Tag Archives: politics of sight

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.