By Karin Brulliard

Jo-Anne McArthur, a Canadian photographer and animal rights activist, does not deny that her new book could be called "one-sided." That is sort of the point.

The images in "Captive" were taken at zoos across five continents, but they don't include depictions of handlers bottle-feeding baby hippos, giving pandas ultrasounds or even cleaning cages. They're taken from the perspective of the public, and, McArthur said, aim to show the animals as "individuals," as opposed to representatives of their species. The photos are unusual and at times arresting, featuring solitary animals juxtaposed against gawking crowds, suburbia and the barriers that keep them enclosed.

A barbary macaque at a zoo in Germany.
A barbary macaque at a zoo in Germany. "This image is paired with the conclusion of the book. I like that we can't quite tell who is handing the vegetation to whom." Photo / Jo-Anne McArthur

The book is unabashedly anti-zoo, but McArthur says she hopes it will count as a contribution to an escalating public conversation about animals in captivity - one that has been highlighted by uproar over Sea World orcas and the killing of Harambe the gorilla, but that is also churning quietly among zoo managers.


What follows is a Q and A with McArthur about her book, accompanied by a selection of photos from the book, paired with her captions. All images were taken in 2016.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A baltic grey seal at a Lithuanian zoo.
A baltic grey seal at a Lithuanian zoo. "This seal appeared to live alone in this small pool." Photo / Jo-Anne McArthur

Q: What was your experience with zoos before this project?

A: I have an early childhood memory of a zoo in Hawaii. An orangutan was defecating in its hand, smearing it on a tree and eating it. All the tourists were laughing and screaming about it and taking photos. Our family also took photographs. I'd only visited one or two other zoos as a child. People often refer to the "love" I have for animals. That's correct, but only partly so. I've also always had a concern for animals. I've often felt sad for them. Seeing them on display seemed so awkward to me. Staring, being stared at. I know I'm not alone in this sentiment.

Arctic wolves at a zoo in Germany.
Arctic wolves at a zoo in Germany. "This image asks the question of whether the boredom animals in zoos experience day in day out can justify our fleeting entertainment." Photo / Jo-Anne McArthur

Q: It's clear you're not a fan of zoos now. Was there a turning point?

A: I don't remember a turning point. I just remember always being on the side of the animals when it came to seeing them, living with them, and the rest. I remember always feeling that it wasn't fair to the individuals that they were kept in zoos, that there were dogs locked up in back yards, birds kept in cages.

Rothschild's giraffe at a German zoo.
Rothschild's giraffe at a German zoo. "This shows just how far we remove animals from their natural habitats. The distance we put between them and their homes is accentuated." Photo / Jo-Anne McArthur

Q: Did you go behind the scenes at the zoos you photographed or stay on the visitors' side?

A: I've been behind the scenes, and I have a lot of zoo friends, and over the years I have heard their private complaints and worries. In the early 2000s, when I was still doing work as a photographer's assistant, a fashion photographer knew I loved animals, and so invited me to do a three-day shoot with him. The zoo was making money renting out the animals. The animal that afternoon was a bald eagle. Behind the scenes were rows and rows of large, caged birds. The eagle was tethered by the ankle and made to sit under the hot lights of the shoot on a white backdrop, perched on a cow skull, next to a leather boot, which was the item being advertised. The bird was panting and kept trying to fly away. The bird would fly the length of the tether and then get yanked back and upside down, hanging by the tether, then righted by the handler, then put back on the cow skull to be photographed. My zoo friends quietly express their woes to me about things the visitors don't know or see, like new animal introductions that go wrong and end in death; animals caught in wiring and fencing, found dead in the morning; families separated again and again for breeding programs.

A jaguar at a French zoo.
A jaguar at a French zoo. "This is another image about us, more so than about the animal at the center of the photograph." Photo / Jo-Anne McArthur

Q: How do you think that affected the portrayal of zoos in your book?

A: The book will get some criticism for being one-sided. But it's important to remember that zoos are one-sided, and we need to see more of the darker corners so that we can continue to discuss the problems with captivity. The images in "Captive" will help to further enliven the discussion about the individuals caught in these systems. The zoo conversation often loops back to conservation efforts and species preservation, at the expense of the individuals. From the outside, we see zoo marketing. From the inside, as visitors, the zoo also shapes how we see, and fail to see, the animals - from the groomed pathways, the music, to all the supplementary entertainment. I want us to remember that we might pass through a zoo in two or three hours and return home to our families, friends, and a life of relative autonomy. Zoo animals, however, remain there long after we've gone. I try to show what that might be like for them.

White tigers at a French zoo.
White tigers at a French zoo. "Two tigers look past their enclosure at the tourists and at the zoo keepers who distribute food to them throughout the day." Photo / Jo-Anne McArthur

Q: You're pretty dismissive of zoos' wildlife conservation efforts. Why? Isn't there a range of commitment to these programs?

A: What I'm trying to do is get the conversation away from the conservation crutch. "But, conservation!" is the go-to response to anyone challenging the many ethical issues confronting zoos today. Zoos have done a great job marketing conservation efforts when in fact most of their money is spent on other projects.

Captive animals are bored, lonely, separated from their families and friends? But, conservation.

Marius, the giraffe killed and publicly dissected by a Danish zoo, was "culled" because he was genetic surplus? But, conservation.

Yes, please tell me about all the successful conservation happening. Show me the successful reintroduction of gorillas into the wild. The giraffes, too. Tell me about elephant conservation. Zoos use the conservation angle to this day to justify the catching of wild animals, including African elephants as recently as 2016, and bringing them to American zoos.

A polar bear at a Latvian zoo.
A polar bear at a Latvian zoo. "This bear lives alone in this small, barren exhibit. I was struck by the design of the enclosure and its attempt to replicate a cold climate." Photo / Jo-Anne McArthur

Q: You single out the Detroit Zoo as worthy of praise. What makes it so different? It still holds captive animals.

A: It does, yes, and they are the first to say that they have a long way to go before they reach their goals. I encourage people to look at the zoo reform happening there. For example, they moved their elephants to a sanctuary in a warmer climate because they felt that keeping them in Detroit was ethically untenable. Most zoos won't make a move like that because of the perceived lost revenue. Detroit Zoo, however, used it as an opportunity to talk about the ethics of captivity and to show that they wanted to be leaders in zoo reform. Their polar bears are rescued and have enough space to hide from the public. There's a huge focus on humane education programs. They have a 4-D theatre, where visitors can see animals in their natural habitat. This year they hosted a global symposium on zoo and aquarium animal welfare.

Zoos know they are in the spotlight, and not in a good way. Many zoos are interested in meaningful reform, where others are looking at how they can spin things to look like they are. Zoos are neither immutable nor inevitable and, in their current form, most are archaic. Zoos need to evolve to suit the more compassionate ethics of our time.

Antelope, at a German zoo.
Antelope, at a German zoo. "Our experiences at zoos are, for the most part, about our entertainment. This comes at the expense of those who are kept captive." Photo / Jo-Anne McArthur

Q: What do you want people to take away from your book?

A: "Captive" is my contribution to the ongoing mainstream discussion about the ethics of captivity. We lack critical thinking when it comes to facing other species. We face them without seeing them - interactions depicted frequently throughout the book. I'd like the people who see this book to become part of the growing numbers who are taking zoos to task. I'd like the book's audience to reconsider visiting zoos, and put their support behind efforts that help animals, such as wildlife centers, sanctuaries and in-situ conservation projects. We can also learn so much more seeing animals filmed in high definition in their natural habitats than by looking at an isolated animal behind a grubby sheet of Plexiglas.