Zoos, in my opinion (ahem)

Otter clapping fbDSC02705


I have friends who hate zoos.  Who think all the creatures should be freed from these vile prisons, and passionately believe keeping anything behind bars is immoral.

I don’t agree.

I pay a subscription membership, and walk around Wellington Zoo at least once most weeks.  I usually take a camera.  While I’m too timid to ask permission from strangers in the street to take their photographs, the animals at the zoo are always happy to pose, or alternatively quite busy living their animal lives and indifferent to my presence.

I’ve been visiting ‘my’ zoo for over 50 years now, albeit with occasional decade long gaps.   When I was a child chimp tea parties were still a thing, there was an elephant you could have rides on, and lions and tigers and a polar bear paced endlessly in tiny cages.   Zoos are different now.  Public zoos are devoted to the welfare and optimal care of their creatures.  They use the entertainment value of the animals, including star attraction animals,  to fund education and conservation, including of less glamorous creatures that are still worthy of study and respect.  The enclosures are larger and leafier, and animal psychology has been used to create enrichment programmes.

Cheetah, being patted

Is this okay?

I am a little uneasy about the “encounter” sessions, the opportunity to pay a hefty extra charge over zoo admission and go in an enclosure. Wild creatures are not pets, and it feels wrong to see them being petted.  But, the encounter animals are chosen carefully for placid and predictable temperament.  They’re conditioned to tolerate handling from an early age so that they’ll let themselves be caught and handled for veterinary procedures. The high-fee paying humans are carefully controlled and managed by the zoo staff, and those funds help keep the zoo afloat financially.   That cheetah certainly could bite the gently patting hands, if it wanted to.  She just doesn’t want to.  For now.

Modern zoos acquire new inhabitants from responsible sources.  Most are acquired via breeding exchange with other zoos.  There are also some wild-born animals that are injured and not able to be fully rehabilitated to live in the wild again, and others that have been rescued from illegal pet situations, and lack the hunting or social skills that would let them ever live as wild animals – Wellington’s Sun Bears have that history.   For some, zoos are a genetic backup for an endangered species at risk in the wild due to disease, for example the Tasmanian Devil and those face tumors.

There are good reasons that Wellington zoo doesn’t have a lot of very large animals, especially large animals that like to live in groups: there isn’t  the room.  There are no wide vistas to roam, and it’s too cold and too hilly for creatures that like a bit of in-lake wallowing.  Although I miss the elephant of my childhood, I quite understand that there isn’t room to look after one well, let alone space and money for a socially appropriate herd.  Small social carnivores seem to do very nicely in captivity, and otters and meerkats are always enchanting to watch.  Although they do somewhat lack the majesty of Kamala, the elephant I met when I was three, and who I still remember decades later.

Tassy Devil

Not demonic

Baboons are animals I find genuinely horrifying, and would never ever want to encounter on the wrong side of a stout enclosure fence.   When I took my young grandson on his first trip to the zoo recently, we stopped by their enclosure.  Part of the troupe started banging on the glass, teeth bared, shrieking at him.  Baboons and their brightly coloured parts trigger many complicated conversations between parents and children, often starting with “Mummy, what is the big baboon doing to the little baboon?”

Animals in zoos act as representatives for their species, give children reason to care about science and the environment, and spark awareness of the larger world.   They may be inspired to find out if their loo-paper comes from a sustainable source, or start to understand why throwing plastic rubbish in the sea is a bad thing.   Watching a chimp family play together, looking at a bear or a lion and having it look back (hungrily!), seeing a penguin in the zoo hospital or an otter using its clever paws to hold a fish, these are starting places for stories and conversations.  What emotions do we share with animals?  Well, pretty much all of them, and so what does it mean to be human?

A selection of common small farm animals has been recently added to the zoo; sheep, pigs and chickens are as exotic to the average city-bred toddler as meerkats or red pandas.  I’m mildly mesmerised by a new bee exhibit, and the deep sound the hive makes, audible only when you hold your ear near the glass.  After visiting a zoo, it’s impossible not to look at domestic animals and see the similarities and differences to wild relatives.  Cats and tigers, dogs and dingos.  Monkeys, chimps and people.

Victorians used to visit madhouses and prisons for personal entertainment, and maybe one day zoo trips will be regarded the same way.  But for now, it’s good to be able to go to a modern zoo, and when you look at an exotic animal get that a thinking feeling being is looking back at you.  Except for the baboons, whom I suspect to be mainly thinking “garrrgh, kill everything that’s not a baboon”.

Son and grandson

Zoo visit with son and Grandson





(Photos all taken with IR modified camera)


Pensive baboon, yawning sun bear

This week’s mild obsession continues; playing with the IR modified camera.   I know they’re more typically used for landscape-over-water shots, but there’s something intriguing me about the shifted colour, the slight wrongness to the light and dark on other sorts of images.   Something about the way that until you process the image in Photoshop it’s just a dull blah, which makes it more ‘mine’ that a standard camera capture?  The sensation that film-era photographers felt when they took negatives out of the developer perhaps.


IR Baboon

225mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5.6, iso 200


135mm, 1/2000 sec, f/5, iso 200

IR with Cheetahs

Update some days later!

After an “ah hah” moment with photo processing for images from the IR camera today, I revisited my Cheetah.  Much better result.

