Considering the Zoo
It would be a feat of Olympian speed and logistics to see each of Melbourne Zoo’s 3000 animals during a single visit. Animals are arranged by virtue of their native surroundings—the Wild Sea, Great Flight Aviary and Australian Bush areas are labelled cheerfully on the map like suburbs. Sometimes they are arranged in loose groupings, like the ‘small cats’ corridor lined with snow leopards, servals and caracals. Sometimes the animals live next to each other in counterintuitive combinations: with its short snout and hairy, hose-like body, the calmly bathing Brazilian tapir seems an odd neighbour for the skittish North American peccaries, boar-like beasts that trail each other in a line. It’s then that the artificiality of zoos comes to the fore; how unusual an environment this is. We’re not in ‘nature’, but an animal version of Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World’ ride.
This kind of emotional dissonance—the combination of delight and aesthetic or even moral uncertainty—means that I often leave a zoo’s grounds feeling troubled, as if I had perpetrated some kind of harm. Is it okay to keep animals in cages? Why are we so drawn to exhibit and gaze upon them, consume them? Should we be able to keep animals suspended in a half-wild, half-tame state? Why does it feel so enlivening to see and be near these creatures? Do we even need zoos?
Others share this ambivalence towards zoos; some people I told about my fellowship immediately declared that they were opposed to them. The animal-rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ‘opposes zoos because cages and cramped enclosures at zoos deprive animals of the opportunity to satisfy their most basic needs. The zoo community regards the animals it keeps as commodities, and animals are regularly bought, sold, borrowed, and traded … And some zoos still import animals from the wild.’1
To clarify one’s feelings towards zoos, one must first know what a zoo does, or what a zoo is for. In his 1985 essay ‘Against Zoos’, philosopher Dale Jamieson suggests a ‘rough-and-ready’ definition of zoos: ‘public parks which display animals, primarily for the purposes of recreation or education’. This view was echoed by other theorists and writers: a common early construction of the purpose of zoos was to ‘entertain and instruct’.2
But now that animal rights and conservation have spurred change in the motivations of zoos, each one has as its aim a combination of entertainment, conservation and education, and the importance of each of these varies in degree from zoo to zoo. The rhetoric of conservation has become a stronger thread in how some zoos represent themselves. In its 2011–12 annual report, Melbourne Zoo phrased its mission thus:
To galvanise communities to commit to the conservation of wildlife and wild places by connecting people and wildlife by:
Opening the door to exceptional wildlife encounters that reach beyond the boundaries of our properties
Leading the way by communicating and demonstrating the role of conservation and research in all we do
Catalysing action through inspiring experiences that motivate participation leading to conservation and sustainability outcomes.
The first thing one notices about these statements is how human-centric they are. It is an admission that animals cannot save themselves. Humans must first understand and accept their value, be inspired, then act to conserve them. While animal species are the ultimate beneficiaries of zoo activity in this model, it is people whom zoos must attract in order to fund programs and pass on conservation-related messages.
What are these messages, and what conservation and research are being conducted at Melbourne Zoo? All through the grounds are giant posters featuring gorgeous wildlife photographs and gently exhortatory slogans such as ‘Don’t palm us off!’ (the zoo’s palm-oil awareness campaign) or ‘Love your locals’ (highlighting the zoo’s efforts to prevent the extinction of twenty Victorian species). According to the annual report, in the 2011–12 financial year Melbourne Zoo took its first steps in saving four species from extinction: the Leadbeater’s possum, Alpine she-oak skink, Guthega skink and Baw Baw frog. It also released one thousand eggs of the endangered Corroboree frog into the wild. As well as these and other local conservation activities, it also funded wildlife scouts in Kenya, who ‘are on the frontline of protecting the people of the community and their wildlife from poachers, over-grazing and deep-set tribal conflicts’.
When Stephen told people he worked at the zoo their faces would light up. ‘Oh, I love animals! How wonderful!’ they gushed.
—Charlotte Wood, Animal People
Stephen Connolly, the protagonist in Charlotte Wood’s wonderfully empathetic and enquiring novel Animal People, is categorically not an animal person. In a memorably squirm-inducing scene, an elderly German shepherd belonging to Stephen’s neighbours noses Stephen’s bum and groin. Then, Stephen watches, bemused, as the dog licks its owner’s face, ‘up and down, in long syrupy strokes’. This instance of human–animal communion reflects a general trait Stephen has noticed among his acquaintance: humans’ enthusiasm for beasts.
Though he works at the zoo—in the fast-food kiosk—he doesn’t find it the charming experience that others assume it is. Stephen finds the zoo ‘depressing. It was not the cages so much as the people—their need to possess, their disappointment, they way they wanted the animals to notice them.’
Wood’s keen eye has captured details of the zoo atmosphere that would be familiar to any visitor: the mountains of animal-themed merchandise (‘rhino cups, rhino slippers, rhino computer mouse pads, rhino-shaped chocolates, stuffed fluffy rhino toys’), the casually cute animal bios (‘Likes: His keeper Rusty; Bamboo Back Scratches. Dislikes: Getting out of bed on winter mornings!’), the Play School–level keeper presentations (‘We’re pretty famous for our snakes in Australia’). But her sharpest—and most devastating—observations relate to the members of the public traversing the zoo grounds:
‘Look, Bronte!’ She crouched at her daughter’s side, and pointed. ‘Look at him. He can see you!’
Russell followed Stephen’s gaze. ‘Pathetic, isn’t it.’
This is a pattern of behaviour exhibited not only by the fictional Bronte and her ecstatic mother but, as I witnessed at Melbourne Zoo, by many zoo visitors. As I watched, my fellow visitors would beckon to the animals, calling and gesticulating in order to have their attention reciprocated. And for what? Having been conditioned by pet domestication and meticulously edited wildlife documentaries to crave, even expect, the attention of animals, perhaps we were only re-creating experiences we’d had before, in the only way we knew to make them meaningful. Parents shepherding broods of children would call to the zoo creatures to get their attention. ‘Over here!’ children and adults alike would call to the munching mammals, like desperadoes at a netball game. Then, a common triumphant refrain, ‘It’s looking at me!’
And looking seemed to be enough. No sooner would a hulking elephant pivot its great head towards the fence or an African hunting dog trot past a cluster of iPhone-wielding visitors than the people would move on, satisfied. I was no exception. My first visit to the zoo during the fellowship was also my first in twenty years, so I likewise careened around stupidly, trying to make sure I saw the lions, the seals, the tigers and the elephants at least. Like a supermarket shopper, I had a list that I mentally ticked off.
Once I was accustomed to the zoo’s terrain, my viewing methods relaxed. But one thing I was never able to do was remain with any particular animal for too long. In his essay ‘Why look at animals?’, John Berger wrote: ‘The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.’ Without any knowledge of animal behaviour, or breadth of zoological studies to inform my gaze, the process of looking at animals remained linear and shallow.
What is so desirable about the experience of looking at animals? In Animal People, Stephen’s sister berates him: ‘I figured out why it’s so perfect that you work at the zoo, actually … You like your life forms behind bars or glass so you don’t have to get in there and wrangle with any of it. You don’t have to engage with it. You can just watch, from a distance, and whenever you get sick of it you can just walk away.’ Thus, zoo animals remind humans of their own dominance; or worse, they are powerless pawns in an entertainment industry, merely filling a gap in the market.
Berger takes it further, arguing that viewing animals at the zoo is inherently disappointing, because ‘you are looking at something that has been rendered completely marginal’ by the physical and ontological nature of the organisation. Whereas humans and animals once beheld each other with dangerous, observant or kindly meaning, a zoo’s tokenistic decor, its animals’ dependence on keepers and consequent behavioural changes, and the artificiality of exhibition spaces renders the relationship—‘the look’—between human and zoo animal void.
All good things are wild and free.
