Dakota Zoo

I’m very conflicted about this post. And zoos. This is a photography blog, not a philosophy blog. I want to frame my posts around photography and a zoo is a good place to hone some skills. But going to them just depresses me. Yes, I love seeing the animals, but not where they are. Maybe it was just this zoo. I’ve been to others, admittedly not in a long time (unless we count aquariums, which we should), and didn’t have this reaction. At least not as intensely.

Arctic fox

It was the boredom more than the captivity that saddened me. Animals are more creatures of the mind than we give them credit for. Not to anthropomorphize them, but I believe they have emotional and intellectual capacities that have to be provided for just as much as their physical welfare.

All of the animals I saw were bored. Painfully so. One of the timber wolves followed my husband and me as far as it could go along the fence line of its enclosure. It did that with everyone who came to see it. The other just lay in the sun and couldn’t be bothered. Ditto with the red fox. The otter and the raccoon came to the edge of the low wall surrounding their enclosures and looked up at us expectantly; engagingly. Both of these very social animals were alone in their cages. It was heartbreaking.

Most of the cats paced or sat in the sun. The primates were manic most of the time (except for the lemur, he was chill). The emus pecked at the glass. The coyotes had worn a mud trail in one corner of their space – a mute testament to pacing. The bears individually paced and raged or dug fruitlessly in the drained pool. Dreams of escape? One of the arctic foxes wouldn’t leave the top of a plywood box shelter. The lethargy was palpable.

Silent plea
Here, kitty

I know that zoos are important on a number of levels, breeding programs and species preservation and connecting humans to “nature” chief among them. So much of our population is mechanized, disconnected and hypnotized by screens that this is nature to them and any way there can be a bridge should be embraced. Right?

I’m lucky to have seen many of the animals I saw that day in the wild – a grizzly, raccoons, elk and white tailed deer, big-horn sheep, porcupines, eagles and owls, otters, foxes (more to come on one of those!), a wolf and coyotes – even a mountain lion. I have an idea of how they normally behave. I wasn’t seeing that at all. But not everyone is so lucky to live in a place where they can see an appreciate these creatures. The zoo is all they have.

Bored grizzly
Looking for a pick up game

Yes, but it was so sad for me to see. I tried to stay positive. Really, I did. It was winter and maybe the animals were happier in summer. At least more engaged. Had more to do with their time. I hope. Animal enrichment is a real thing in zoos and we did see evidence of it in the monkey cages. There were puzzles for the inmates to solve and a few of them seemed hooked on them, like people with Sudoku. Others not so much. Just look at how many are on their hind legs looking to us to break up the endless hours. Begging for…I don’t know what.

Professional basker

So photography-wise, how did I do? Fair. Perspective and composition were understandably limited. The light was decent though and it was fairly warm out. I practiced with focus tracking for some shots and tried for creativity. Many cages and barriers were in the way and it was hard to focus at all in some cases. I played with manual focus and focus peaking which worked pretty well. Like many other photographers, my biggest decision was to include the man-made objects and fencing or not. I did where it worked for me. Showing the wolf that followed us behind a chain link fence is poignant and realistic, but so sad for me that I started crying while editing the shot. Same with the mountain lions.

Sweet and gentle

So I can’t say that visiting another zoo is high on my list of things to do. I’m not blaming the Dakota Zoo people. I have faith they are trained professionals doing their best and I hope the few pictures I used here make someone smile.

6 thoughts on “Dakota Zoo

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  1. I agree with you in many ways. Zoos are traps – but they also save species from perhaps going extinct, even if the gene pool is limited. Animals in American zoos have better treatment than ones in Asia, for instance. How many times have you heard about the animals being tormented for the fun of it? I think “big game hunters” that feel it is good to shoot bear cubs in their dens with their sleeping mothers, clubbing baby seals to death, or shooting game from a helicopter is far more abhorrent than a zoo. Human beings in many ways are horrid and horrible, and moral choices can be difficult. I understand your conflict quite a lot – I have it, too, but when I visit a zoo, I have to approach it with a positive approach rather than negative or with the thoughts I have expressed here. I am there for the beauty, for the diversity of the world, and the hope that somehow we will not be completely stupid . . .

    1. Humans are pretty shitty sometimes, I know. And I tried not to focus on the negative because in the grand scheme of things its one of our more benign pursuits. Leaving aside why they have to exist in the first place. Without getting too far into the weeds of melancholy philosophy, I wonder if our whole evolution is to be an extinction trigger. We’re very good at it.

  2. Definitely a good point. I learned after spending some time in the outdoors that I’d rather see a deer or an elk in the wild than an exotic animal in a zoo. But still they can be really great educational tools to teach people about animals they might never see or care about. They can be sad, but if used correctly I think they can broaden a mind to appreciate nature and the wild 🙂

    1. Absolutely they are important, no argument there. And yes, this is as close to nature as some people will ever get so they’re serving a greater purpose, but they mostly just make me sad so I won’t be going to many. Luckily I live in the northwoods of Wisconsin and have plenty of the real thing.

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