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.
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."
Stories of a new kind of zoo with a new kind of nature display circulated widely in the zoological community and popular media, while a handful of institutionally affiliated historians and design critics also wrote about revitalization until as late as 1997. Running accounts emphasized a commitment to worldwide nature stewardship. Changes to the zoo, the story went, were breathing new life, figuratively and literally, into sagging public institutions by prompting citizens to rethink their privileged places on the planet and restoring animal populations at home and abroad. Reporting on a symposium on zoos and conservation funded by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture in 1964, for example, the editor of the five-year-old International Zoo Yearbook informed her colleagues that “the problem of the destruction of the natural environment and the consequent disappearance of wildlife is so serious, so extensive, that the only hope of halting the process will be through world-wide pooling of knowledge and resources,” which a transnational federation of zoos could provide. R. Michael Schneider, a landscape architect and former secretary of the Minnesota Zoological Society, offered a biblical version of the outlook when he wrote in 1969: “It behooves mankind to take a lesson from a book as old as the ages and build Noah’s arks around the world before the tidal wave of human population swallows up the remaining space on this planet.” Generally missing from these accounts was a discussion of how the new zoo’s concerns for the conservation of wildlife overlapped with concerns about the conservation and reproduction of normative civic life that they concomitantly espoused. Many accounts perpetuated the overlap. In the same 1969 prompt, for example, Schneider speculated: “The riots and struggles within our cities may be due . . . to a lack of understanding of the overall meaning of life. Truly, the only place that communion with life can occur is within a natural setting, such as the modern zoo.” David Hancocks, a zoo architect and former director of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, came close to exploring the overlap but fell short of the mark, writing in 1970:
“It is no coincidence that at the same time that we are obliterating the forest habitat of the aye-aye in Madagascar or of the orang-utan in Borneo, our concrete city jungles are becoming intolerable places for people. . . . we can learn how to build a better environment not only for animals but also perhaps for ourselves.”
The omission in Hancock’s reflection, as in others, was any analysis of the aesthetic or symbolic aspects of intolerability, and the valences of a better postconcrete jungle.
Zoo Renewal attends to this substrate of institutional reinvention by examining expressions of burgeoning zoo environmentalism for bad feelings about American cities in the long postwar period. While new zoo making was an international phenomenon in aspiration and enunciation, its resonances were also curiously native. Here, I focus on the revitalization of U.S. zoos and place it within the highly mediated climate of urban decline that, by the 1960s, had made the central city into an object of fear and concern for many Americans. My use of the term zoo renewal denotes this imbrication of American zoos and their cities by knitting together the history of renovating animal exhibits with the postwar culture and politics of “urban renewal” more broadly. Marked by specific federal initiatives, such as the Housing Act of 1949 and 1954, and the Federal Highway Act of 1956, urban renewal unfolded as liberal-minded, state-sanctioned interventions into the built environment to reverse perceptions of decline and its demographic fallout. An influential urban planner in the 1960s, Robert C. Weaver, understood the phrase as referring to “many activities—slum clearance and redevelopment, highways and public works, demolition and construction privately financed—all of which change the structure of a city.” The present study inhabits an archive that speaks to urban change of this kind and consequence. Oral histories, institutional correspondence, and the landscaped and architectural boundaries of animal exhibits are my primary texts. So too are the channels through which those exhibits were figured and “visited” from a physical distance: zoo photography, membership and marketing ephemera, and popular media. My readings of this often vibrant and bizarre material detail how zoo makers across the United States proposed renewed forms of public life to Americans of diverse backgrounds who were repelled by the constant buzz of racial conflict in the cities and searching for relief. Crucial for me is how the movement toward naturalistic exhibits of rare and endangered animals was entangled with experiences of white middle-class endangerment and those who aspired to whiteness in and around U.S. urban regions. These entanglements spanned the metaphorical—where denizens, caretakers, and visitors came to precariously stand in for each other, and the material—where zoo animals were treated as city dwellers in their own right, entitled to their piece of postwar prosperity. Dwelling on these dense and surprising connections, this book narrates specific stories of zoo rebirth and elaborates on the racial dynamics of American urbanism that helped define their terms and texture. What I am after is an account of improvement that gives sustained attention to the itineraries of race and species, and grounds for reconsidering how it is that Americans have felt bad—and good—at the zoo.
Excerpt from “Introduction: On Feeling Bad at the Zoo” is reproduced by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto by Lisa Uddin. Copyright 2015 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota.