Zoos: They've Come A Long Way

Two years ago I was handed a large shoebox containing nearly 45 rolls of black & white 35mm negatives from my in-laws. The film was primarily shot in the 1940's and 1950's and I've been charged with scanning the negatives in, touching up the photos (removing scratches and dust, adjusting exposure, cropping, etc.,), and making a slideshow DVD. Like I said, I've had these negatives in my possession for 2 years. Well, I'm finally nearing the finish line. Or at least the halfway point.

And that's what brings me to this post. One of the rolls I'm working on right now is from a family trip to, according to the notes on the roll, the Michigan Zoo. Again, circa 1950. And the pictures are utterly heartbreaking. I'm too depressed to scan all of the photos from this roll in, but I thought I would post the following two just to show you how bad things used to be for animals in captivity. To think people used to pay good money to attend "exhibits" like this boggles the mind.

Here you have a pair of hawks in a tiny fenced enclosure with a small ledge as a perch. The cleanliness of the enclosure is disgusting to say the least.

This really is heartbreaking. It's a lynx or small leopard in a small enclosure, ringed with corrugated metal and chainlink fence with a single lightbulb dangling overhead. No trees, no grass, no attempt whatsoever at providing an actual habitat for the animal. And although you can't see it in this photo, in the hi-res version the animal looks incredibly depressed.

As a kid, we used to go to the Staten Island Zoo on school trips all the time and even in the 1980's, I remember feeling sorry for the animals in their concrete barren pens. I'm not a big fan of zoos for philosophical reasons but having gone to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle in recent years I can say that they really have come a long way. The enclosures really mimic natural habitat and are so spacious that visitors may at times struggle to locate the animals. And while I still feel a bit sorry for the animals in the zoos, conditions have dramatically improved over the years. One look at these photos is enough to know that.

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