In modern society, where man continues to replace rainforests with concrete jungles, it is no surprise that his relationship with animals should be reduced to a perversion: while the damage that industry wreaks on the animal kingdom in the name of food, cosmetics, traditional medicine and fashion is well established, an equally vexatious tradition is our practice of holding animals captive for our amusement in zoos.

Photographer Arko Datto, whose work has been widely published in National Geographic, Time, Newsweek and The Guardian, has been documenting animal behaviour in zoos over the past two years.

“I came across the live surveillance feeds of captive animals from zoological institutions and ended up working with these,” Datto said. “These live-cams permit dedicated, round-the-clock access to the captive animals, allowing viewers into the innermost chambers of the enclosures – areas that are impossible to visit during a physical trip to the zoo. CAPTIVECAM initially comprised of screenshots created from these live-cams but has grown to become a complex project with simultaneous narratives across multiple mediums.”

Milwaukee County Zoo, June 21, 2015. Credit: Arko Datto

The various narratives that Datto alludes to can be found on the project’s Instagram page. To go above and beyond the live-cams central to the project at inception, the photographer has taken to travelling to zoos in person and using digital tools (including apps on his smartphone) to document the myriad facets of animal captivity.

“I used to spend hours at end on live-stream surveillance feeds of Smithsonian’s National Zoo, San Diego Zoo and the Edinburgh Zoo, but since October I have been personally visiting zoos in India and Bangladesh,” Datto said. “I frequent Alipore Zoo, as it’s in Kolkata, but I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Dhaka Zoo, Nandankanan Biological Park, Nainital Zoo and the Jamshedpur Zoological Park. Subject to the availability of funds, I intend to visit more zoos in India and South East Asia”.

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Particularly harrowing to watch but essential to observe are the time-lapse videos shot by Datto to document Repetitive Locomotion Stereotype – a psychological disorder observed in captive animals that makes them move in a trance-like state. “For animals that roam vast spaces in their natural states, no enclosure, however vast, can compensate for that,” said Datto. “In captivity an animal is naught but a mere figment of its real being.”

There are several documented instances of animals in zoos moving in repetitive motion. In 2003, for instance, Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, was flummoxed by a four-year-old male polar bear that spent a third of his time following the same routine: according to the Chicago Tribune, he would walk “the same number of paces, [down] the same plodding path, and [make the] same contorted head turn”. Realising that the animal was gallingly bored or stressed, the zoo renovated his exhibit – but the time spent pacing reduced only by half.

In the afterword to his controversial book Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that “the initial shiver of inspiration” for his book “was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, who after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: This sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage”.

Last year’s shooting of Harambe, a Western lowland gorilla, by the authorities at Cincinnati Zoo, after a four-year old fell into its enclosure – sparked a fresh debate on the purpose of zoos in the modern world. Animal welfare activists argue that zoos are increasingly exploiting animals under the guise of conservation and pass off voyeurism as an educational substitute. Unfortunately, in a country leading up to election, Harambe’s death was reduced to memes that were widely shared in an attempt to mock an alleged liberal hysteria.

Datto dismisses such human indifference towards animals. “Zoo visitors hardly spend more than a few seconds in front of each enclosure, so the psychological ramifications of animal captivity are hardly seen or felt by them,” he said. “The time-lapses taken over even 3-6 minutes roughly help illuminate the psychotic state suffered by captive animals.”

What began as an archive focused on animals, has evolved to capture their interactions with spectators. By using Instagram’s Boomerang feature, that allows images to be stitched together into a video, the project tries to capture intense man-animal interactions, which are repeated ad infinitum, to drive home how humanity often revels in this act of domination. According to Datto, the cruelty we mete out to animals is a reflection on the limits of what we might inflict on other human beings – he says the zoo visitor’s taunting of captive animals has an unfortunate counterpart in the torture of prisoners, in Abu Ghraib by personnel of the US Army as well as other in prisons around the world.

“There are individual cases which affected me, like the bird with the clipped wings that went around in circles desperately trying to fly, or the lion that urinated on irritating spectators, or the ape that mimicked the audience,” Datto said. He has also started recording animals like the monkeys at Nandankana Zoo, who roam free on the other side of the cages that contain their peers.

Apart from photographic footage of animal captivity, the CAPTIVECAM project also features text from writers, thinkers and philosophers writing on animal instincts, captivity and nature. Datto lists Giorgio Agamben’s The Open Man and Animal, Jacques Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I Am (More to Follow), Deleuze & Guattari’s Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, JM Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals and John Berger’s Why Look at Animals, along with the works of philosophers Peter Singer and Thomas Nagel as sources of information and inspiration.

Datto was never particularly interested in animals until he began the project. “I walked into Alipore zoo on a whim in 2015 and everything transpired from there,” he said. “I am very much against captivity right now, after spending this amount of time on the work – watching live-feeds and visiting zoos. My interests, while ingrained in a streak of activism, have also grown to explore fundamental questions pertaining to the place of man and animals in nature.”