In Photos: What zoo captivity looks like around the world

captive animal series photo
© Gaston Lacombe

Zoos are one of the more ethically dodgy areas for conservationists and animal lovers. On the one hand, there are many zoos doing amazing work, acting as the last refuge and hope for critically endangered species, and as a place of education and engagement for people learning about wildlife and the need for conservation around the globe. They care about their animals and do everything possible to provide enriching and healthy enclosures. And yet, there are also many, many zoos that act solely as a business to make money at the expense of caged animals, and put little if any effort into making an enclosure a comfortable or even safe place for that animal to be.

The plight of captive animals getting the care and living environment they need is one that quite a few conservation photographers have taken on to varied degrees. One such photographer has created an extraordinarily compelling series that documents what captivity looks like for many animals around the world. Gaston Lacombe has traveled all over the globe and the following images are a sampling of what he has documented.

These real, emotionally compelling -- simply heartbreaking -- photos that tell a single story: this is what captivity too often looks like, even in countries where we wouldn't expect such dire conditions.

Lacombe tells me, "These images were taken on five continents, in nine countries, including the USA and Canada. Many people often assume that photos like this cannot come from North America, but about half of them are. In fact I've seen some of the worst animal habitats in the USA and Canada. So I prefer not to identify where the images are from, but rather let people understand that this is a problem, wherever you are located."

"I've seen many zoos that do make a great effort to give their animals adequate living conditions, but often, that applies only to the most attractive, ticket-selling [species]. The tigers and the gorillas might have great habitats, but the birds, the lizards and the small mammals are still in small cement enclosures, with no natural light, and the only vegetation they see are the trees painted on the wall. At the other end of the spectrum, there are many zoos that are nothing more than places of animal torture, and should be closed right now," Lacombe says.

"I often get asked if I get special access to these zoos," says Lacombe. "The answer is no. I go as a regular visitor, and I insist on photographing from that perspective. I want to confront the viewer with what they would see on a regular visit, and force them to look beyond the animal. Too many people are distracted, I find, by the cute, fuzzy animal, and fail to see the deplorable habitat it is kept in."

Lacombe's images have a purpose to be sure. But it is not necessarily activism against zoos, but activism around what we as visitors will require from these places. "The intention is not to say that all zoos should be closed. Rather, I ask the viewer to reflect on what happens when we use animals for display and entertainment, and to trigger a discussion on what we need to change. In this world where many species are going extinct, where habitat is getting destroyed, zoos could play a different kind of role. Zoos are also very important for education, but at what price for the animals. How can we strike a better balance?"

In Photos: What zoo captivity looks like around the world
Photographer Gaston Lacombe's beautiful and heartrending series of photographs of captive animals at zoos across five continents.

Related Content on