Further Reading: “Wild Things” and Zoos

Further Reading is a new blog feature in which we take a deeper look at topics from stories featured on Longform. It is produced along with Pitt Writers.

The early days of the Bronx Zoo.

Last week, Longform reprinted "Wild Things,” David Samuels’s wide-reaching exploration of zoos’ troubling history through the lens of the Bronx Zoo, one of America’s largest and oldest metropolitan animal menageries. Samuels dissects the metaphors inherent in caging animals for the benefit of spectators:

The fantasy that today’s zoos engender is clearly more benign than that of the early-twentieth-century racists, and yet it is not entirely dissimilar. Employing the familiar techniques of Saturday-morning cartoons, zoos use anthropomorphic logic and illusion to maintain the link between a love of animals and the desire to escape the evils that men inflict on both animals and their fellow human beings. Zoos promise us a refuge from the horrors engraved in the hearts of men and born of the conditional nature of our existence—which are therefore permanent and ineradicable. Zoos are a distinguishing and representative feature of a world of cages and enclosures inhabited by men and animals alike.

Here’s further reading on the benefits and detriments of zoos, their possible future, and the conservationist movement’s dark history: 

Conservation and Eugenics
Charles Wohlforth • Orion Magazine  • Jul 2010

Madison Grant was a pioneering conservationist, the founder of the Bronx Zoo—and an early champion of eugenics, the racist pseudo-science later celebrated by the likes of Adolf Hitler. Wohlforth’s article outlines how theories of conservation and eugenics collided in the early 1900s and demonstrates how Grant’s views were shared by many of his contemporaries, including Theodore Roosevelt.

This goal of creating a more racist society informed much of the cultural work of the institutions led by Roosevelt and Pinchot’s peers—not only the world’s fairs but the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, and others. Grant was an influential friend to the president and phrases and ideas from his writing crept into Roosevelt’s. Oddly, the improvement of the dominant race meshed with the New Nationalism’s utopia of a merit-based society. Without money or class to distinguish them, the sexual attraction between men and women would be guided only by natural selection.

Ota Benga

A Scandal at the Zoo
Mitch Keller • New York Times • August 6, 2006

As Samuels writes, the theories of eugenics permitted the founder of the Bronx Zoo to view certain races as less human than others, a perspective demonstrated in the exhibition of Ota Benga, an African Pygmy caged in the Monkey House. Mitch Keller details this shameful moment in history and explores the lasting legacy in modern America of Ota Benga’s plight.

Ota Benga and an orangutan frolicked together, hugging and wrestling and playing tricks on each other. The crowd loved it. To enhance the jungle effect, a parrot was put in the cage and bones had been strewn around it. The crowd laughed as the pygmy sat staring at a pair of canvas shoes he had been given. “Few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions,” The New York Times wrote the next day, “and there could be no doubt that to the majority the joint man-and-monkey exhibition was the most interesting sight in Bronx Park.”

Interview with George Schaller

John G. Mitchell • National Geographic • Oct 2006

Modern conservationism has moved far beyond the misguided conceptions of its forefathers, as Samuels reports after talking to George Schaller, “one of the world’s greatest living naturalists.” In this interview, Schaller further describes his work and why getting the public’s attention through zoos and reserves can help conservation efforts.

It’s easier to get money to study a panda than it is to study a leech. Now that doesn’t mean that the panda is necessarily more important biologically than the leech. It simply means that when you get the funds to study and protect a big, beautiful animal, you automatically protect the leeches and ants and all the other species in the area. We’re always talking about biodiversity, but that’s an abstract term. We’re not saving the panda because of biodiversity. We’re saving it because it arouses our emotion. And the emotional component is extraordinarily important to get the public behind conservation.

A Critical Look at the Future of Zoos—An Interview with David Hancocks
Jordan Carlton Schaul • National Geographic • March 13, 2012

How will zoos change as our understanding of animals and the institutions charged with displaying them evolve? An interview with a renowned zoo architect, director and historian, explores ways to improve zoos in the future.

If zoos started their planning and design processes by asking such questions how they could illustrate and celebrate bio-diversity, or help people understand the interconnectedness of all living things, or demonstrate interdependence, or help people understand how healthy eco-systems operate and are maintained, instead of just asking such simplistic questions as “where shall we build the new bear exhibit?” then we could begin to see some important developments in zoos.

When a Cage Means Freedom

Kathy Rudy • Slate • Jan 1, 2012

Rudy compares two very different zoo stories that emerged last year and considers what they may teach us about zoos and their future.

The idea of complete autonomy and self-determination for animals underwrites a worldview where individual freedom trumps everything, even the goals and goods we all ought to be holding together and in common. In the strictest sense of the word, animal rights means that no animal should ever be used for human purposes whatsoever. No meat, no pets, no circuses, no sport, and certainly no zoos. Indeed, one of the major animal rights organizations that works to permanently close down all zoos, even the good ones, is named “Born Free,” a reference to the story of Elsa, a lion cub raised by humans Joy and George Adamson, and immortalized by the 1966 British film of the same name. Even though Elsa dies soon after her release, the moral of the story is that it’s better to be dead than in a cage.

Poo at the Zoo
Emily Yoffe • Slate • Jun 29, 2010

Ever wonder what it would be like to work as a zookeeper? Yoffe tests the water for you and finds that working with animals is a dirty business.

Imagine work that offers the chance to provide nurture and stimulation to needy, even helpless beings, while requiring heavy physical labor, and a high tolerance for the bodily excretions of others. Add little opportunity for advancement and a barely living wage. Given this job description we understand why day care centers and nursing homes have a hard time finding and retaining workers. Yet one of the paradoxes of zookeeping is that if the needy beings are wild animals that can bite, gore, or dismember you, then management has the luxury of dozens, even hundreds of applicants for each spot.

—Laura Clark


  1. mariser reblogged this from longformblog and added:
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