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From  Issue
26 May 2002
Zoos and The End of Nature

by Dr. Steve Best - sbest1@elp.rr.com 

The zoo is a perfect microcosm of the postmodern world. As we swim in a sea of simulated, pseudo-realities of the National Entertainment State, where everything from human bodies to national politics is faked and contrived, why not simulate nature, wilderness, animal behaviors, and entire species too? At this late stage in the capitalist colonization of the planet, few pockets of the natural world remain, and the zoo embodies the commodification, fragmentation, and technification of living processes – biodiversity reduced to artificially sustained “exhibits.”

As the contradiction between society and nature unfolds, nature is increasingly dependent upon culture for the sustenance of advanced life, but culture, wedded to mechanistic models and primitive philosophies of hierarchy and domination, is not sufficiently advanced to preserve evolution. The zoo is the perfect symbol then for the entombment of the planet, for the sarcophagus of animal species, and for a human power pathology spiraling out of control.

Imperialism By Other Means
Zoos are first and foremost about power relations; they are both a cause and a symptom of the human will to mastery over the natural world. To be placed in zoos, animals have been captured in the wild, taken from their habitat and families, bound, manhandled, transported, caged, confined, subjected to various timetables, compelled to feel pain, re-presented in anthropocentric categories, and made subject to a continual human gaze.

By definition, a zoo is a public park that exhibits animals for purposes such as entertainment or “education,” and they should be distinguished from a “menagerie” collection of animals maintained for various exploitative purposes, traveling zoos, or small “roadside zoos,” such as the Tiger Truck Plazas in Louisiana and Texas that confine tigers under ghastly conditions. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) accredit the “best” zoos, but many AZA-approved zoos still badly abuse their animals (as was evident in the infamous beating of Sissy the elephant by the El Paso Zoo in 1998). Moreover, only about 10% of the more than 2,000 animal exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are accredited by the AZA. We must also distinguish zoos from sanctuaries such as the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee that preserve animals within expansive natural surroundings, often completely closed from public viewing. Often, however, zoos and menageries like “Noah’s Land Sanctuary” in Harwood, Texas misleadingly claim that they are “sanctuaries,” when in fact they are notorious animal abusers (all-too-tolerated by the USDA).

As Dale Jamieson writes in his essay “Against Zoos,” modern zoos were founded in Vienna, Madrid, and Paris in the eighteenth century and in London and Berlin in the nineteenth century. The first American zoos were established in Philadelphia and Cincinnati in the 1870s. In his superb book, Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals in Captivity, Randy Malamud exposes the zoo’s unwritten history in its relation to colonialism. Zoos were inextricably bound up with imperialism and its ideologies of conquest, and they provided much-needed symbols and legitimation for conquering nations. Animals captured in foreign lands during imperialist adventures were brought back to capitals such as London in order to be displayed for a gawking public. Exotic animals symbolized the empire’s prowess to gain dominion over nature and culture, and they became prized objects of conspicuous consumption.

As Marjorie Spiegel describes in her book The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, the exploitation of animals provided models for dominating African slaves, and numerous classes of human beings – those belonging to “inferior” gender, race, or class categories – are categorized as “animals” or “subhuman.” Zoos, in particular, provided models of dehumanization. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, humans frequently were exhibited in cages with animals. In blatantly racist ways, Moors, Tartars, Indians, Asians, Eskimos, and African Bushmen, among a host of global others, became part of an exotic collection of life forms on display, as various “freaks” (“dwarfs,” giants, bearded women, and people with all kinds of “oddities” and “deformities”) too were confined in zoo cages and menageries. Humanitarian movements eventually stopped these practices, but the “freaks” moved onto circuses where they perform to this day. While moral progress compelled people to realize the wrong of exhibiting humans, we await the next step whereby the world comprehends the injustice of exploiting animals in zoos. Yet today no city is considered complete without a public zoo as a major "tourist attraction."

