All posts by njt74

Pouakai Zoo and an Ethics of Sight by Shannon Johnstone

This weekend I visited the Pouakai Zoo in New Plymouth, Aotearoa New Zealand, which has recently received national attention over accusations of neglect and poor living conditions evidenced in a series of photographs. An investigation by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and a petition promoted by Taranaki Animal Save has ensued. The initial MPI check began on Wednesday, March 6 with a zoo visit accompanied by a veterinarian. They found “no urgent animal welfare issues to be addressed.

As a photographer, photography professor, and PhD candidate studying the ethics of picturing animal suffering, this story piqued my interest.

Located about 13 kilometers south of the New Plymouth city center, this Taranaki zoo is privately-owned, unaccredited, charges an admission fee, and exhibits both wild and domestic animals. Animal rights activists have a term that they use for places like this – “roadside zoo” – and they legally exist in almost every Western nation. While there is no legal definition for a roadside zoo, they share several common characteristics, such as being privately owned; having no accreditation by a third-party (i.e. AZA, ZAA); charging an admission fee; and exhibiting non-domesticated ‘wild’ animals.

In New Zealand, it is legal for someone to own certain wild animals (i.e. elephants, lions, bears, monkeys, butterflies, alligators, frogs, and owls) as long as they operate as a ‘zoo.’ All zoos must be licensed by the government. Licensing in NZ is much stricter and more comprehensive than in other countries such as the USA. For instance, New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act 1999 provides a 40 page document called “Code of Welfare: Zoos” that outlines the minimum standards of care for zoo animals. Under NZ law, the term ‘animal’ includes warm- and cold-blooded animals as well as invertebrates. While this document is not species specific and is open to interpretation in many areas, it provides an example of how a government can offer some welfare protection to animals in non-accredited zoos. However, an NZ exhibitor license is limited. It is, for example, nowhere near as comprehensive as the standards required to become an accredited zoo. In fact, there are several places within the Code of Welfare document (i.e. zoographic, rehab, and reproductive policies) that recommend consulting with a ZAA accrediting body.

During my visit to Pouakai Zoo, the owner of the zoo approached me as I was photographing and told me about the bad press they had received. He explained how easily photographs can manipulate truth. He said that while the photographs shared by the Taranaki Animal Save are beautiful, they don’t give the full story. As an example, he explained that the capuchin pictured, Cora, has a form of alopecia and she is 38 years-old, and her small size and body condition are due to gender and old age. He told me that capuchins are very smart and examine everything. He explained that in the image where Cora is peeling a bit of paint off the walls, she was just getting into mischief and exploring her enclosure. I was struck by this conversation because framing the issue of animal captivity as a photographic problem is exactly what my research is about.

The owner has an astute point—photographs will always give a biased account and cannot show the full picture. Most often, a photograph fails to show the complex cultural conditions that allow what is seen in the photograph to exist. These invisible conditions embodying the photograph are what photo historian Shawn Michelle Smith calls photographic “blind spots”— and they shape what we see, but we don’t “see” them.

In the case of the Pouakai Zoo, the photographic blind spot lies not in the conditions of a particular animal, but in anthropocentrism— the premise that human lives matter above all else. With zoos, our anthropocentric cultural blind spot is a type of affected ignorance because we ignore the science proving wild animals suffer brain damage  and chronic stress in captivity.

However, there is nothing uniquely cruel or unusual about the Pouakai Zoo. The animals who live there fare far better than some of the others I have seen in my visits to 30 different roadside zoos.

What is cruel are the laws and culture that make roadside zoos possible in the first place.

In order to change this we need what Lori Gruen calls “an ethics of sight”—an opportunity to reflect not just what we see, but how we see. Gruen calls on artists and authors to help change this gaze.

In response, I created a series of inverted photographs called “Roadside Zoo: Captive Glow” that hopefully allow us to see these zoo animals differently. My hope is that these images create empathy as they highlight the loss of agency and the untenable cruelty of keeping animals in zoos, a cruelty that exists in plain sight.