—Henry David Thoreau
There are other reasons viewing animals at the zoo might disturb a viewer. Most obvious is the animals’ imprisonment. In ‘Against Zoos’, Dale Jamieson argued that keeping wild animals in captivity is objectionable because it ‘involves … taking animals out of their native habitats, transporting them great distances and keeping them in alien environments in which their liberty is severely restricted’. Further, Jamieson added, animals are ‘prevented from gathering their own food, developing their own social orders and generally behaving in ways that are more natural to them’. Perhaps we pity them: when we look at zoo animals, we are seeing ‘unnatural’ animals, ‘sub-animals’. Or perhaps we reflect on their captivity and imagine what it might be like to have our own lives curtailed in such a way.
When viewing zoo animals, there’s no getting around the fact that they are not completely wild, nor at all free. What does it mean to be wild? Mullan and Marvin suggest that ‘“Wild” connotes the unknown, distant from human, foreign (with the implication of exotic) and potentially unsafe’.3 Yet at any staged feeding time, we can see the animals responding to human movement, determined by human schedules. You can even pay to touch and feed some of the animals.
While several of Melbourne Zoo’s ungulates, primates and reptiles roam open-air enclosures bounded by glass, knee-high shrubs and fences, or sheer artificial escarpments—a far cry from the tiny concrete-and-metal boxes of yore, one of which is on exhibit as a reminder of crueller pasts—these enclosures are still, for all intents and purposes, cages. Though the lions have a ‘park’ so large that visitors can barely see all of it, some enclosures seem distressingly small. Honey, the Syrian brown bear, lopes around in a carefully designed area that resembles the birch forests she hails from, but it is smaller than my childhood back yard.
When I visit her one afternoon, she doesn’t seem content, an old lady fossicking and grumbling. I mention this to a volunteer, who tells me that bears are hard to keep stimulated in captivity; in the wild, they would forage throughout the day. At the zoo, staff are constantly carting different types of feed and materials to the various enclosures, all part of the behavioural enrichment program used to prevent the animals from getting bored. So it’s not just the size, the contours or the appearance of the space that are important but also the nature of the space and activity available to the animal that can satisfy them. We may try to replicate nature, but it will only ever be a replica.
While few would question the ethics of keeping domestic animals indoors or in a yard, a tiger pacing the perimeter of its allotted space or a platypus scrabbling at the glass is difficult to watch with equanimity. Not all animals do this, nor does any animal pace all the time. In Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Jaguar’—Hughes was employed for a short period at a zoo—he describes various zoo creatures at leisure: ‘Fatigued with indolence, tiger and lion / Lie still as the sun.’
A zoo-goer’s concerns might dissipate at the sight of the lazing, relaxed-looking specimens. But the ones agitating at the seams of their realm both attract and disturb. The poet’s gaze turns to a place of both greater stillness and movement:
At a cage where the crowd stands, stares, mesmerized,
As a child at a dream, at a jaguar hurrying enraged.
Hughes’ stalking jaguar is both caged and not. Its physical entrapment cannot contain, but tragically emphasises, the freedom of the animal’s imaginings: ‘The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.’
Many consider Hughes’ jaguar to be a literary descendant of Rainer Maria Rilke’s panther. It’s said Rilke, too, took himself to the zoo, at the suggestion of Auguste Rodin. His project, wrote John Banville in the New York Review of Books earlier this year, was to ‘pick one of the animals in the zoo there and study it in all its movements and moods until he knew it as thoroughly as a creature or thing could be known’. In ‘The Panther’ (the most incantatory translation is Stephen Mitchell’s), his vision is one of an animal reconstituted by life in cages: ‘It seems to him there are a thousand bars; / and behind the bars, no world.’ This is a creature that captivity has driven to centrifugal motion, ‘cramped circles, over and over’. The Latin root of ‘centrifugal’ is fugere: to flee.
A zoo is designed to entertain and instruct. It’s a place to see a version of the real. For complete authenticity you must visit Africa.
