Origin of Species

The focus of this heart-rending photograph is not the act itself, but the way it captures the lioness’s non-gaze.

The bandaged, bleeding ear of this lioness, the hypodermic syringe on the right that is meant for her, the small bald spot in her shoulder fur, her large paw, the reddish triangle of her nose. The lioness is anesthetized. Two rubber-gloved hands are dealing with her, but one of them has for a moment placed the box and its blue plastic cover on her long spine.

This superb photograph, taken by Nir Elias on January 19, documents the implanting of a device that secretes hormonal contraceptives into the bloodstream of a 2-year-old lioness named Savanna at the Ramat Gan Safari. The handlers explained that unlike other means of controlling the reproduction of lions, the effect of this material wears off after two years and does not adversely affect the animals’ social behavior, as happens when male lions are neutered permanently.

Tal Niv - Nir Elias - January 19, 2012
Nir Elias

But the focus of this heart-rending photograph is not the act itself, but the way it captures the lioness’s non-gaze. This is not only the glazed stare brought on by the anesthetic, but a look that lies one notch below the gaze of a stuffed animal and one notch above the dazed look of an animal in a zoo. Why is the gaze of caged animals so empty?

The Safari loves its animals. A visit to the open section, where zebras and rhinos can socialize, is different from a visit to the cage area. It’s a merrier experience, without the unease that is always felt on seeing the dislocation and paralysis of wild creatures confined to cages with asphalt floors and a “setting” that simulates nature − like the rock garden behind the tempered glass, behind which is a tiger that has nowhere to run. The Safari aspires to remove animals from cages and distance itself from the model of 19th-century European zoos. But can it do so totally, in the heart of a city?

In his essay “Why look at animals?” − which should be read in Israel’s schools rather than nationalist pamphlets − the photography critic John Berger writes that ignoring animals and caging them for display led to the development of the market for toy animals − to the point where there is no child in the Western world today without a collection of soft furry creatures. Visiting a zoo, then, is meant to show the child the “original” of his toy, but the animal is lethargic, apathetic, separated from other species. It’s unnatural.

“Why look at animals?” is the first article in “About Looking,” a collection of profound and surprising essays ‏(also published in Hebrew‏). “However you look at these animals,” Berger writes, “even if the animal is up against the bars, less than a foot from you, looking outwards in the public direction, you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal; and all the concentration you can muster will never be enough to centralize it.”

A zoo experience can only disappoint, because the animals are oppressed, controlled by arrangements that, though aimed at maximizing visitors’ enjoyment, have nothing to do with natural instincts. The animal has no place in capitalist life other than as a product. And in this photograph, in which a lioness is being treated and its well-being looked after, that awareness is reflected in her one wide-open eye