Four years ago, the photojournalist Aaron Gekoski encountered an orangutan living in a four-by-five meter concrete cell at Dam Sen Amusement Park in Vietnam. “He only had two cement boulders in that cell,” he remembers. “People would pass by and knock on the glass or taunt him with food, whilst he cowered behind them. I’d never seen an animal quite so emotionally broken.” In the years since, Gekoski has traveled to four continents documenting the wildlife tourism industry, bearing witness to the treatment of animals in zoos, amusement parks, circuses, and other tourist attractions.
Many of these unforgettable moments are part of his new book on the exploitation of wild animals around the world, titled ANIMOSITY. “I’ve seen the worst of the worst; places that you can barely comprehend,” he tells me. Also at Dam Sen Amusement Park, he saw macaques perform, terrified and wearing collars with painful spikes. At Phuket Zoo, he observed elephants chained up all night, developing foot infections after being forced to stand in their own urine. At Pata Zoo, he came face-to-face with Bua Noi, a gorilla who hadn’t set foot outside her filthy cage for decades.
At Taman Safari in Java, Indonesia, he saw elephants punched in the trunk, only to realize later that the handlers were concealing sharp objects resembling nails, resulting in raw puncture wounds. At the Saigon Zoo in Vietnam, he met an emaciated sun bear who spent his days standing on his hind legs, begging for food from passersby.
While documenting traveling circuses, Gekoski learned about dolphins placed on stretchers and covered in lubricant before being forced to perform in artificial salt water pools, laced with chlorine. At a zoo in the Czech Republic, lions were whipped and beaten during shows, then stuffed in overcrowded trailers. “Many zoos masquerade as centres for education or conservation,” Gekoski explains. “But in reality, most are exploitative money-making machines that profit from the suffering of animals.”
Corporal punishment and food deprivation are common among animals who are ridden by tourists or forced to perform for crowds. “They may be fed the wrong diets or not fed at all,” the photojournalist admits. “Many spend the rest of their lives in woefully inappropriate enclosures, exploited as human playthings.”
Beyond the physical marks of mistreatment, he commonly encountered stereotypic behavior, signs of stress, frustration, and deteriorating mental health. “This is a form of zoochosis where animals perform repetitive behaviors such as head bobbing or pacing,” he says. “So if you see elephants swaying or big cats pacing back and forth next time you’re at the zoo, bear in mind this is a sign of a distressed animal.”
While some of the animals at these attractions were bred in captivity, others were stolen from the wild. “The collection process is brutal and normally involves killing the mother and taking the babies, which are then smuggled across international borders,” the photographer continues. “Many will die of stress, dehydration, or hunger en route.”
Exposing the brutal realities behind the wildlife tourism industry carries a degree of danger, and when documenting these stories, Gekoski keeps a low profile. For his safety, he’s had to keep his location hidden until he leaves the country. “I’ve upset a lot of people through these investigations: zoos, governments, and some shady characters,” he says. “This is a lucrative, multi-billion dollar industry, and negative publicity can be extremely damaging. The owners will do whatever it takes to protect their business interests.”
For this photographer, however, uncovering the truth is worth the risks, and his work with animal welfare organizations has led to much-needed investigations into urgent concerns at tourist attractions. “In 2019, I helped set up Raise the Red Flag with Born Free Foundation,” he explains. “This is a platform where people can report cruel Wildlife Tourism Attractions around the world. The goal is to then work with the authorities to improve the lives of captive animals or to get the worst operators shut down. So far, hundreds of locations have been reported and logged. It’s one tiny step in the fight against cruelty in the Wildlife Tourism industry.”
Of all the stories he’s covered throughout his career, those from within this industry have been among the most painful for Gekoski, and despite the fact that millions of animals remain trapped in the system, it’s the memory of all the individual animals that drives him more than anything else. Early last year, he received reports that the orangutan kept in the concrete cell at Dam Sen Amusement Park had been moved, but no one seemed to know where he’d gone. His fate remains a mystery. “I spent hours observing him, with my head pressed on the glass next to his,” the photographer remembers. “I’d like to think he knew I was there to help.”
Aaron Gekoski is the author of the staggering new book ANIMOSITY, about our broken relationship with animals. You can grab your copy here. We’ll be covering a few stories from ANIMOSITY over the coming weeks, so stay tuned. Learn more about Gekoski’s work for animals by visiting his website and following along on Instagram at @aaron_gekoski. His documentary film about orangutans in the wildlife trade is forthcoming.