Over the past decade, photographer Colleen Plumb has traveled to more than 70 zoos in the United States and Europe, documenting the self-destructive behaviors that elephants exhibit as a result of being forced to live in captivity.
Known as stereotypy, these actions include rhythmic rocking, head bobbing, stepping back and forth, and pacing — compulsively and relentlessly destroying their bodies and souls. Where other zoo goers may have been blind to the abject display of trauma being exhibited before their very eyes, Plumb immediately received the message, and understood she had to tell the world.
Plumb weaved together footage of dozens of captive elephants, which she then installed guerrilla public projections of the video in over 100 locations worldwide, creating powerful, poignant portraits of these creatures for all to see. In the new book, Thirty Times a Minute (Radius) Plumb shares photographs she made along the way, revealing the ways in which the subjugation of this magnificent creatures for entertainment functions as a persistent and virulent form of imperialist ideology.
The title refers to the resting heart rate of an elephant, but these magnificent, animals are never at rest. Instead they are restless, trapped, and imperiled by the damage stereotypy causes their bodies over prolonged and sustained periods of time. Here, Plumb shares her journey to make people aware of the true cost of zoos on the animals they claim to protect and nurture.
How did you first learn about stereotypic behavior in animals kept at zoos?
“I was in Greenville, South Carolina, filming at the zoo in 2009 and I witnessed the massive rocking of one elephant named Joy. I was stunned. I could not believe what I was seeing — the artificial rocks surrounding her and there were chains and a ramp behind her. The enclosure was tiny and looked like a stage set. Seeing Joy rocking ceaselessly marks the beginning of the whole project.
“Seeing the conditions while photographing elephants in a parking lot of a circus in Chicago for my earlier project Animals Are Outside Today sparked a desire to make work about elephants in captivity. I had no clear idea for a project yet. I knew I wanted to use video. I found a decent HD video camera and there Joy was in front of me.
“Zoo spectators passed by and did not even pay attention to this clearly disturbed behavior. I miraculously kept the camera steady and filmed her until my camera’s battery died. Returning home to Chicago, armed with hours of shaky video I had this one bit of Joy rocking and swaying, that I kept watching over and over, and thought – what IS that?
“I began my research – there is a lot written about stereotypic behavior. The main source is from a book called Stereotypic Animal Behavior, edited by Georgia Mason and Jeffrey Rushen (CAB International, 2006). Zoologists try to create enrichment to combat this behavior. It works but then they are overfed, and that creates more problems, and nothing eradicates it as it becomes ingrained in their brain as a movement disorder. It permanently changes their brain so nothing can stop it completely and zoos without enough funding or awareness just ignore it.
“The incessant rocking / repetitive movements cause foot problems and arthritis- so they are highly medicated and it eventually kills them. Zoos have created their own age for life expectancy of elephants even though they can live in the wild to 70. Zoos tout that it is 40 because they all die so early in captivity. A few exceptions are those who reach 50 and zoos flip out about how old they are when in the wild that would be simply an older healthy adult.”
What inspired you to begin filming the elephants?
“After I saw Joy, I became obsessed with wondering if captive elephants all over, in other zoos in particular, were exhibiting this same behavior. I did not plan to go to so many zoos but I kept wondering.
“Between 2009 and 2014, I traveled to over seventy zoos in the US and Europe and filmed captive elephants exhibiting what biologists refer to as stereotypy, a behavior only seen in captive animals, which includes rhythmic rocking, head bobbing, stepping back and forth, and pacing. Thirty Times a Minute looks at elephants exhibiting stereotypy due to lack of adequate mental stimulation or an inability to engage in natural activities. These compulsive, repetitive movements can cause debilitating, life-threatening damage to the animals’ feet and joints.
“The durational video of these repetitive movements within environments that nearly replicate one another, are made from stationary viewpoints, and when viewed en masse, become a larger study into unified, rhythmic movement. I am interested in the notion of collection as obsession, and ways that the project’s multiplicity, in form and content can mirror the endless and obsessive state of the animals’ behavior. Elephants communicate through infrasonic sound (sounds too low for humans to hear). The audio alludes to these hidden vocalizations.
“The elephants are exhibiting neurosis due to lack of adequate mental stimulation. Elephants in the wild walk up to 50 miles a day. To me, the rocking represents a ‘wish-walk’—a way to soothe the distress associated with standing in an enclosure all day, often alone or with only one or two companions. I wanted to collect as much evidence as I could; I was not even sure yet what I would do with all of this footage. It was a time of intense research and it was all very heartbreaking and grueling too—I would drive to these places questioning my sanity practically. I just felt like they all deserved to be ‘seen’ — to be part of this.
How did you conceptualize the projections — what you would show, where and when it would be shown, and the effect of these elements brought together?
“When I arrive in a city to do a projection I drive around, looking closely and feeling out where I should go. Where does it belong? ! respond to the architecture and then estimate the surrounding ambient lighting conditions. I consider how people will see it. if enough people will see it or will I get in trouble from a building owner, will my generator be too loud?
“But I also feel like such a polluter as the generator uses gas — not that much, but is smells and I always try to keep it downwind as by the end of the night I am nauseous from the fumes. I will say that is one of the biggest problems, that and having to psych myself up to do the projection. I get to share what I learned/what I am doing as the video is running and they can see for themselves, but the conversations always blow my mind.
“People get a chance to share what they think and maybe how they always felt like zoos were fucked up (that is what I’d hear the most). Why oh why, I wonder, does the practice continue if so many feel this way? Probably nostalgia. And marketing. Zoos make so much money. I like sharing this fact: More people go to zoos each year than ALL major league sporting events combined.
“My projection interrupts the public space and creates questions. We are socially distant now by necessity but we are kind of socially distant anyway — and this was a break into that. It felt like a cool gathering on the street and it went past like water and then I’d say goodnight to the elephants.
“What a gift. I felt like I have to do this, that the elephants deserved it and the people passing by did too- that it became an offering, a gesture of healing, that’s my hope. The book can carry it onward too. It shows all of them and all the places they went. And with all the important essays that carry such important messages.”
How do you think zoos reveal our misguided relationship to nature?
“Zoos are a fantasy — they do not in any way represent the way animals live. They lull spectators into thinking that habitats are not being decimated and overdeveloped.
“I want the work to do the work: the projections and talking about it gets so heavy. Like I am delivering more bad news. But maybe we can see the projections also as a gesture of hope — a way to shift awareness and change.
“People know well that it is cruel and wrong to hold other living things captive (do they? Am I fooling myself that we are all compassionate beings underneath our justifications?) But we justify our behavior because it is what has been done for generations. And it is fun to see these exotic creatures for a few minutes, right? But it is colonialism in action. Or human supremacy.
“The point of the work is to open up conversation so people just can see it themselves. If I say too much I begin preaching and the conversation is over. It is asking: ‘What do you think?’ and being open to the answer.
“The elephants sent me a big message: they matter, their suffering is real, and we have to push institutions to change and then spend our money wisely. Research what is sustainable and not cruel. Support that.”
All images: © Colleen Plumb