On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Through the looking glass

Orang Utan, Schloß Schönbrunn Zoo, Vienna, Austria

Image via Wikipedia

I just finished reading the young adult photo-essay One Kingdom: Our Lives with Animals by Deborah Noyes.  The book covers, however briefly, our historical interactions with the animal world, but takes time in the latter half to reflect upon the concept of self in juxtaposition with animals, with a significant chapter dedicated to zoos.

Zoos have been a central animal component in society since the founding of the Vienna Zoo, also known as Tiergarten Schönbrunn, in 1752 with animals from the imperial menagerie. The 1789 French Revolution would herald in the second oldest public zoo, as the people – in a symbolic and actual gesture – made the animals from the royal collection available to society. Prior to this, maintaining menageries was a pastime only the wealthy or royal could afford with little or no access for the public.

Noyes synthesizes her feelings on visits to and experiences within a zoo so eloquently. I wonder if our ancestors who spent time with royal menageries or early incarnations of zoos felt the same. Do you feel the same as Noyes?

“…zoos are a paradox. Even as children, many of us feel there – together with our interest and curiosity – a muffled unease. People do have meaningful encounters in zoos, or they wouldn’t flock to them in record numbers. I’ve had my share, usually late in the day when the crowds have thinned or gone…and I’m willing to sit alone – blank and patient and outside myself – and sit some more. But more often my experience has been representative.

If the animals are visible at all – not off exhibit or obscured the by the very greenery installed to protect their privacy (and who would begrudge them?) – we watch through wire or glass aching for a connection that rarely comes. Some children (adults, too) rap on the window or otherwise urge the animals on with funny faces and undignified attempts at cross-species communication. Do something, we think, and they do precisely what they will or won’t. Natural antics – monkeys grooming or swinging in play – delight us, but familiar zoo behaviors like pacing, swaying, regurgitating food, or flinging feces evoke a vague embarrassment, as of some unwelcome intimacy. We may half-halfheartedly read the sign stationed to inform us of the captive’s natural habitat and behaviors, but by now its unnatural fate may well have disheartened us. We seek solace in interaction, buttons to push and levers to pull, or we fix on some other distraction: tired toddlers wailing for ice cream, the heat, a blaring boombox.

…Perhaps we’re uneasy because the animals withhold from us the one thing we would have: their consent. It would ease my spirit (prepare for some shameless anthropomorphism here), to be sure, if the wolf suddenly ceased its pacing, looked up, met my eye, and said, “Welcome, friend, and thanks for being here today. You see me, and it has changed you. I now see the worth of my sacrifice.” But he will not pause. He does not look. I am unforgiven.”

What do you make of Noyes’ sentiments? Are they representative of your own views and zoo visits?

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