Cross Country Checkup·CHECKUP

'The Invisibles': Meet the animal photographer who captures living conditions in zoos

Jo-Anne McArthur, an award-winning photojournalist, shares what she has witnessed while photographing zoos across the world.
Jo-Anne McArthur captures a group of visitors swimming with a bottle-nosed dolphin in the United States. (Jo-Anne McArthur)

by Samantha Lui

Jo-Anne McArthur has spent the past 15 years travelling the world visiting zoos and documenting wildlife and their living conditions. 

Having visited over 50 countries, the Toronto photojournalist has come to witness some of the harsher realities animals face on a daily basis.

However, one might be surprised to learn many of these conditions can also be found in Canada.

"Ontario is full of roadside zoos. You pay 10 or 12, 20 bucks and it's just incredible and so saddening to see that these animals are in small cages. These are hoarding situations," McArthur said during Cross Country Checkup's show on zoos and aquaria.

McArthur, who recently released a book of her photography called Captive, says she was inspired to take pictures of animals because she felt many of them were being exploited by humans. 

She calls these animals "The Invisibles" because their stories, and the stories of their treatment, have largely gone untold.

Lions sleep in a cage in Lithuania, as a visitor pushes a stroller by them. McArthur says zoos are often there for the enjoyment of others. (Jo-Anne McArthur)

For the entertainment of humans

McArthur has documented zoos in Canada, Denmark, Germany, Thailand and the United States — but she says her job isn't to photograph the animals. Her goal, rather,  is to capture the experiences of humans.

"Quite often, we go to the zoo for a Saturday afternoon with a family. It's something to do to entertain the kids....It's for us. It's not for the animals," she said.

McArthur acknowledges that some zoos have conservation programs in place, but in many cases, she says they're there for the enjoyment of others.

"For the most part, we're taking selfies. We're just having a good time out," she said.

 "The animals who are there are paying a very high cost with their lives. They might have a certain degree of enrichment. Most don't, I will say. But that doesn't equal a life of autonomy." 

A Malayan sun bear, photographed in Thailand. McArthur says many animals are often found in small cages. (Jo-Anne McArthur)

Do zoos still have a purpose? 

According to the not-for-profit advocacy group Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), it recognizes only 31 out of 165 zoos in the country as having "high standards of animal care."

CAZA executive director Susan Shafer told Checkup that she understands many people's concerns over an animal's living conditions at the zoo.

She said that the country can improve in terms of having better legislation and oversight for zoos and aquaria. However, she believes these places do serve a purpose, pointing to conservation projects at the Toronto Zoo along with research partnerships as an example.

"The zoo is not like it was 30 years ago," Shafer said. 

"The zoo now doesn't just look at nutrition and environment and health. They look at behaviour and mental health as well. Many zoos are in fact sanctuaries. And many zoos in Canada do fulfill sanctuary roles that are found in the pet trade." 

Children observe an orangutang at a Denmark zoo. McArthur says zoos are teaching people the wrong lessons "in terms of caring and compassion" for animals. (Jo-Anne McArthur )

Modern zoos as a place for 'conservation' 
A Burmese python, photographed in Canada by Jo-Anne McArthur. McArthur says Canada has a lot of work to do when it comes to providing proper living conditions for animals (Jo-Anne McArthur)

Having been to many unaccredited zoos — places not recognized by CAZA — McArthur says Canada has a long way to go to improve the living conditions of animals. 

"I have seen the appalling conditions. No one should go to these places and they should close down," she said. 

McArthur says she sees a purpose for places like sanctuaries and conservation centres that can care for animals that are rescued from the exotic pet trade. But as it stands, more work needs to be done. 

"When we go to a zoo … we see animals in captivity, basically," she said, adding this treatment teaches people the wrong lessons "in terms of caring and compassion" for animals.

"I think what it teaches us is that other animals are objects for our use or our entertainment. I think there are much better ways to educate people about animals to get us to care."

You can hear more from Jo-Anne McArthur above. For more on zoos and aquaria, click here.