Zoo Culture:
Superficial Relationships of Domination and Control

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Zoo Culture:
Superficial Relationships of Domination and Control

Originally published on Cyrano's Online Journal
November 2008

When I was a child I always both loved and hated zoos. I loved them because I got to see real live animals, as opposed to animals on television, and I hated them because the animals were so obviously unhappy.
Robert Shetterly, painter and author of Americans Who Tell the Truth

Everything is far worse than I am making it seem.
Derrick Jensen

My wife saw Derrick Jensen’s new book Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos on the coffee table in our living room and picked it up. It had just arrived in the mail earlier in the day from Amazon.com.

After leafing through only a few pages, she put the book down, wishing she hadn’t seen the book’s photographs of zoo animals in cages. I asked her if she planned on reading the book. “No,” she answered. “It looks like a book filled with sadness. I already know zoos are terrible places.”

“But the book might inspire you to do something to help abolish zoos,” I said.

“I’m already doing something about it,” she answered. “I don’t go to zoos and I tell people I know that zoos are bad places.”

My wife’s first impression of the book’s photographs, by Karen Tweedy-Holmes, is accurate. They will make you sad and break your heart.

As Jensen writes in the essay that accompanies the photographs, “Zoos do not inspire a sense of awe and wonder in me. They inspire a sense of loneliness and deep sorrow.”


But the photographs, and Jensen’s inquiry into zoos and what they mean, also might make you angry. And that anger might lead you not only to stop visiting zoos but to urge others to do the same. And for some, the photographs, and Jensen’s descriptions of the imprisoned nonhuman animals, might inspire you to join others in working toward shutting down your local zoo.

Inspiring people to work toward shutting down their local zoos, I believe, was only one, small goal that Jensen envisioned in writing the penetrating and haunting essay that accompanies the photographs. The book also will force us to reassess our culture, a culture that views nonhuman animals as commodities who exist solely for the benefit of humans.

The book also will force us to look beyond zoos and reexamine our relationships with all animals and the land on which we must share in order to survive and thrive.

“When was the last time you asked a wild nonhuman how he or she was doing?” Jensen writes. “When was the last time you even considered what life might be like for one of these others? When was the last time you cared? It can be easy for us to forget, surrounded as we are by concrete and steeped in work and other activities, that the real world still exists, and it is inhabited by real beings.”

The book also will force us to examine “our own confinement,” a confinement that is perceptual and conceptual, according to Jensen. But because we are not imprisoned behind moats, behind glass, behind walls, behind bars, behind electrified fences, we do not have the same excuse as zoo animals.


“We can walk away from our own zoo, our own nightmare of self-perceived separation from and superiority to all other animals,” he writes. “If this nightmare is going to have any end but death — for its individual victims, and by now for the planet — it is up to us to awaken, and having finally awakened to end this nightmare in all its manifestations.”

Much of the book is about the control that humans — civilized humans, Jensen specifies — have exerted over nonhuman animals.

“If you see an animal in a zoo, you are in control. You can come, and you can go. The animal cannot. She is at your mercy, and at the mercy of those like you. The animal is on display for you.”

Jensen explains that we live in a culture suffering from narcissism, and zoo proponents are especially prone to narcissism. “They have to be or they couldn’t rationalize zoos,” he writes.

Jensen examines the writings and statements of zoo proponents. In the book Zoo Culture: The Book About Watching People Watch Animals, authors Bob Mullan and Garry Marvin ask: “Why preserve wildlife at all?”

The authors respond: “Our answer is that the human world would be impoverished, for animals are preserved solely for human benefit, because human beings have decided they want them to exist for human pleasure. The notion that they are preserved for their sakes is a peculiar one, for it implies that animals might wish a certain condition to endure. It is, however, nonsensical for humans to imagine that animals might want to continue the existence of their species.”

Jensen highlights this passage from Zoo Culture as one of the defining characteristics of narcissism. Mullan and Marvin also state nonhuman animals “cannot reflect on the nature of their collective identity; nor can they have a sense that it would be a good thing for them to continue in existence.”

Jensen writes that the authors’ assertions “are unsupportable, arrogant, and absolutely necessary to justify the continuation of the extermination of nonhumans.”

Mullan and Marvin also argue against giving zoo animals larger cages, saying that because animals generally stay in one part of the cage, they don’t need a larger territory. Jensen cites other zoo proponents who contend that wild animals in zoos have no desire to escape and regain their freedom.

“I wish I could imprison the people who write those books, imprison zookeepers to give them a taste of their own medicine,” Jensen writes. “I would ask them if they feel grief, sorrow, resentment, and homesickness, and ask them if they still believe that animals do not need space, if they still believe that animals do not need freedom. I wouldn’t listen to their answers, because I would not care to hear about their experiences.”

Jensen looks at claims that the primary positive function of zoos is education. In his research, though, he finds studies that have indicated that zoos fail miserably at this task.

“Inquiry after inquiry has revealed that even while patrons are in the zoo, standing directly in front of the animals in question, they consistently fail even rudimentary nomenclature questions,” he writes.

Jensen says zoos commit at least four unforgivable sins. They destroy the lives of those they cage. They destroy our understanding of whom and what animals and habitats really are. They destroy our understanding of whom and what we really are. And they destroy the potential for mutual relationships, not only with those particular encaged animals but also with those still wild.

In our culture, Jensen points out, the words who or whom are almost never used for nonhuman animals. He gives examples: “The grizzly bears that (read who) will spend the rest of their lives in a tiny habitat (read cage) … the rhinoceros mother that (read who) dies trying to protect its (read her) child” from capture.

(I am often guilty in my writings of “blinding” myself to the “beingness” of animals, as described by Jensen, by often substituting “who” with “that” when writing about nonhuman animals. Even in writing this article about Jensen’s book, I used the relative pronoun “that” a couple times, before going back to correct myself, in introducing clauses with non-human animal antecedents.)

While acknowledging that he is not generally known for presenting tangible solutions to the problems we face, Jensen says he see a straightforward solution to the problem of children needing encounters with wild animals and zoos providing parodies of these encounters. His solution is to stay home.

“I learned far more from the toads and salamanders who lived in the window-wells than I did from all the vacations, all the hikes, all the backpacking, all the four-wheeling, and yes, all the visits to natural history museums and zoos,” Jensen writes. “I learned from the grasses, ants, and grasshoppers in the pasture, the snakes and crawdads in the irrigation ditch. The lessons and encounters weren’t all that extraordinary. And that is precisely the point. We were just neighbors.”

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