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.]


St. Augustine Alligator Farm Makes History with Hatching of Indian Gharial

The Indian gharial is among one of the largest crocodilian species, with males able to reach lengths of just under twenty feet and weigh nearly four hundred pounds. Upon hatching, however, the reptile measures around twelve to fifteen inches long and weighs just one quarter of a pound. Indian gharials generally begin to display courtship behaviors in December, mate in January and February, and lay their eggs in March and April. In captive environments, these animals have proven difficult to breed in the past, the only successes coming from programs in the animals’ native homeland of India and Nepal.

That changed on June 12, 2016 with the hatching of an Indian gharial at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Zoos Are Important is thrilled that director and general manager of the zoo, John Brueggen, agreed to this written interview to give us more insight into this milestone for the species.


Zoos Are Important: Thank you so much for agreeing to share your time and answer some questions about your conservation success!

Let’s get to know you first. What is your personal history with the zoological field and, specifically, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm?

John Brueggen: I told my parents I was going to be a zoo keeper at age 5.  I have worked at Lowry Park Zoo, Bush Gardens, Walt Disney World, and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.  I came to the Alligator Farm over 16 years ago as the General Curator, and was promoted to Director about 10 years ago.


ZAI: What is the St Augustine Alligator Farm’s history with the Indian gharial species?

JB: In 1993, our zoo became the only zoo in the world to house every species of crocodilian in the world.  We opened an attraction called “Land of Crocodiles”, and the gharials display was one of the new exhibits.  Since that time we have been growing up our one male and two females in an attempt to reproduce them.  We worked with Purina’s zoo diet team to create a special diet for the gharial, whom normally only consume fish in the wild. In 2011, one of our female gharial laid eggs but she just dropped them in the water.  We didn’t even know she was pregnant and she was letting us know that there was not a suitable place to lay her eggs.   In 2012 we built a large sand bank in the exhibit, similar to the sandbanks in India where female gharial are known to lay their eggs.  In 2012 and 2014 one of our female gharial laid eggs in the sandbank, but only a few of the eggs were fertile and though one egg grew to a full term hatchling it did not survive to hatch out of the egg. In 2013 we traveled to India to meet with a the [sic] team at the Madras Crocodile Bank, as they have experience breeding gharial in India. We picked their brains about water temperatures, diet, and incubation techniques. When we returned home we invested more energy in heating water during the winter and making sure our sand mound was at the right height and angle.  Then this year, on April 7 we collected some fertile eggs from the nesting sandbank.  We carefully transferred them to our incubators because the sandbank was not warm enough for embryo development.  Finally, on June 12, 2016 a beautiful little snout poked its way out of one of the eggs.



Indian gharial hatching at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. (Photo from St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Facebook page)


ZAI: Can you explain what a Species Survival Plan (SSP) is and how it helps with species conservation?

JB: The Species Survival Plan (SSP) is a program in which zoos can work together to help save a species.  No one zoo can do all the conservation work for a singe [sic] species.  By working together, we create a large breeding population of animals across North America.  For example, our zoo is not capable of housing and breeding all the Chinese Alligators that are in captivity, but by working with all the zoos that have Chinese Alligators, we can work together to have a large breeding group.  There is a computerized studbook that makes recommendations each year as to which individual should breed with which other to maintain the best genetic diversity for the next 100 years.  That may mean that a female from our facility has to be moved to breed with a male in Toledo, but by making these adjustments and pairings each year we create a genetically diverse population.  We have been so successful at this that we have even been able to take some of our Chinese Alligator offspring and release them into protected habitat in China.


ZAI: Can you explain the process your team has gone through in the recent weeks from the female Indian gharial laying the eggs to the first hatch?

JB: A few years ago we received a very generous donation of some very precise incubators.  When we found the eggs in our nesting beach, we very carefully transferred the eggs to these new incubators.  Crocodilian eggs have to be kept at the perfect temperature and humidity, and these incubators did it perfectly!  Just about 60 days later, out popped a baby gharial.


ZAI: Why is this hatchling in particular so important and what does this successful breeding mean for the species going forward?

JB: We are hoping that this is just the first of may [sic] breedings over the next ten years.  We are the first zoo in the western hemisphere to crack the code, but we hope that our zoo partners in other AZA zoos with adult gharial will soon follow suit.  Our little guy will need a girl to breed with in the future!  This breeding is just the first step in an ongoing conservation puzzle.  If we are able to breed enough gharial in the future to release them back into the wild, there needs to be a suitable place in the wild to release them.  Captive breeding is only a small piece of the overall conservation of this species.  What this little hatchling represents is hope.  More people now know about an animal called a gharial because of this one little hatchling.  Before reading this story, many people had never even heard of this animal.


ZAI: Being that the Indian gharial is critically endangered, is there hope of reintroducing some of these captive-bred individuals into their native habitat?

JB: These animals currently have some head start programs in their native countries.  Just like we do with sea turtles, there are groups that hatch gharial, raise them until they are a size that they might survive, and then release them into the wild.  The real issues have to do with whether or not there will continue to be enough pristine habitat left for them to survive.  Sand is a valuable commodity in India and people are literally stealing the gharials’ nesting sandbanks.


ZAI: Do guests have the ability to view your new addition?

JB: We will evaluate the hatchling over the next few weeks to determine how it is doing, make sure it is eating, etc.  Then we can make a decision about displaying him.


ZAI: What can we, as the general public, do to help the Indian gharial going forward?

Support your local zoo and all the great work they do!

There is a lot of information about gharial at:

Financial contributions can be made at:


ZAI: Thank you again for your time! Please extend our congratulations to your team!

JB: Thank you!



Congratulations to the whole St. Augustine Alligator Farm team! (Photo from St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Facebook page)


Learning Links:

St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Research Blog

St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s participation in Species Survival Plans

Indian Gharial feeding time at Lowry Park Zoo

Indian Gharial training techniques at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo