Creating the Modern Zoo

Why do we feel bad at the zoo? As locations evolve from sparse concrete enclosures to more naturalistic habitats, the biopolitics driving the creation of the modern zoo ties our desire for a better life for the animals to our broader desire for a better life for the rest of society around them.

| September 2015

  • Negative images, like this of a caged and seemingly forlorn siamang gibbon, are what many associate with going to a traditional zoo.
    Photo by Fotolia/Anna Kucherova
  • In “Zoo Renewal,” Lisa Uddin explains how feeling bad—or good—at the zoo is ultimately connected to our feelings about American cities and its residents.
    Cover courtesy The University of Minnesota Press

Zoo Renewal (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) explores how modern zoo conditions are changing along with the urban world around them, slowly moving past the preconceived dynamic of a sad, confined creature and its guilty viewer. Lisa Uddin argues that the shame felt seeing the state of the animals’ captivity is a reflection of society’s overall discomfort with watching urban decay amidst the suburban rise. The following is an excerpt from Uddin’s introduction.

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During a recent trip to the Oregon Zoo in Portland, my family and I wandered into a minor event familiar to many zoo goers. Fresh off our pleasant look at the otters, we made our way to the underground viewing area for the sea lions—all facets of the Oregon coastal habitat exhibit, Steller Cove. The contrast between a cavelike theater space and the luminous 230,000-gallon saltwater pool was effective. We approached the plate-glass window between them with the anticipation of seeing something enchanting, especially (for) our toddler. But a split second later our path was suspended in confusion. The pool was a haze of blue-green liquid, still and empty. We stood in front of and within the cloudiness. Then a sea lion gradually emerged from the interior, brushing the full length of its sleek and massive body against the glass and retreating back into the opacity. Our uneasiness assumed its own presence, jockeying for position alongside the wonder. None of us spoke. Curators did not skip a beat, having posted “keeper notes” beside the window that briefed us on the daily rigors of maintaining the exhibit and the current job of replacing filtration equipment. We stayed for a while, watching the sea lion repeat its slow and murky swim cycle and disregard our furrowed brows, before we moved on to things that could more reliably lift our spirits.

Zoo Renewal probes similar episodes at and about zoos and the conditions of their probability. Amid the many delights and virtues of public animal display, what is it about zoos that provokes our bad feelings? Does it hinge on the exchange of looks between expectant humans and sad-looking animals or perhaps, as the British art critic John Berger suggests, the impossibility of the exchange altogether? Initially published as an essay titled “Why Zoos Disappoint” in 1977, and again with other writing under the title “Why Look at Animals?” in 1980, Berger’s compelling interpretation of bad zoo feelings has become a staple of contemporary zoo criticism and reads as follows: reduced to a consumer spectacle like any other, and of which their millions of spectators are all on some level aware, the animals housed and displayed in modern zoos have been stripped of their wildness and are no longer interested in or able to return the human gaze. Berger famously writes that “nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter.” Zoos here render “real” animality fugitive, the remaining animal a mute object, and humanity at an embarrassing loss. Meaningful relationships are impossible in this dynamic, despite some good intentions. Our bad feelings are symptomatic of this failure.

“Why Look at Animals?” scratches an itch for anyone who has paused to absorb the persistent fact of a zoo animal’s captivity coupled with its compulsory-yet-elusive visibility. The sprawling description of human–animal alienation under capitalism, an alienation of which zoos are the culmination, seems to conform to and confirm many visitor experiences at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Exhibiting animals in public space still registers as more than a little exploitative toward its charges and, for zoo goers, a guarantee of at least some ambivalence. But there is good cause to take issue with Berger’s melancholic mass culture critique that treats looking itself as morally suspect and underplays the psychological and physical complexity of modern human–animal relating, however uncomfortable. Further, the discomforts of zoos have undercurrents that are shorter, sharper, and livelier than Berger allows, but which tend to be reserved for antizoo scholarship, art, and activism.

Berger’s own thoughts were formulated during a concentrated moment of bad zoo feelings that propelled major shifts in zoological thinking and practice throughout capitalist societies. During the 1960s and 1970s a professionalizing class of zoo experts and advocates embarked on the large-scale revitalization of public animal displays. Concrete and tile were often and variously minimized, while exhibit square footage (or acreage) grew. Eliminating visible barriers like wire fencing and iron bars became a paramount concern, as was refining materials and arrangements that could simulate habitats called natural and stimulate behaviors called natural. In conjunction with the revitalization of the built environment, reformers sought to revitalize their animal collection through intensive programs of biopolitical control. The decades after World War II witnessed the development of vitamins, antibiotics, vaccines, disinfectants, nutrition regimens, enrichment activities, and the coordinated breeding of select rare and endangered species. By the late 1970s scores of metropolitan regions in industrializing and postindustrializing countries could point to variations on a “new zoo” whose central paradox was the reconstruction of a more natural nature through increasingly sophisticated architectures and forms of animal science. While indexing the global span of zoo modernization is beyond the scope of this book, attendance at the First International Symposium on Zoo Design and Construction in 1975 flags the breadth of interest in the "new zoo." Held in Paignton, England, the event attracted delegates representing sixty-three zoos from twenty-two different countries, including "Japan, New Zealand, West Africa, Brazil and California, and even a delegation from Moscow across the Iron Curtain."

9/7/2015 8:56:22 AM

"Lisa Uddin is Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual Cultural Studies at Whitman College." Next?

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