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  • June 21, 2014

Life in Captivity: Portraits of Germany’s Zoo Animals

This post was originally published in June 2014. We’re updating it as part of our #ThrowbackThursday effort to give some love to our favorite posts.


It’s not unusual to see or hear people attributing human qualities to animals. With the increasing popularity of animal celebrities like Boo and Grumpy Cat, the lives, projected thoughts, and emotions of animals are more pervasive than ever. Scientific studies on dolphins, for example, show a higher level of animal intelligence than we previously thought possible. The line between humankind and the animal kingdom becomes increasingly blurry. But animals do not have voices to speak up for their own lives and experiences. We can only theorize and study their behavior to look for answers to our questions.

Picture of monkey embracing
Tierpark Friedrichsfelde Zoo, Berlin, 2013

Because of this gap in understanding, institutions like animal parks and zoos are a contentious topic. Do animals benefit from human intervention, or are they unfairly confined? It’s a tricky subject to tackle.

When I first encountered photographer Elias Hassos’ work on zoos, I was immediately struck by the way his images humanize the experiences of the animals, while at the same time looking at their enclosures in a graphic, artistic way. Curious about the message he was hoping to convey with these starkly beautiful images, I contacted him to find out more.

Picture of zoo enclosure
Berlin Zoo, 2013

Last year, Hassos went into German zoos and documented the lives of animals living inside for Greenpeace Magazin in Germany. He wanted to look at the enclosures, not just the animals inside. “With our selection of zoos, we tried to cover all varieties of German zoos—the classic, the modern, the very sad ones, the wildlife park. I wanted to show the living conditions of the animals and how the animals feel in their human-designed spaces.”

Picture of birds in zoo
Tierpark Friedrichsfelde Zoo, Berlin, 2013

What he found both surprised and disturbed him.

“There are two zoos in Berlin. The Berlin Zoo in West Berlin and the Tierpark Friedrichsfelde Zoo in East Berlin. They felt more [like] a prison than anything else. Of course, the fact is, no matter how the animals were kept, their behavior patterns were far away from natural,” he said.

Picture of gorilla in zoo enclosure
Berlin Zoo, 2013

In the not too distant past, zoo enclosures were often only a concrete cage with bars. It is important to note that many zoos have since updated their enclosures, building them to resemble the animal’s original habitat. According to Kathy Moran, our senior editor for natural history, “Many zoos have become multifaceted now, focused on conservation and education. Zoos often provide the only interface that people will ever have with these animals. In that sense, they are very important for educating people about the animals and their shrinking natural habitats.”

Picture of zoo employee
Leipzig Zoo, 2013

For Hassos, however, this project only solidified his perspective on zoos. In his mind:

“It is a very wrong concept to put beings in non-natural rooms, cells, cages, areas, even if some of the animals are threatened with extinction. We should do everything to create and save a planet where animals have enough space and the living conditions they are used to. Years ago I visited the zoo in Munich with my kids. Still in my mind are the visits with my own parents, when I myself was a young boy. These days we as a society should really think about how we treat animals. Everybody can see how the animals suffer in a zoo. It cannot be that we find pleasure and amusement at the expense of animals.”

Picture of lioness in zoo
Berlin Zoo, 2013

When I asked Hassos if he was drawn to photographing animals, he answered simply:

“I am drawn to portraits—of beings. I always try to connect from soul to soul. I want people to see and treat animals as beings and not as objects.”

Picture of scarlet ibis
Leipzig Zoo, 2013

View more of Hassos’ work on his website.

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 47 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. b. witthoft
    July 13, 2014

    the world would be a wonderful place if it were not for the cruelty of humans

  2. Mitchell
    July 1, 2014

    These were some pretty powerful images for me to view, but I still believe that there can be hope for all animals in the wild when it comes to mankind. I mean, we have a booming population and maybe one day, earth could run out of resources for us to survive on. However, I’m someone who is more attached to animals than humans because all my life I’ve had such interests and desire for animals that I fell sad when they are sad or when they’re happy then I’m happy. i too believe that these innocent creatures be set free and for mankind to actually use their intelligence to solve the answers for how we can share this planet for these creatures.

