

We live in a blind society that values unscientific, short-sighted philosophies more than the wellbeing of individual animals and entire species.

We live in a society where documentary filmmakers attempt to damage and dismantle reputable zoological facilities with lies and twisted information without considering what that means for future distressed and stranded animals.

A society where the same soccer mom who condemns and vows to boycott world-renowned aquariums on Twitter also hypocritically demands “rescue the dolphin!”, not understanding how the same professional entities they choose to attack are needed in order to give that animal a future of any kind.

A society where PETA finds the money to brandish billboards with crass images and grossly tactless misinformation to slander the zoological community’s hard-working, well-educated animal care specialists who have dedicated their lives to reviving individual animals and researching whole species, and yet donates NOT A SINGLE DIME to cetacean rescue, research, or conservation.

Meanwhile, accredited organizations like the Vancouver Aquarium, are actively participating in research and conservation that directly benefits killer whales, belugas, harbor porpoises, and the most endangered marine mammal in the world: the vaquita.

In fact, some of the acoustic research conducted by researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium with the help of Daisy, is currently being used to help locate the remaining thirty individuals of the elusive vaquita species in hopes of bolstering the population and bringing them back from the very edge of extinction.


Vancouver Aquarium’s rescue team at work. (Image from

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are intriguing, charismatic animals, and as such, have garnered adoration and attention from many. Shutting down reputable zoos and aquariums, organizations that help research, conserve, and rescue animals is not helpful.

It’s harmful.

However, it is admirable to want to make a difference. Zoos and aquariums encourage and need your help, because when animals and species are in need, very rarely do the loudmouthed armchair-activists actually show up.

So, help.

Save the dolphins. Recycle discarded fishing line. Choose reusable bags instead of plastic when you go to the grocery store. Volunteer as part of a marine mammal rescue team.

Save the porpoises. Donate to VaquitaCPR. Refuse to participate in balloon releases. Organize a beach cleanup.

Save the whales. Eat sustainable seafood when you’re ordering fish at a restaurant. Visit a responsible zoo or aquarium involved in rescue, research, and conservation programs. And then, teach others how to care for them too.

We all have the power to make a difference for these animals, but it should be the right kind of difference. It should be one based on science. It should be one based on correct, factual information. It should be a responsible one full of action that benefits them now and in the future.

So, for the love of cetaceans, choose to make the right difference and pass it on.


Daisy. (Image from

[Correction: This post originally identified the Vancouver Aquarium’s board as the entity that voted on the prohibition of cetaceans. This is incorrect as the decision was, in fact, made by the Vancouver City Park board which controls the property currently leased by the accredited aquarium and this post has been changed to reflect that fact.]


Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo Strives to Ensure the Future of the Florida Manatee

In Need of Rescue

Most people who do not live in Florida, have never seen a Florida manatee. When, or if they do, many question what the robust creature might be: A walrus without tusks, maybe a manta ray, or a blimp (yes, really).

An average size of 10 feet long and roughly 1,500 pounds, these gentle marine mammals are known to be slow-moving herbivores that inhabit both salt and freshwater. Occasionally seen as far north as Massachusetts, and as far west as Texas, the majority of manatee sightings occur in the Sunshine State.

While these animals have no natural predators, roughly half of the deaths that occur in the adult population are human-related, primarily the result of watercraft collisions. Listed as an endangered species, several institutions work in an attempt to preserve this animal’s natural habitat, to educate people about the threats they face, and to rescue and rehabilitate injured or sick individuals.

Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo is the only non-profit manatee hospital in the world specifically dedicated to the care of this species and is one of only three facilities accredited for the critical care and rehabilitation of injured or ill manatees or orphaned/abandoned calves.


A rescued manatee comes to the surface.


The Zoo’s Efforts

Caring for any animal is an around the clock job. Manatees are no different. Depending on the injury and the necessary medical treatment that an individual needs, the zoo’s staff can perform several procedures a day per animal. Treatment ranges from skin exfoliation, to surgery, to bandaging a wound, to taking x-rays and even bottle-feeding.

One of the manatees currently being cared for at the zoo was rescued at just a few weeks old. Orphaned for an unknown reason, the little male called Jobin only weighed about 55lbs upon arrival but began putting on weight rapidly thanks to the manatee milk formula. Manatees are mammals and nurse their young, but, in this case, with no mother nearby, the manatee caretakers stepped in as surrogates, providing a bottle of thick milk specially made for these instances.

