2017 was not a good year for photography and me. The reasons were all over the map. Rainy days keeping me indoors during the winter, outrageous heat doing the same in spring and summer. The allure (read: guilt) of long-neglected projects keeping me close to home, the feeling that I’d mined local opportunities for photos making me want to wander. And, often, an inexplicable ennui: Yes, that’s an interesting bird out there, but it’ll be gone by the time I can get the camera, and my tea will get cold, so I’ll just sit here and watch it instead.
But October had finally come and the temperatures had largely dropped out of the 100s (a disturbing meteorological note, as historical average for the time of year is the low 70s), and though hotels hadn’t yet declared winter season in Santa Barbara the mad crush of summer tourists had dwindled. I love photographing wildlife, and had heard good things about the local zoo, and it was, after all, just a short hop.
The Santa Barbara Zoo sprawls across thirty acres of grassy parkland, asphalt paths winding seamlessly among animal enclosures, picnic spaces, a climbing wall and, inevitably, gift shops. A cheery little train circles the park at regular intervals, offering tours to less mobile visitors. It is, as with all things Santa Barbara, a little pricey, though if the lines at the front gate were any indication the annual membership is a popular way to minimize the cost.
After crossing the petite train tracks, navigating the shops, and pausing to admire elegant black swans drifting along a reed-lined stream, we stepped into the double-gated aquatic aviary. Small children stampeded through, perhaps pausing briefly to ogle the improbably bright patchwork of the resident mandarin duck but otherwise, frustrated and bored, demanding to know where more interesting denizens like gorillas and giraffes and lions resided.
I lingered there, stymied in my efforts to capture the likeness of the mandarin. Was it the size of the enclosure, thwarting the optimal range of my 300 mm lens? Was it the complex reflections of the particolored plumage against the pea green water? Or was the elusive avian the reincarnation of some camera shy human who had figured out how to scramble the physical manifestation of his soul?
Finally I gave up and moved on to more promising subjects, the flamingos and turtles and tortoises. They seemed content enough, lazing in the sun or feeding their chicks, free of the predators that would harry them in the wild, all of them threatened in their native environment by habitat degradation or, in the case of the desert tortoises, cars.
It was a story told over and over again on the placards next to the exhibits. Gibbons, technically protected in their native Asian rainforests but in fact often victimized by poachers who kill adults to capture and sell their young offspring as pets. The Masai giraffe is also vulnerable to poaching, while the Rüppell’s griffon vulture population declines are attributable to both human use as medicine and incidental poisonings by ranchers retaliating against lions and hyenas; the poisonings alone can be responsible for anywhere between 37 and 600 vulture fatalities per toxic carcass.
Accredited zoos like Santa Barbara’s work to stem the tide of loss, both through breeding programs (they’ve had considerable success with the giraffes, where six have been born in the past four years) and raising public awareness. It’s a laudable goal. And yet…I always start to feel a little uneasy wandering through a zoo, and this day was no exception.
I had seen the signs advertising giraffe feeding, but didn’t expect the mob of people gathered around what looked like nothing so much as parking meters adapted for pellet dispensing. Still, the animals seemed happy enough, gently accepting food from visitors, ambling elsewhere in their generously sized enclosure when they’d had enough. Giraffes, as it happens, are sociable creatures, wandering their native African savannas and forests in loose, non-territorial herds, spending most of their time consuming the seventy-five pounds per day of leaves that they need to sustain themselves. Without much effort I could imagine contentment into their days at the zoo, full of food and company, raising their young without lions prowling nearby.
It was the griffon vultures who first stirred feelings of discomfort. Turkey vultures are a common sight in my neighborhood, and over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to observe the rhythm of their days. As soon as the sun is up and their wings are warmed they spend hours chasing thermals, vanishing to dots as they turn lazy circles skyward, hurtling into clear view again as they lose the lift and start the hunt for the next. The griffon vultures’ enclosure at the zoo was generous, but certainly not generous enough for that – hardly enough, given their wingspan, for them to even truly fly. And so they walked or hopped from branch to branch, and my spirit sank a little as I watched them.
The feeling only intensified as we wandered amidst other animals that the frustrated and bored boys in the aviary would deem “interesting.” The snow leopard snoozed in the afternoon sun, but his enclosure seemed small for an animal known to jump up to thirty feet. A pair of elephants strolled deliberately across their courtyard, pausing to throw dirt over their backs, but I couldn’t help remembering that in the wild they live in tight matriarchal bands of between eight and a hundred individuals, and this seemed a pale imitation. Yes, bald eagles will eat carrion when they must, but their preferred food is salmon caught fresh from a stream, so there was something heartbreaking about the dead rats strewn on the ground. But the gorilla hiding behind his puzzle feeder made me the saddest, and though I lingered to take a few pictures I quickly hurried away.
When I was a child, I loved zoos. I would pick an animal – a zebra, or a wombat, or a leopard – and sit quietly watching, waiting for it to notice me and in the recesses of its zebra, wombat or leopard brain decide, “Yes! I want a relationship with that little girl!” Of course it never happened. When I was older, I moved away from the city into oak woodlands and learned what it meant to be not a spectator but a creature alongside other creatures, all of us living our parallel lives. The desire for relationship fell away as the conviction grew that it would be all too one-sided, an exercise in anthropomorphism instead of affection. And so, perhaps not unexpectedly, my love of zoos fell sharply away with it.
The violent antipathy that filled the resulting void has over the years softened to a resigned dismay. If we were better stewards of the land we wouldn’t need captive breeding programs. If we were more compassionate we would fund the self-created necessity of captive breeding programs without demanding that the recipients of our largesse be on display for our viewing pleasure. But “don’t shuffle the if deck,” as my mother used to say. Contemporary zoos have atoned for the taint of their ancestors, the menageries kept by the wealthy as a display of power. The best of them have become – as best they can – guardians of populations dwindling and failing as the wealthy and the powerful move beyond dragging a luckless few home as curiosities to striking at their very homelands.
I can understand their necessity. But I still hope for their obsolescence. And those tensions churn to the surface, whenever I’m at the zoo.