Becoming Disenchanted With Zoos

Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
August 7, 2015
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Written by
Jason Barnette
Posted on
August 7th, 2015
Share story

For me, zoos have always been large parks filled with endless wonder. It is a place I can view exotic animals, see them up close, and capture a few good photos. But recently I have become disenchanted with zoos. I no longer feel excited to capture good photos through plexiglass walls or chain link fences. I want to capture great photos in the wild where these magnificent animals live and thrive.

Photography has been a passion of mine for the past six years. During this time I have traveled across the Southeastern United States and beyond looking for stories to tell about great adventure, local food, and fun times. Zoos and aquariums have always been on the top of my list of places to visit. I am always a bit excited when I leave a zoo with a great photo of a cute red panda or a ferocious leopard.

In July 2015 I visited the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee. It was a nice, small, family-friendly zoo. But it was unbearably hot that day with a heat index of 105, so most of the animals just slept through the day. About halfway through my three-hour stay at the zoo I was capturing a photo of a leopard when I suddenly realized how silly this was. I’m standing safely behind a sheet of dirty, smudgy plexiglass using a telephoto lens to shoot a photo of a leopard in a two thousand square foot enclosure as he paced in circles. And this is the photo I’m proud of capturing? The feeling of silliness gave way to profound disappointment a few minutes later.
A roadrunner pauses just long enough for a photo at the Chattanooga Zoo in Chattanooga, TN on Monday, July 20, 2015. Copyright 2015 Jason Barnette

A roadrunner at the Chattanooga Zoo. I had to wait 20 minutes before this little bird finally stopped moving for a moment.

I entered a small building and sighed loudly as the air conditioning tickled my damp skin. It was a welcome relief. I slowly moved around the one-room circular building looking at each animal display. I found the meerkats. They had a few snakes. But then I found the roadrunner. It’s funny because I grew up watching Looney Tunes. The animators sure took some creative liberties with the design of the Road Runner: about 6′ tall, blue and gray, with a long neck and tail. Absolutely nothing like the real animal. But as I stood there watching the roadrunner move back and forth, trying desperately to capture a good photo, I realized this poor guy had no where to go in a hurry. The lighting was horrible (for a camera) so I was shooting at about 1/50 exposure, which meant I had to wait for a moment he was absolutely still before I could capture the photo you see above. After capturing this photo I felt so proud of myself because it was so difficult to shoot this photo in these lighting conditions, in an air conditioned building, with an animal in a two hundred square foot enclosure.

Then it hit me: this was like an athlete feeling proud because they just won the Superbowl by playing Madden Football on the Xbox in their living room. This was ridiculous. I didn’t want to feel proud of capturing a photo of a roadrunner inside a 20′ long room. I want to feel proud for spending an entire day tracking down their location in the wild, getting into the right position, sitting on a rock under a camouflaged tent for six hours just to capture one great photo of these tiny speedsters darting across the arid landscape. Now that is something I could feel proud about.
A red panda cub at the Knoxville Zoo in Knoxville, TN on Tuesday, December 16, 2014. Copyright 2014 Jason Barnette

This cute and furry red panda from the Knoxville Zoo was a poser.

This is the part where the questions begin. I know what I want to do, I just don’t know how to do it. I want to go to Africa to capture photos of giraffes, leopards, gazelles, and elephants. I want to go to Antarctica to capture photos of penguins. I want to go to the American Midwest to capture photos of roadrunners and jackrabbits. But how do I get there?

From what I understand from reading travel articles and talking with a few friends, African safaris are pretty nice. Some villages in Africa are built around this type of tourism so they treat visitors very nicely. But this isn’t what I want. I don’t want to fall into the tourist trap and only see the “pretty” sides of nature. I want to spend a month in Africa tracking down animal migrations, rising two hours before sunrise to get into the right position for the morning light, and then waiting for nature to happen right in front of me.

Spending a month in Antarctica would be a completely different story. I told the grandmother just the other day that I wanted to travel to this continent. She asked why I would ever want to do such a thing. “Because it’s there,” I replied. I would do almost anything to be able to spend three months at one of the research stations in the Antarctic. I could travel out in a new direction each day, looking for penguin colonies, capturing amazing landscapes, and telling a story of survival on the toughest place on Earth.

But as I look at all these possibilities, the questions begin to arise: how do I get there? Where do I stay? How long would I have? Who can help me? Where do I get answers?

I have become disenchanted with zoos. I’m done with the window shopping. I’m ready for the real product now. But I have a lot of research and work to do before I can take any of these trips. I’m not even sure where to begin. All I know is that I’m ready to leave the safe confines of the zoo and get out into the world. So where do I go from here?


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