—Steven Conte, The Zookeeper’s War
The natural world has influenced the design of Melbourne Zoo’s enclosures. When a volunteer led me through the various zones, I was encouraged to note how, for example, the Wild Sea area began with a sandy walk studded with beachside paraphernalia, then progressed to a tank containing shallow-water dwellers such as rays and bullhead sharks. After this, the path takes you into a building where the light is dimmed to evoke the feeling of being underwater; you’re in the deep sea now. The Great Flight Aviary is divided into three habitat types: rainforest, waterways and open forest. In some enclosures, though, pragmatism surfaces. The zoo’s three Rothschild’s giraffes eat hay from metal cages affixed at browsing height. Orang-utans swing from lime-green plastic tubes and drag burlap sacks behind them like children with blankets.
These jungle-gymified patches are a far cry from early zoo enclosures, which prioritised the human visitor’s experience:
In the earliest zoos the physical presence of the living animal was the only important factor. The concern was to confine the animals and yet allow for their maximum visibility. It was only later, in fact well into the twentieth century, that people began to become concerned with the quality of life within the cage or enclosure.4
Yet zoos around the world still use these kinds of cages. In Stanley and Sophie (2008), Kate Jennings’ memoir about adopting two scrappy border terriers after the death of her husband, Jennings visits her brother in Bali. At the Bali Zoo she finds ‘an unfortunate time capsule … small cast-iron and concrete enclosures containing an arbitrary selection of sickly or bored creatures’.
The cage Melbourne Zoo exhibits as a sobering reminder of its past is a miserable affair. If the two-dimensional tiger standing stiffly inside it as illustration were a real animal, it would barely have room to turn around. The cage’s drab, severe planes recall—indeed, constitute—solitary confinement. In comparison, the zoo’s Australian bush area includes a large paddock where kangaroos and wallabies roam freely. Though I often saw them lying, tessellated, in pods, there was a reassuringly natural feel to this tableau, as if I’d stumbled across them while bushwalking: a far more relaxing narrative than that which places a snow leopard in a patently unsnowy environment so I may contemplate it at my convenience.
While modern zoo design is generally more generous in terms of space, and developments in technology allow enclosures to be furnished with innovations such as outdoor heating pads, whose comfort is truly being served by exhibits that contextualise and aesthetically frame the animal? As Mullan and Marvin write, ‘in the zoo the space has to be created for two sets of creatures’. We humans need to be both sated and assuaged, and in the animal-rights-conscious twentieth century, this involves seeing the animals engaged and comfortable in their surroundings.
In Steven Conte’s novel The Zookeeper’s War, set during the Second World War, Germany and zoo tradition are in transition. Axel Frey, scion of a zookeeping family, has inherited the care of the Berlin Zoo. At the beginning of the novel, British raids on Berlin destroy large segments of the zoo, killing ten thousand animals and demolishing ‘a century of building’. Other creatures remain, cruelly injured or scavenging for food among the ruins. Frey’s battle to save the surviving animals comes up against many obstacles, not least the government’s wartime lack of resources, predictable—the animals’ corpses are requisitioned for food, staff are called up for military service—and chilling: the animals left at the zoo cannot be evacuated due to ‘the shortage of cattle cars’.
Frey, with an optimism that seems at odds with his country’s slow destruction, sees the damage as an opportunity to rebuild: ‘Fewer displays, but larger’. Berlin Zoo, described by zoo director and architect David Hancocks as having ‘some of the most superb zoo architecture the world has ever seen’,5 goes curiously underdescribed by Conte, who instead maps the historic zoo according to Frey’s childhood memories and adult duties. The real Berlin Zoo contained wondrous, exotic structures, including a ‘carnivore castle, antelope mosque, pachyderm temple, Moorish bird house, and a monkey palace’.6 Nevertheless, what Frey wants to build are Freigehege, or outdoor enclosures, rather than these traditional walled animal houses.
In reality, not long after the Berlin Zoo’s fabulous enclosures were designed and built, a German animal dealer named Carl Hagenbeck was expanding his business. His idea, exhibiting his exotic animals with native people from the same country, is abhorrent by today’s standards, but was briefly popular with the public. When that venture lost traction with audiences, Hagenbeck experimented with circuses before finally settling on the creation of a new kind of zoo, which would affect how zoos worldwide would be arranged well into the future.
