Bristol Zoological Gardens has been open since 1836, and is currently home to over 7,000 individuals of over 400 species (according to their 2007 census, as reported on Wikipedia at the time of writing). I have visited countless times in my life, from being pushed around in a buggy by my mother before I could fully talk, to when I was conducting my own research project on the vocalisations of the African dwarf crocodiles here in my final year of university. I know it well, and I hope to continue returning for many years to come.
I understand that a lot of people who are reading this may take issue with the concept of zoos. In recent years, they have garnered much controversy, as stories of animal abuse, shortfalls in health and safety, inadequacy, and general negligence run rife across the internet. I, personally, condemn these reported actions with all my being as an animal lover. However, as a scientist, I also recognise the important work that any reputable zoo contributes towards the conservation and protection of thousands of species worldwide, and thus fall on the supporting side of some of these establishments.
Provided a zoo is involved in research furthering our knowledge and mission to re-establish and protect species in need of our help, I will support them. I am willing to pay the entrance fee to look at animals in enclosures if I can see that those animals are well cared for, and if it means that one day I may be able to see them in the wild too. And if a zoo doesn’t check these boxes, then I will not extend my support to them, and I will not visit it.
I first contacted Bristol Zoo’s administration office in late October 2017, asking if they would be interested in letting me come in and take some photos of the animals for their social media platforms free of charge. As expected, they said no, but I was bored that day so went anyway. I had hoped that upon my return I might be able to send some of these photographs back to the Zoo and change their mind about publishing my work on their Instagram page. I haven’t received a “no” yet, so my hopeful persistence endures.
Bristol Zoo is not a large one – on your right as you walk in are the lions (which, from my zoological perspective, really are lacking in space and represent one of the few major drawbacks of Bristol Zoo), beyond which live the reptiles, followed by the fish and the invertebrates. If you wander on past these you’ll reach monkeys, penguins, seals, pygmy hippos, and the endlessly impressive gorillas. If you walk further still, you can encounter meerkats, countless birds, and a beautiful butterfly house.
I know that many more experienced photographers will consider animals in zoos an “easy shot”. And it’s true – it is far easier to take photos of captive animals than wild ones, mainly because you don’t have to spend days or weeks searching through the wilderness to find them. It is this ease that makes zoos one of the best places for an aspiring wildlife photographer to practice. Where better to get to grips with your camera than where the animals can’t run away before you’ve managed to set up the shot?
I took these pictures with my trusty Nikon D5000, paired with a Sigma 70-300mm macro lens. My Nikon 55-300mm is sharper and faster, but I didn’t want to be carrying around more than one lens, and I knew I’d be needing the macro feature for the insect house. In total, I was at the zoo for a little over two hours. I had wanted to stay longer, but being one of my few days off work I had a lot of errands to run. Hopefully in the future I’ll have more time, as I seemed to skip past most of the birds, and some of the large mammals.
To anyone thinking of visiting Bristol Zoo in the future: I recommend it. Yes, some of the enclosures are lacking in space, but I think they’ve tried to make the most of the space that they do have, which is difficult for a city zoo. They operate and contribute towards a number of conservation programmes and research projects, some of which can be seen by the public through the windows of their research centre, next to the giant tortoises. To read more about those, click here.
Now that I’m living in Bristol, I’m thankful that I can still visit this place. I’ve been fortunate to spend many happy hours here since my childhood, and have many happy memories to match. I’m sure I’ll be back soon – like I said, the zoo environment is a fantastic place to learn your way around new camera equipment, and my wist list is growing by the day…