Revised processing

Revised processing using a camera profile and colour channel mixing

Processed using my previous ‘play with the sliders in ARC’ method :

For my daily amble today I took my old Sony A580 to the zoo.   I had the filter which normally sits in front of the sensor removed a few months ago and replaced with a clear one, aka a full-spectrum conversion.  Sensor filters normally keep out most of the infra-red and UV light which is outside the human eyesight range, so that photographs look ‘right’ in terms of colour.  This camera doesn’t have that any more.  Focusing is a bit of a challenge (or at least it was with the Tamron 70-300mm lens I was using today), but the results can be interesting when not utterly rubbish.   These are the straight-out-of-camera colour, and lightly processed b&w versions.

IR cheetah

Crisper fur, but not looking at the camera

Cheetah IR

And, trying a macro lens back in m’garden.  This Sony 35mm lens seems much sharper than the Tamron one, and the colours are quite different.

IR monarch

I really need to remember to take this camera next time I go on a road trip – IR is absorbed quite differently to visible light by vegetation, and I’d love to try take some of those spooky landscape pictures which inspired me to get my retired camera converted in the first place.

Quick budget lens review – Tamron 70-300mm

Specifically, the Tamron AF70-300mm F/4-5.6 LD Macro 1:2, Model A17S for Sony. 

Newtown lion

300mm f/4.5 1/160 sec iso 160

I am waiting for Sony or someone else to come up with a properly splendid telephoto lens for my A7ii camera, something full frame and E-Mount of course, that zooms from, say 20-600mm, is as fast as heck, sharp as a pointy sharp tack, and costs less than my car.  While I wait, and I admit, it could be a while, I’ll make do with a more basic alternative.  In this case, a very cheap Tamron lens, NZ$215 new, made for the Sony A-mount, so used with the LAEA4 adapter.  That adapter is a cunning device, basically adding back in the mirror that isn’t in mirrorless cameras, so that lenses designed for more traditional DSLR focusing will work on a mirrorless camera (how many times can I say mirrorless in one sentence – well, up to four times now).  It works with all the lenses I had for my ol’ Sony A580, and any random secondhand Minolta lenses that take my fancy on Ebay and the local equivalent.

The Tamron lens, bought for its low low price point, arrived yesterday and I took it for a short walk around m’local zoo.  It seems fine.  Perfectly okay.  Adequate in all the areas that I need basic adequacy.  And it cost less than a fancy pair of shoes or a handbag.  Not that I’d waste money on fancy shoes of course, and only on a handbag if it has a whole lot of padded storage for camera, spare batteries and other essential accessories.

Buying this super cheap lens is me being slightly strategic, I won’t feel that I have to stick with it once the fancy-pants new lens hits the shelves.  There are downsides of course, the autofocus is loud and slow, it’s clunky, but hey, photographs of things I can’t physically get close to can get made.  There’s a weird switch setup for the macro function, and it’s not entirely intuitive as to how you switch back to normal. I had to look at instructions.  But while not dazzlingly sharp, that macro was quite nice enough to catch the details on a resting honey bee; it means another bit of kit I can chose to leave home on a ‘just rambling’ sort of day.  The lens weighs less than 500gm, and even came with a hood.

So, photos.  These were all handheld, and the caracal cat who’d just caught it’s own lunch, and the chimp (in a dark room at high iso) were both shot through glass.

My review can be distilled down to “at that price, you really can’t complain”, and “it’ll do for now”.   If you want the kind of review that looks at test patterns, Mr Google is your friend.  I didn’t buy from Amazon this time, but they have mixed user reviews in abundance.   And Sony, if you’re listening, I’d be happy to test that experimental lens you’re getting ready to release later in the year.  Just so I can make a fair comparison eh.

chimp chomping

300mm f/5.6 1/320 sec iso 6400

Bee, low on buzz

300mm f/5.6 1/320 sec iso 400

Caracal cat and an ex-pidgeon

250mm f/5 1/320 sec iso 1250

Derpy Emu

300mm f/5.6 1/320 sec iso 1250

Infrared zoo

I’ve finally had the chance to do some experimenting with my old dslr today.  It’s a Sony A580, which I sent it off to have the inbuilt filters in front of the sensor removed.  So, now it records more of the light spectrum.  Not infrared at the “see heat in the dark” end of things, but definitely more than our eyes can see.  I’ll play with filters to control the light more (it’s a “full spectrum” conversion, meaning it has UV through to IR), but today I just wanted to try it out, and see how well I could focus.   It proved very much a matter of taking a photo, chimping, and changing the settings, what I see through the viewfinder is no longer at all accurate in terms of exposure and what is recorded.  These photos were all at shutter speeds five times or so faster than I would expect to use in this light.  Which makes sense, because there is much more light being let in.  Someone, somewhere probably has some kind of fancy calculation rules for working this out, but for now I’ll just spin dials until it looks right.

Zoo at twilight

I live near a small zoo, whose leafy paths make for a pleasant evening stroll.

My challenge tonight was to use just one manual lens of a fixed focal length.  This meant all interesting creatures more than a few metres away or those moving at any speed were not going to get captured.   There could be no classic watch-meerkat-on-a-rock shot against the sky tonight, no red panda in the trees, no jumping monkeys (just trust me, they were very cute), and entire animal kingdoms who remained at the back of their enclosures could not be photographed.

On the other hand, having to take the time to frame and focus each shot probably improved the ones I did take.   Except for the kiwi: my camera isn’t quite up to taking photos in the dark (or rather, the very red light has odd effects on the sensor), but it was still lovely to see a kiwi close up and active.

Shot with an A6000, and a Super-Takumar 50mm/f1.4 lens, mostly with the lens wide open.