  3. Lucy
    June 30, 2014

    The only zoo I haven’t found these heartbreaking “unnatural” scenes in was the Singapore Zoo. Their animals appear quite content. They have moats and hidden fences with lots of open space for their animals, it was an incredible spot to visit!

  4. Jean Colison
    June 30, 2014

    Hassas is quoted as saying “It cannot be that we find pleasure and amusement at the expense of animals.” I would add education and conservation to that list. They owe us nothing.

  5. Chris White
    June 30, 2014

    The definition of captivity: the condition of being imprisoned or confined. Synonymous with: imprisonment, confinement, incarceration, detention, custody. In my opinion, zoos have no place in a civilized society. The animals that were bred in captivity have not “forgotten” what it is like to be free to go where they want and do what they want. If humans were bred in captivity and spent their lives in a window box, do you think the human spirit would “forget” the idea of freedom? The animals wasting away in zoos should at the very least be remanded to the care of qualified and appropriate sanctuaries. Humans think we know everything; that we own everything, that everything on this planet is here for our consumption. So ignorantly incorrect. If we destroy ourselves, it will be because of this un-evolved position. We are equal to animals and we need to learn to appreciate them and respect their lives as well as those of our fellow humans. “After all, the question of what rights you should have as a cognitively sophisticated being should not be judged by your species any more than it should be judged by your gender or the color of your skin.” – Nonhuman Rights Project

  6. Rebecca helms
    June 30, 2014

    I am glad NG brings this to the forefront. It does engage and add much needed awareness. Let’s now do a feature story about the zoos that are doing it better. There are many that have created decent and wonderful habitats. Let’s continue to encourage bad zoos to improve.

  7. Lorelei
    June 30, 2014

    There is a special place in Colorado like no other in the world. It is the Wild Animal Sanctuary, which rescues abused animals from around the world and provides them with a safe environment to live out their lives. It’s not a zoo, it’s a home to these wonderful, gorgeous animals. The planet needs more places like this for our precious animals.

  8. Micheline Dubé
    June 29, 2014

    I was last at the zoo in Granby Québec, and what I saw, made me so sad and ashamed. I will never again go to a zoo and whenever I have the oportunity, I reccomend and sign petitions against keeping animals in captivity.

  9. Kathleen Lowson
    June 29, 2014

    Any form of captivity is slavery. Zoos are archaic institutions that exploit animals in the guise of “education” no matter what the enclosure looks like. Zoos are selling fairy tales. But the reality is that zoos not only exploit animals, but in many cases, abuse them and kill them with no moral conscience or ethical boundaries. To name a few, Marius the baby giraffe, who was murdered and dismembered in public at the Copenhagen Zoo, then fed the 18-month-old animal’s carcass to their lions (2 adult and 2 cobs), who they eventually killed to “make room” for a new male lion to breed with their female lions … this manipulation of life is egregiously inhumane. Then there is the Dahlholzi Zoo in the Swiss capital of Bern, who killed a healthy bear cub and now stuffing it to teach children how cruel “nature can be.” What about Arturo, the 29 year old Polar Bear, who has been imprisoned in the Mendoza Zoo, slowly dying a miserable death in deplorable conditions in Argentina’s hot weather clearly not suitable for a polar bear. Arturo is basically going insane, rocking from side to side repeatedly, trying to cool himself by immersing his head in a child-size pool of warm water and gazing at a wall mural of a snowscape. There is no “education” in observing wild animals in prison – the only observation is their apparent suffering and unhappiness. True education is observing wild animals in their wild home, through documentaries and other media channels who capture these animals as they naturally are – this is education…learning about them as sentient beings, not as objects to use for the ego-human. We are not protecting their lives in zoos, because they have no life in captivity. This analogy is akin to imprisoning a human in a locked environment to “protect” us from sickness, disease, calamity and other worldly conditions… ridiculous. We live in a society in a perpetual state of ‘disconnect.’ This disconnection is the nemesis in our society and eventually, will be the ruination of our planet. – Kathleen Lowson, Director, Cry of the Innocent: The Voices That Can’t Speak

  10. Matt Buchannon
    June 29, 2014

    Bill Wilcox, surely you are joking or maybe sadly not. There is no comparison between a wild animal and a zoo animal. Zoo animals are but mere ghosts of their wild counterparts destined to spend there lives in the same contracted environments devoid of stimulation apart from the odd ‘environmental enrichment’ program zoo keepers may be able to deliver between cleaning cages. A life of sterile boredom is nothing compared to a life lived free albeit for a shorter period of time.

    Zoos do provide educational value to the public, and occasionally save species from extinction in the wild, however the latter constitutes only a tiny percentage of the species zoos house. Zoos are notorious for breeding animals to generate gate takings orangutans, tigers, gorillas, elephants with no hope of reintroduction into the wild or even finding homes in other zoos. Have you ever asked yourself what happens to surplus stock that zoos can no longer house or transfer? And not just the mega vertebrates but also birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates that reproduce in higher numbers?

    National Geographic seems to be on this blind, hell-bent campaign for zoos because of their PhotoArk project. I wonder how many of these zoos and parks National Geographic actually investigate for ethical practices before endorsing them? But make no mistake if zoos globally were really interested in saving species they would be contributing funds to conservation initiatives in the wild and funding reintroduction programs of which there are barely any.

    Zookeepers know the great difficulties nigh impossibilities, faced in establishing re-introduction programs and how often poor management reduces funds for staff salaries and animal care inside the zoos themselves. If zoos were completely honest with the public about the how impossible reintroduction is for most captive species then people would question their validity as an institution. Maybe that needs to happen so more people will donate to actual field conservation initiatives?

    I am not questioning the intent and dedication of those people working on the zoo coalface, but please don’t confuse a few pretty pictures of captive animals as indicative of zoos saving species in the wild. It literally does not matter if there are 5000 gorillas in captivity if there is no habitat for them in the wild, that’s where attention should be focused.

  11. barbara paolucci
    June 29, 2014

    Animals brought to/born in zoos should not feel confined. The humane way to keep them is to recreate the natural habitat they would be living in were they in the wild. Let people who wish to see them walk through in a long cage. The animals should have activities that keep them from being bored thus depressed. Many zoos have been redesigned in an effort to create a natural setting and freedom from cages. Obviously the animals shown here aren’t benefiting from such care.

  12. Bill Wilcox
    June 29, 2014

    Zoos are great. Animals are safe, free from debilitating effects of parasites, protected from predators and live long and rich lives. Remember, in the wild nothing dies of old age; fang and claw is what provides most with a slow and agonizing death.

  13. Ron Tossell
    June 29, 2014

    There seems a growing tendency to replace more typical zoos with Wildlife Parks, ala San Diego’s and Arizona’s, where animals and birds in jeopardy from fire, abuse, or similar are placed where they can life in much less encumbered habitats similar to those in which they are typically found, and in which they can roam a bit, gain a sense of freedom, but are allowed to heal from their traumas and thrive. These parks also provide visitors with a more realistic experience enabling them to watch their normal behavior in park-like settings. It seems an excellent way to rescue animals that are endangered in a variety of ways and protect them, while providing educational value to people

  14. John lee
    June 29, 2014

    I disapprove of photographers taking photos of captive animals. They should only take photos of animals in the wild. This is photographic exploitation and the same thing as exploiting the animals by keeping them in zoos. This is especially so if the photographer was paid for the photos.

    • Bill Wilcox
      June 30, 2014

      The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.
      – Bertrand Russell, philosopher, mathematician, author, Nobel laureate (1872-1970)

  15. John lee
    June 29, 2014

    Zoos may be cruel to hundreds of animals but what about the millions of live stock that are raised in condition worse than concentration camps to be slaughtered. Why do we care more for exotic animals but give no thought to the common cow or chicken. If we really cared for animals at all web should be strict vegetarians.

  16. C.B.
    June 29, 2014

    I am currently a zookeeper in TX, and like many of you, I used to think that zoos were simply places where animals were caged, and in the early zoo days, that was unfortunately the case. However, modern day zoos have taken on a different role. Zoos are now about education and conservation.

    It is becoming increasingly difficult for animals in the wild to live, because of so many problems that man has caused. These problems will not be solved and the animals will not be saved, unless people learn what those problems are and what they can do to help. You cannot protect that which you don’t know. My zoo, for example, has people sign petitions and refers them to websites to help find out what they can do help wildlife. My zoo, as many others do, raise money to help wildlife organizations around the world.

    Many zoos are also part of conservation breeding programs. If, for example, the African Lion were to go extinct in the wild, (which by the way, are not on the endangered species list, even though they have very low numbers in the wild), African lions from zoos could slowly be introduced to the wild, and hopefully, their populations would grow, and there would be wild African lions again.

    Zookeepers do everything they can to give their animals (who were zoo bred) the best life possible! We encourage their natural behaviors with enrichment and training, and they have access to medical care. Zookeepers and the animals form special bonds, and the keepers love their animals very much!

    I hope that one day, zoos will have fulfilled their purpose and there will no longer be a need for them, but until then, zoos will do everything they can to make the dream of all animals being able to live in the wild, without man’s destruction, possible.

  17. Dyan Richardson
    June 29, 2014

    I am from Atlanta, GA. Many, many years ago when the family group went to the zoo, I stayed outside on the swings. Zoos made me cry when I was little. Now I don’t mind going to the Atlanta Zoo. I think they need to expand the areas for the reptiles. But I am proud of our Zoo.

  18. Lee
    June 29, 2014

    Like the in the movie Seabiscuit, “better live with a broken leg than a broken heart”. I live in Africa and live with these animals: believe me I would rather live 11years free and doing what I want and enjoy my own harem as a male lion than be caged by some human so I can live 22years caged, it’s not life.

  19. Joanne Orion Miller
    June 29, 2014

    I’ve been anti-zoo since I began covering zoos as part of my travel-writing books in 1992. The breeding programs are necessary because we’ve destroyed far too many habitats. Humans are the greediest animals–we take, we capture, we use, without thought or guilt. The excuse that animals are “born in captivity, that’s all they know” is obscene. They shouldn’t be in captivity in the first place. We can learn about their dwindling populations from books. Zoos and their sad kinn should be phased out entirely.

  20. Karlo Lucas
    June 29, 2014

    Genèse 1:26 Dieu dit: “Faisons les êtres humains à notre image, et qu’ils nous ressemblent vraiment! Qu’ils commandent aux poissons dans la mer, aux oiseaux dans le ciel, aux animaux domestiques et à toutes les petites bêtes qui se déplacent sur le sol!”

  21. France de Palma
    June 29, 2014

    I am appalled to see that someone at National Geographic actually endorses zoos. This comment from Kathy Moran, the Senior Editor for Natural History, that “Many zoos have become multifaceted now, focused on conservation and education. Zoos often provide the only interface that people will ever have with these animals. In that sense, they are very important for educating people about the animals and their shrinking natural habitats.” is unbelievable. Zoos have zero educational value – and with the number of books, TV shows such as Nature, and documentaries presenting the lives of wild animals, there is absolutely no reason to hold these beings captive in an environment that is so foreign from their natural habitat that any human being living under the same conditions would have a nervous breakdown. We, humans, have no right to impose this kind of life on our fellow animals. The planet belongs to us all, it is ours to share with all species. Zoos should be abolished and wild animals left in their natural habitat. They are a shameful reminder of how primitive and insensitive we still are!

  22. Lisa E.
    June 29, 2014

    While an argument can be made for allowing the animals to be free, with poachers and other predators it should be noted that a hawk out in the wild has a life expectancy of seven to seven and a half years, but properly held in captivity will live to be about twenty-five. As long as the zoo’s continue to provide the animals with comfort and safety, it is good that people have access to animals to be sensitive to their needs in life. I am concerned, though, that the holding pens/cages/tanks aren’t big enough to offer mental comfort but zoo’s seem to be responding to the psychological needs of these animals as well.

  23. Amy Mayers
    June 29, 2014

    “In the not too distant past, zoo enclosures were often only a concrete cage with bars. It is important to note that many zoos have since updated their enclosures, building them to resemble the animal’s original habitat. According to Kathy Moran, our Senior Editor for Natural History, “Many zoos have become multifaceted now, focused on conservation and education. Zoos often provide the only interface that people will ever have with these animals. In that sense, they are very important for educating people about the animals and their shrinking natural habitats.”

    I’m sorry to see this comment included in the story without question. The key word is that newer exhibits “resemble,” not replicate animals’ natural environments. The changes have been largely cosmetic.

    And I’m not sure how much zoos educate people about what’s happening with species in the wild. Rather, zoos show us that we can present animals so we can see them close-up. I think what would be much more effective is if zoos said, There’s a crisis in the wild now. Please send your donations to organizations working on the ground in Africa and Asia to preserve natural habitats and all their inhabitants.

    One last note: zoos have never proven they actually motivate people to act for conservation.

  24. Shelby D
    June 29, 2014

    I have recently read the book – We are all completely beside ourselves… It poses more questions about difference than ‘other’.. And has filtered through to how I think.

  25. Andrea Ouse
    June 29, 2014

    While zoo environments differ from the “wild”, natural behaviors can be encouraged through enrichment. Also, it must be noted, the animals we see in zoos are not recently removed from their wild habitats but are several generations zoo bred. “Freedom” is an anthropomorphic concept. We cannot assume that other species consider it the same way that humans do. For many people, the plight of animals that are seriously endangered in the wild would not be known without exposure to zoo animals. Yes, it would be great if there were no need for zoos, but a number of animals – California Condor, Przwalski’s Horse, Bali Mynah, Giant Panda, for example – would no longer exist on our planet without human intervention.

  26. fairymaker
    June 29, 2014

    When The Lord comes, we will live with the animals, Isaiah 11:1-9.

  27. Scott
    June 29, 2014

    I see many comments here that hint at the huge problem of misinformation and misconceptions about zoos. Firstly, it is exceedingly rare for animals to be taken from the wild nowadays, almost unheard of. Secondly, you can’t just lump all zoos together as equals. There are terrible roadside zoos, zoos for profit, breeding centers, and zoos accredited by the AZA or EAZA. These organizations are not equivalent by any means. It’s also rather silly that the photographer decided to pick and choose animals to tell his own story about their lives, not showing animals playing, breeding, interacting with keeper/public/con specifics. No, instead he uses flowery language and anthropomorphises the whole experience. I always thought that Nat Geo was based more in science and fact, not just presenting “portraits…of beings.” The whole story needs to be told.

  28. Sanjula Madurapperuma
    June 26, 2014

    It is sad to see such beautiful animals living in cages. But the photos are very good.

  29. zoila
    June 23, 2014

    I would be very very happy if they could one day have a better habitat to live in…no cages!!! I don’t Cate how pretty they look..like you and me this are animals that deserve to be free. They are the most beautiful thing left on this earth. They should be all set free. NO CAGES!!!!

  30. Michael Lis
    June 23, 2014

    Glad to see more attention paid to this situation. You guys should really look at the work of photographer Gaston Lacombe on this topic, for a much more global and varied perspective.

  31. Birgitta Marais
    June 23, 2014

    Humans and animals right to freedom must be respected. I don’t agree with keeping animals in a zoo, I can just imagine how they sit day in and out dreaming about being free! Not all people can afford to take their children across the world to show them these animals, if some animals have to sacrifice their freedom to teach our children and future generations to love them, and protect them; I can live with that. Maybe we should change the name from zoo to wildlife education center’s!

  32. Jean Shaw
    June 22, 2014

    I’m opposed to zoo as such but there is the question of conservation. I think Zoo’s in city’s should be a thing of the past. Conservation and reserves in the species own habitat is the way to go in the future.