The Berlin Wall of Species
The most fascinating thing about zoos is not their materiality -- the cages, bars, walls, windows, moats, and enclosures; the closed world of loneliness and pain pierced by cries in the night; the dank and fetid smells of festering illness and misery. Rather, the main interest of zoos lies in their underlying psychology; in the human mindset that seeks to master nature, to domesticate wildlife, to exert its will to power over what it deems inferior to itself; in the epistemologies of hierarchy and rule that have defined the totality of Western culture since its inception. The architectures of separation exist not so much to detach us from any particular zoo animals, but from the natural world as a whole; they are ontological dividing lines. Zoos separate us not only from particular animals but also, more generally, from our own animality, our evolutionary heritage, our biological ancestors – the sentient and thinking beings with whom we share the dynamic adventure of evolution and whose existence paved the way for our own. Thus, the walls are not a physical as much as cultural means of separation; they split life into “us” vs. “them” rather than establishing an evolutionary continuum.

Zoo goers occupy the position of spectators, purveyors of a gaze that objectifies animals and reifies them in a debased and inferior state of being. The mere act of looking establishes a power relation as the looker defines its visual target with the contemptuous values that inform its judging eyes. There is no understanding or respect when the subject beholds an object for its entertainment. As Malamud observes, people who behold animals in zoo settings are no more likely to respect them than they would appreciate cultural diversity by looking at the dark-skinned human beings behind the bars of the nineteenth century menageries.

Zoos speak simultaneously about the animal objects they dominate, and the human dominating subjects. The abomination of zoos is a projection of the horror that haunts the human spirit, its utter revulsion from its own psychic roots and animalic origins. When we stare through the bars at confined animals, at the hirsute commodities imprisoned for entertainment value, we peer into the face of our own alienation. Simultaneously, we see our past sins and our future mortifications, as we ourselves decay with the death of nature. As we gaze upon our genetic brethren who never look back at us, we demean ourselves. The fact that – as insipid parents claim – their children “enjoy” the zoo is not an argument for it, but a disturbing indication of an early stage in the warping of a young mind. Apparently, Schaudenfreude -- the delight in the suffering of others -- is good fun for the whole family.

The School of Disinformation
Because of increasing public awareness about animal suffering and animal rights, zoos are compelled to trot out flimsy justifications for their existence. To warrant their existence, zoos advance two main arguments. Zoos help to educate the public about animals and promote greater respect for them, and they promote conservation efforts through education and breeding and housing of endangered species.

The first claim assumes that the animal behaviors spectators see are accurate, true, and natural, when in fact the artificiality of the zoo environment distorts their entire life process. For what spectators see are expressions of stunted, thwarted beings, animals who are sad, lonely, injured, and depressed. We don’t see tigers, elephants, and chimpanzees, rather, we see what is done to them; we behold a social construction of the animal. To be sure, the lumbering elephant is not just someone’s idea, but human concepts of it are constituted through the prism/prison of cultural perspectives that are more or less enlightened and scientifically accurate. Spectators think they are seeing animals directly, but they are seeing them through historically shaped paradigms and the crippling effects of the zoo institution itself.

One might as well approach a study of human nature by examining people locked up in asylums and prisons. Indeed, animals suffer the same psychological effects from confinement and isolation as do people, and thus the term “zoochosis.” Perhaps taken from their families in the wild, unable to freely move, denied a rich social life, their every need and instinct thwarted, and in possession of complex minds, zoo animals suffer from various psychological problems, from “stereotypic” behavior that includes pacing, head-bobbing, rocking, walking in circles, compulsive licking, bar-biting, and even self-mutilation (as in the case of chimpanzees who inflict serious bite wounds on their limbs). According to Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna of the Born Free Foundation, for instance, over 60% of polar bears in British zoos are mentally deranged. Jane Goodall claims that over half of the world’s zoos “are still in bad conditions.”

The main education a zoo provides is insight into what an animal is not and into the alienated psyche of human beings. Even at their best, zoos give a mixed message where, on the one hand, they may help people understand the crisis facing species survival and make animals more than an abstraction, but, on the other hand, they aggravate alienation from nature and disrespect for life through institutionalizing a human-nonhuman dualism via the spectator-object split. Zoos inculcate a distorted sense of our place in the world, as they indoctrinate us into a worldview that claims animals are resources for us to eat, wear, experiment on, or be entertained by. When over 120 million people visit zoos every year in the United States, the messages given out are of considerable importance.

The Myths of Conservation
The most plausible defense zoos have at their disposal in a time of species extinction, habitat loss, and ecological crisis is that they serve conservation purposes. In 1981, the AZA created the Species Survival Plan program (SSP), designed to help prevent animal extinction and to educate the public about conservation needs. Through its managed breeding programs, the SSP boasts successfully preserving and reintroducing into the wild numerous species such as black-footed ferrets, condors, and red wolves.

But zoo conservationist credentials are highly dubious and they play a minimal role in saving species from extinction. The species zoos favor for “conservation” tend to be of the cute and cuddly variety (what the AZA calls “flagship species which arouse strong feelings in the public”) that do more to attract visitors than abate an extinction crisis. Only 2% of endangered species are part of zoo breeding programs, and few zoos are registered for captive breeding and wildlife preservation. Often it is not zoos themselves that do the breeding but remote breeding facilities, so why give zoos conservation credit? Zoos have poor records of conservation and reintroducing animals to natural habitat. Often, the animals are too accustomed to human care and flounder on their own. Breeding herds typically are too small, and inbreeding is a problem that leads to unhealthy animals and a diminished gene pool. Further, zoos are not actively involved in habitat preservation. Zoos therefore beg the question of what the point of preservation is if there is no habitat to which animals can be returned.

As exposed in a 1999 San Jose Mercury News investigation and meticulously documented in Alan Green’s shocking book Animal Underground: Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species, the dirty little secret of zoos is that they breed a surplus of many species, and these animals become offloaded into a vast underground multibillion-dollar-a-year market which attracts buyers through resources such as The Animal Finders’ Guide. Zoos are an integral part of a labyrinthine, shady world that includes dealers, hunters, menageries, roadside attractions, fur farms, pet stores, circuses, vivisectors, and slaughterhouses. Zoos often obtain breeding animals from sleazy dealers and breeders. When “cute” zoo animals grow up and have lost their initial attraction, and zoos need to make room for more cuddliness, the animals are sent back to the underworld where they end up as fodder for canned hunts, experimental laboratories, or even meat for human consumption. As Green establishes, AZA policy prohibits this kind of market but in practice they tolerate it, and even breed animals specifically for hunters, with whom zoo board members often have cozy relationships. Some of the world’s most highly regarded zoos, such as the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, have been among the greatest offenders, cited for reselling thousands of rare and endangered species between 1992 and 1998.

Fade to Black
We are in the midst of rapid species extinction and habitat loss. In May 2002, a United Nations study announced that almost a quarter of the world’s mammals face extinction within 30 years. On the whole, the earth is in the biggest extinction crisis since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but this crisis is created by human beings not the natural world. “Evolution” – which advances through speciation and the fecund creation of biodiversity – has ground to a halt and is reversing direction toward homogenization and simplification of life forms.

Technoanimals created through captive breeding, in vitro fertilization, and cloning (their DNA stored in “frozen zoos”) and who live in artificial settings in effect become zoo animals that may look like the real thing, but do not have natural behaviors, no more than would “humans” cloned in isolated prison compounds would act like “human beings.” One can have deep reservations about the viability of trying to preserve life at this stage, and, in effect, some animals still alive are already extinct. If their original habitat is bulldozed into oblivion, the animals exist in confinement as mere simulacra of themselves, and some critics believe it is better simply to permit species to become extinct than to keep them alive as simulacra in artificial environments.

To turn this crisis situation around, human beings have to make radical changes on numerous fronts. First and foremost, we have to dramatically reduce the world’s population. We must remove ourselves ever farther from wilderness as we restore habitat and populate ecosystems with indigenous species. We must quench insatiable consumer appetites and return to simpler modes of living. Human beings need to shift from a meat-based to a plant-based diet to conserve land, resources, and energy. We must create an Endangered Species Act with ferocious teeth in it that protect animals instead of the corporations invading their habitat. We must deal with poachers in draconian terms and shut down all markets for trade in animal products.

It is without question the case that human beings have created a problem only they themselves can solve, and we must harness the same amount of creative energy as we have amassed destructive energy for millennia. As we hopefully begin to make needed changes on a global scale, human beings must for now become stewards of the planet, as they bear the burden of repairing evolution. That means we must actively nurse the earth and its precious biodiversity back to health, and create aggressive breeding and reintroduction programs.

From virtual reality and mass media, to artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering, and the gradual transformation of human beings into cyborgs, everything once wild and without technological mediation is disappearing. The natural world is becoming transformed, redesigned, and merged into technological systems. While we need not yearn for the days of hunters and gatherers, nor see the move toward a technoworld as bad in every sense, it is nonetheless the case that species are vanishing off the face of the earth at an alarming rate and the forms in which they survive could be mere fragments and simulacra.

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