Several aspects of the manatee exhibit and hospital are specially designed for similar rehabilitation scenarios. The manatee hospital is equipped with rising floor technology, meaning that the area in which some of the above procedures take place, the patient can be “dry docked”. These types of floors are sometimes referred to as “false bottoms” and rise completely to the surface of the water, supporting the animal’s weight and the team of professionals attempting to help it. This method is considered the safest for the animal and the least stress-producing overall.

When the procedure is finished, the floor is slowly lowered, easing the animal back into its aquatic world. There, the manatee can return to its typical activities of sleeping, swimming, and eating.

Big Expenses and New Initiatives

Eating is a big part of a manatee’s day and a big part of the zoo’s budget. Because a healthy manatee can consume roughly ten percent of its body weight in vegetation every day, that really adds up for the Lowry Park Zoo! In fact, the manatees are the most expensive animal in the park to feed, and that includes their close cousins, the elephants.

Depending on how many individuals are in their care, the zoo’s manatee population goes through fifteen to upwards of fifty cases of lettuce each day, adding up to several tons per week!


A rescued manatee munches on romaine lettuce.

A rescued manatee munches on romaine lettuce.

Along with the city of Tampa, the Lowry Park Zoo has begun a new pilot program in which they harvest vegetation from nearby reservoirs. Not only does this offset some of the costs that the zoo incurs, but it also helps the local environment because the two plant species harvested twice a week, hydrilla and hyacinth, are both invasive species in the state of Florida. This means that these plants are not native to the area, but rather introduced, with the unfortunate potential to cause economic and/or ecological harm.

Luckily, Florida manatees seem to find these two plants particularly appetizing, and, in the wild, an adult manatee can consume roughly one hundred to two hundred pounds of these hyacinth and hydrilla per day, keeping the growth of these weeds at bay. This is one of the reasons that manatees considered to be valuable within the ecosystem. Without the Florida manatee to consume these plants, they would overrun the waterways, obstructing the flow of water, hindering boat traffic, and potentially impeding animals’ movement through the environment.

Making a Difference

Although the Florida manatee is listed as endangered on the IUCN’s red list, there is still hope for these creatures. With the help of facilities like the Lowry Park Zoo, who rescues, rehabilitates, and returns to the wild manatees brought back to health, the population has increased over the last twenty years. In 1991, when the zoo’s manatee hospital opened its doors for the first time, less than 1,500 individuals were spotted along the east and west coasts of Florida. However, in the most recent aerial survey in January 2014, researchers counted almost five thousand individuals.

Some of the manatees in the care of the Lowry Park Zoo spend twelve to eighteen months being rehabilitated. Once the zoo staff and officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who coordinate the rescues and returns of manatees, deem the animal “medically clear”, the team can properly prepare the animal for return to its natural environment. This is the hope for little Jobin, who is rapidly becoming big Jobin! According to the zoo, he is on track to be returned to his native waters this coming winter.

Help at Home

Rescuing, rehabilitating, and eventually returning manatees to the wild costs the Lowry Park Zoo about one million dollars every year. Being that this project is a non-profit endeavor, the zoo relies heavily on the public’s support. One of the ways that you can help is by donating to the zoo and becoming a part of the “Manatee Match” initiative. For every two dollars donated, one dollar is matched by the Tampa residents Marylou and Jim Bailey as the zoo works to make improvements to the David A. Straz, Jr Manatee Hospital, the zoo’s signature conservation campaign.


You can donate online... Or at the zoo!

You can donate online… Or at the zoo!

Every little bit helps!

Every little bit helps!


Habits that you practice at home can make a difference for these animals too, especially if you live anywhere near this animal’s natural habitat. Make sure that if you are boating, you are abiding by posted signs and keeping an eye out for the grey back and snouts of manatees. And if you are fishing, properly dispose of or recycle monofilament line, and if you are lucky enough to see one of these animals, abide by the “Look, Don’t Touch” rule in order to avoid disturbing the animal.

You can even download this free app that allows you to log your sighting which helps the Save Manatee Club track manatees.

Another way to help? Educate yourself and your friends using the links at the bottom of the page. You can also visit the Lowry Park Zoo for more information and maybe even enjoy an up close encounter with one of these creatures. Plan in advance to be there during November for the zoo’s celebration of Manatee Awareness Month and become one of the one million guests that annually discover the next steps we can all take to help conserve the Florida Manatee population.

Thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

Video of a Lowry Park manatee return

Lowry Park Zoo professionals talk about the rehabilitation process

Lowry Park’s Manatee Bio

Save the Manatee Club’s Website

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission