All photographs by Elias Hassos
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Tiergarten Zoo, Berlin, 2013
All photographs by Elias Hassos

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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Leipzig Zoo, 2013

View more of Hassos’ work on his website.

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Twitter and Instagram.