Hagenbeck’s idea was an animal park, ‘a paradise for the animals’. Rather than enclosing the animals within walls and ceilings, he devised ‘systems of dry and water-filled moats that were either concealed with vegetation or employed as “natural” ponds and used them to separate the animals from one another and the public’.7 It’s something akin to this model that sees giraffes at Melbourne Zoo framed not by glass and steel but by a mere knee-height hedge that, keepers explain, they cannot climb over. The result is a stirring proximity, enabling viewers to imagine themselves in the giraffe’s world even as they are patently in ours.
… in these enlightened times many zoo professionals no longer see amusement and entertainment as roles that are worthy of zoos.
—Dale Jamieson, ‘Zoos Revisited’
Inasmuch as you can have a favourite among such a range of animals, mine were the seals. The Melbourne Zoo exhibit cleverly allows you to go underground so you can watch its three seals bolt and dive underwater. Without such an aspect, any seal exhibit would almost be useless: you’d never see the seals above the water—and you’ve never really seen seals unless you’ve seen them swimming.
Margo Lanagan’s exquisite Sea Hearts reinterprets the Scots selkie folktale, thrusting a witch onto the island of Rollrock. This witch, Misskaella, can summon beautiful women out of the hearts of seals; men can marry and keep them as long as they lock away the pelts that fall from the seals when they are magicked out of the water.
Once these women come to land, they eventually became ‘unhappy beyond any unhappiness that a boy like me could imagine or fathom’. So says Sea Hearts’ Daniel Mallett, whose mother is a seal-wife, pining for life under the waves. Daniel, disturbed by his mother’s torpor, hatches a plan to reunite her with her natural home. Overjoyed, she takes him with her. His experience is one untranslatable into human words or even concepts. Of his time beneath the ocean, he explains:
nothing happened in the sense that humans know happening … At the approach of my man-mind, my seal life slips apart into glimpses and half-memories: sunlight shafts into the green; the mirror roof crinkles above; the mams race ahead through the halls and cathedrals and along the high-roads of the sea …
It’s this we witness and understand, insofar as we can, when we see the three zoo seals spinning and dancing, all fluidity and graphite, in their exhibit. Their movement is beautiful and terribly sad. These seals all became zoo residents after being found malnourished or injured in the wild. Melbourne’s coast has become a juncture where seal and human worlds bleed into each other, and seals have come out worst, accepting thoughtlessly offered food from fishers, and getting lost inland afterwards or gradually losing their hunting skills as the easier option of being hand-fed takes its toll.
Every day at the zoo, two seals adorably perform a story about how they came to live there. The show is like something you’d see at Sea World: the seals bark, dive and walk on command. Children squeal with glee, and adults also mash their hands together happily at the tricks. It’s not all entertainment: the moral of the story is to dispose carefully of stray pieces of fishing line, which can hurt and kill the ocean-dwelling mammals. Still, there’s not a lot of dignity in this tricks-for-fish spectacle. While they have lived longer here than they would have in the wild, the same thought comes as when watching horses draw neon-lit carriages down a busy city street: what would a wild one rather do? As Koen Margodt phrases it, ‘Liberty is not the same as longevity or happiness’.8
Zoos are unsettling: not quite beautiful or morally watertight, emerging from history with multiple burdens and responsibilities that will see them continue, ungainly, into a complicated future. To be sure, our hearts thrum when we see so many incredible species together, defying imagination and geography to graze, pace and slumber together for our pleasure and convenience. Zoos are rare sites where we can contribute financially to the preservation of species and learn about small everyday things we can do to help endangered animals. ‘Either we have duties to animals or we do not,’ wrote Dale Jamieson, and I believe that we do: to learn more about them, to curtail activities that harm them, to prevent endangered species from becoming extinct. Are zoos the answer? No. But they can help us to find it.
4 Mullan and Marvin, Zoo Culture, p. 47.
7 Nigel Rothfels, Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2008, p. 163.