  33. GRILLAT
    June 22, 2014

    si triste… encore plus en pensant que ces zoos utilisent la soit disant préservation des espèces animales pour se déculpabiliser de leurs actes. Pitoyable

  34. Candy Hart
    June 22, 2014

    I think it’s great that you all care so much for the welfare of the animals, but answer this. Where do you propose we put the animals that have no wild habitat to go back to? Where do you propose we put the animals in zoos that were slaughtered to the verge of extinction and the only place they have LEFT are the zoos? Should we just release them to run free in whatever city they live in? Or send them back to their ruined environment to be poached or run out of their homes by deforestation? Do some research please, before saying that zoos are prisons. They may not be ideal environments, but they save lives and allow us to preserve species that we would not otherwise be able to keep from dying off.

  35. Erica
    June 22, 2014

    There is not and never will be anything “natural” about a zoo. Removing an animal from it’s environment, the environment in which it is intended to eat, roam, populate, and die, am placing it into a confined space with human interaction is the complete opposite of “natural.” Promoting this type of confinement teaches our children that these beautiful animals are not important, that they are not necessary. Shame on mankind.

  36. Pat Flowers
    June 22, 2014

    If you can not see feel the misery in each picture you are not fit to be human. This is so sad it is cruel. Put the “people” responsible in the same enclosures. Let them waste away with their children. “Humans” are disgusting.

  37. jaime
    June 22, 2014

    Zoos speak about our shallowness. we care about animals’s beauty but not about their wants and needs. You know, to migrate, run, fly, have families, hunt, die, have a life as we animals want. I loved the photos and wish more. Thanks

  38. Nancy Red
    June 22, 2014

    I agree that zoos are not the equivalent of a natural environment. I also feel that wild animals should not be used in any form for our entertainment such as in circuses.

  39. ingrid kuris
    June 22, 2014

    The zoo is a BIG SHAME For Berlin and For all the men who propose it

  40. Pia
    June 22, 2014

    The zoos of the world have outlived there purpose. Today we have the opportunities to experience the animals without exploiting them. One purpose of keeping animals in inclosures could be, of course, to protect them from us…

  41. stone….
    June 22, 2014

    Such artificial enclosures. So sad. We can do better than this….

  42. Mary Hall
    June 21, 2014

    Free our animals from zoos that are unnatural to their habitat…..look into their eyes…..they will Tell you about their desire for better conditions

  43. Ian Cheng
    June 21, 2014

    I wish one day we all been kept in the cage and realize what we did to the animals.Animals should not be kept in the cage.They should be roar free in the wild.

  44. Emmanuel Nyia Emendack
    June 21, 2014

    What is the difference between animals lucked up in cages in some place we call a zoo and fellow humans,lucked up in cell in some place we call a prison?Well,we humans have something we call a criminal code.This is a composition of rules on how to treat a fellow human,when he/she does not behave according to laid down rules that bind the community together.What did these animals do contrary to laid down rules in their communities,to be imprisoned by man.Most of them are transported thousands of km.from their natural habitats,mostly from Africa to be locked up in high security prisons with beautiful names like,Tiergarten,etc. Their freedom has been highjacked.We cherish our freedom.Why shouldn’t they,theirs.Now,they have become totally dependent on man,they have lost all their natural instincts.This comment could go on for ever.Imprisonment is degrading.It takes away your pride and dignity.That’s what we do to those animals,when we cage them.The wild is theirs.

  45. Heike Wolf
    June 21, 2014

    You misnamed the East Berlin zoo. It is called Tierpark Friedrichsfelde. The
    Tiergarten is just a large public park area. This distinction is already confusing for many visitors so please don’t make it any worse. I am very critical of keeping primates and many other animals in zoos, however, in order to be fair, it should also be said that the gorillas at the zoo, for example, have a nice sunny area outside where they spend a lot of time during the day appearing very relaxed and content.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      June 22, 2014

      Thank you for sharing that information. We have updated the captions accordingly.

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