I promised to post a short edit of my project documenting China’s urban zoos a couple weeks ago, and it’s taken me a bit longer than expected to get it up here. Here it is, finally.
China’s zoos are just about the most depressing place in the world. Once beautiful, once majestic, the animals are, in some cases quite literally, wasting away in their cages. I’ve seen animals with open, festering sores (the puma below), a cow whose overgrown hooves looked skis (pictures couldn’t be made), muzzled animals performing for screaming fans or posing for photographs (the bear below), and countless animals either listless and unkempt in their filthy confines, or angry and frustrated, pacing back and forth in their too small cages.
The zoos are enormously popular. From Beijing in the north to Sanya in the south, and many places inbetween (Hefei, Shanghai, Nanjing, Qingdao, Tianjin, and elsewhere) the conditions of the animals are uniformly awful. But the crowds pour in. Ticket prices are low, sometimes less than a dollar and never more than 5 dollars per person, it’s a cheap and easy way to entertain children and the family for the day. Just as in the rest of the world, the zoos offer the only chance for the Chinese population (majority urban, as of this year) to come face to face with the wide wild world outside of the cities. In China, again much like in the rest of the world, the development of these cities is a major reason that these animals’ habitat is disappearing. There are greater problems in China, surely, but the zoos serve as stark contrast between China’s once great wilderness and its now great cities.
I started going to zoos when I first moved to China in fall 2007, mostly due to an episode of the excellent radio show Radiolab about the development of zoos from the Roman Coliseum to now. China is by no means the only culprit in the horrible treatment of captive animals. Abuse in zoos and circuses is widespread, and the world’s leading zoos only started housing animals in habitat-style cages in the 1970s, starting with a gorilla enclosure at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. China’s well behind the curve on the refurbishment of their urban zoos, but there are glimmers of hope.
In many of the zoos, the most active and most popular animals now live in enclosures approaching a habitat. The zoo in Hefei, Anhui Province, where the chimpanzee picture at the top of the post was taken, recently opened a large, open grassy and rocky area for their tigers. Pandas often have open play spaces, and macaques and other small monkeys usually live in so-called “Monkey Hills,” which resemble playground jungle gyms. But more often that not, the animals in these zoos spend the majority of their time in small, dirty concrete and iron boxes.
I started photographing the project in black and white, but quickly switched to color when I saw the conditions of the cages. The chimpanzee picture at the top, for instance, relies on the color difference between the warm glow of a heater and the cold, snowy landscape outside. The bright color of peeling paint on the walls of an empty macaque enclosure would lose its impact in black and white. The animals’ vibrant fur contrasts strongly against the drab concrete.
Two major themes in the work, reflections and iron bars, came about as efforts to illustrate the animals’ captivity. The bars offer a literal metaphor to prisons and jails. In many western zoos, these iron bars no longer exist, but in China, they give the animal something to fight against. A bear wraps its claws around the fencing, or a cheetah tries to stare down visitors only to have its eyes, the very weapon of its ferocity, blocked by the cage. In the picture of the Pere David’s deer with cut antlers, the bars strip the animal of its identity, just as when its antlers were removed.
The reflections give the viewer the chance to see what lies beyond the cage and, in fact, beyond the frame of the picture. Whether a desolate snowy landscape, luscious foliage, or the crowded press of tourists, the animals are often far removed from even their most immediate surroundings. This is both good and bad. The glass (partially, in the case of the raccoons) prevents the crowds from feeding junk food to the animal or throwing water bottles at them, but for others it means they can’t reach their source for food and other necessities.
As I wrote above, the conditions are slowly improving. Here’s hoping that they’ll continue on the path toward adequate and humane facilities for the animals.
photos and words (c) M. Scott Brauer. Contact Scott for licensing: scott dot brauer at gmail dot com.