What Zoos Tell Us About Ourselves
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


Michael Mountain, Earth in Transition
January 2017

When one person is in a cage and someone else is outside the cage, walking up and down and looking at that person, what do you think that suggests about our power relations and our sense of our superiority over what is stuck in that cage?

zoo elephant

Watch video here.

This is the fifth in a series of short video backgrounders for the upcoming "I Am NOT an Animal!" Symposium [February 24-25, Atlanta GA].

“You don’t have to be semiotically brilliant to tease out what’s going on here,” says Randy Malamud, author of Reading Zoos.

“When one person is in a cage and someone else is outside the cage, walking up and down and looking at that person, what do you think that suggests about our power relations and our sense of our superiority over what is stuck in that cage?”

In this video, Dr. Malamud, Professor of English at Georgia State University, discusses the psychology of keeping animals in zoos. (And not just nonhuman animals. After all, just over 100 years ago, the Bronx Zoo put an African man on display in a cage with an orangutan.)

“The construct of a zoo tells us that we can control them, that we believe we can and should have access to these animals, easily and conveniently, and all together, and in a way that’s easy to get to.

“But tigers don’t live in Atlanta, and we shouldn’t pretend that they do. And if we go and see a tiger in Atlanta, we shouldn’t pretend to ourselves that we’re seeing a real tiger doing anything that a real tiger would actually be doing.”

Dr. Malamud calls zoos a “profound disruption” of our proper ecological relationship to these animals.

Dr. Malamud sees no positive value whatever to zoos – including specifically no educational value. Quite the contrary: they give young people entirely the wrong message about our relationship to our fellow animals.

It’s a message of superiority, of dominion, of control. And to people who argue that they came to a love of animals, to a career looking after them or in conservation work, he asks that they analyze carefully what it was that they learned in those early zoo experiences about our relationship with animals when we view them as exhibits and as side shows.

“I think we’re harvesting something from them: some sense of freedom and power.

“If you’re looking at a tiger or an elephant, they’re supposed to be so strong and so mighty and so wild, and yet they’re here in Atlanta, in London, in Berlin.

“‘You’re not so wild any more, are you? You’re not so strong, so powerful. You’re stuck there in a cage. And who put you in the cage? A human being! And that must make me, as a human, very powerful.’”

Then we take the discussion into another area, and I ask Dr. Malamud about a post he wrote about what’s happening to our planet:

For a while it made sense to cling to a thread of hope in order to motivate reform and prevent people from descending into a paralyzing sense of helplessness.

But now it’s time to accept our impending demise. It is deceitful and irrelevant to sustain the charade that things may improve. Instead, it’s time to start talking about how we will die.

As depressing as this is, it has at least the virtue of being true, unlike the kick-the-can-down-the-road policies that pretend the solution for global warming lies in producing (someday!) cars that get 150 mpg and cities powered by wind farms.

I think it may prove refreshing, even exhilarating, to develop a new trope, a new truth, that lets go of the pretense that things will turn out OK.

An English professor, Dr. Malamud specializes in British writers of the early 20th Century, who were writing at a time when the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire. They could look back at the glories of what had been, but also at the time of lost empire that that they were just entering.

As an English professor, I find it exciting to consider the possibilities for a new voice, a new style, a new writerly consciousness that may accompany and chronicle the winding down of our sound and fury.

He sees our own time through a similar lens, and sees value in writers today documenting what’s happening “as a lesson for our own time, which I fear are limited in number, but a lesson for the future, whoever, whatever, wherever the future is. I think a document of our foibles, our failure, our self-delusions, would be something useful to leave for the future.”

Read entire series of short video backgrounds for the upcoming "I am NOT an Animal" symposium.

  1. How We Humans Insist We Are Not Animals (Video 1)
  2. Why We Need to Tell Ourselves We're Not Animals (Video 2)
  3. Cave Paintings and Our Relationship with Other Animals (Video 3)
  4. King Oedipus and the End of the World (Video 4)
  5. What Zoos Tell Us About Ourselves (Video 5)
  6. Love Dogs but Eat Pigs? It's a Paradox (Video 6)
  7. Thinking about Death Leads People to Support Killing Animals (Video 7)

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