Image information (in order):

  • Don’t Throw Rocks, from a roadside zoo in Virginia, USA
  • Bear Spectacle, from a roadside zoo in Wisconsin, USA
  • Michael, from a roadside zoo in West Virginia, USA
  • Tiger World Cub, from a roadside zoo in North Carolina, USA
  • Ostrich,  from Pouakai Zoo, New Plymouth, Aotearoa, NZ

Artist statement Roadside Zoo: Captive Glow

I began “Roadside Zoo” as a documentary style photography project with an emphasis on seeing these captive animals as beings forced to live as a caged spectacle. (Roadside zoos are privately owned unaccredited zoos that typically charge an admission fee.) Although the “straight” photographs speak to me about isolation and despair, I fear they don’t communicate the boredom, rage, and loneliness that comes with a life spent in captivity. I fear the unmediated image looks far too similar to what someone else might see as a fun outing. Thus, I have inverted a selection of these images illuminating the captive animals. The animals literally glow with their bodies emanating heat, and along with it a loss of agency and a lifetime of confinement. By inverting the image, I hope our perception of imprisoned animals is also inverted.

“Roadside Zoo: Captive Glow” is a series of inverted photographs that highlight the loss of agency and the untenable cruelty of keeping animals in zoos.

Shannon is a PhD candidate at NZCHAS. more about her various projects can be found HERE.

NZCHAS Seminar: Meat Culture and the Rhetoric of Sustainability

The New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies (NZCHAS) welcomes you to the following seminar:



Éilis Espiner, Master of Policy and Governance with Distinction, candidate for the PhD in Human-Animal Studies @ NZCHAS

Professor Annie Potts (Cultural Studies), Co-director of NZCHAS

Professor Nik Taylor (Human Services), Co-director of NZCHAS

ABSTRACT: Climate change and the need to feed an ever increasing human population demand significant changes in the way we produce food. Research consistently demonstrates that adopting a plant-based, or vegan, diet would significantly help address this vital issue. Despite this, consumption of meat and dairy continues to grow aided in part by sustainability rhetoric that urges superficial changes to animal agricultural practices rather than abolition, and those speaking out against the consumption of meat and dairy often face ridicule and anger. We consider these issues within the framework of ‘meat culture’ – the idea that animal agriculture, human consumption of its products, and a wilful ignorance of its effects on the animals caught in its processes, are so normalised within many cultures as to be virtually invisible.

Tuesday 26 September from 1230-2pm in Link 309.

Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha/University of Canterbury

Digital Storytelling for Critical Animal Studies Learning

I (Nik Taylor) teach a critial animal studies class at the University of Canterbury in Aotearoa New Zealand. The class, Humans, Animals and Society, takes a broadly sociological approach to the study of human relationships with other animals by focussing on the ways that our – arbitrary – social construction of other animals impacts their (mal)treatment and normalised oppression in everyday practices.

One of the challenges in this class for both teachers and learners is the confrontational nature of the content (I’ve written, with Heather Fraser, more about teaching controversial issues in animal studies in this volume, Teaching Liberation). As a result of these challenges, I’m always looking for ways to help students manage the feelings the material inevitably brings up. This year, with the helps of Julie Wuthnow and Roseanna Brailsford from the University of Canterbury’s Academic Skills centre, I set a digital storytelling assignment for the students.

Digital storytelling, when used in a shcolarly setting, ‘involves students integrating academic research, scholarly communication, and digital skills to create digital content’ (Schrum et al, 2021). It has the potential to ensure students are engaged in authentic learning particularly when the problems the assessment focusses on are complex and often ill-defined (as they are in human-animal relations), and it can also lead to/augment the kinds of transformative pedadgogy that my particular course is based on (Schrum et al, 2021).

Students were set the task of creating a 1-2 minute video on one aspect of how their relationship to and/or thinking about other animals had changed throughout the course. The assignment was integrated throughout the course with several workhops over the duration of the semester focussing on scripting, story structure, and, using relevant technology, and we showed all the videos (students could choose to opt out) in a final session of the course.

Student feedback indicates that they very much enjoyed the task, seeing it as a chance to get creative, as something different from the usual essay based work they were set, and as something that helped them think through the various emotional repsonses they had to the course material. At the end of the final class, I aksed students if they would be willing to have their videos hosted on this site, and several of them gave their permission. You can see those videos below.

Originally posted on the Animals in Society: Animal Studies Scholar Advocacy blog.