A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

How We “View” Other Animals

Page 3

Sunny the red panda


Sunny is a red panda who escaped from the Virginia Zoo, in Norfolk. I like zoo breakout stories. Sunny doesn’t really have anywhere to escape to, but still I hope that, at least symbolically, escapees like her may help set the stage for the animal revolution.

Here’s what the Virginia zoo director, Greg Bockheim, had to say to a reporter interviewing him about the escape: A red panda “really looks like a plush toy.”

That comment bothered me. I wanted to tell him: “I think you are viewing animals the wrong way.”

“No, they don’t look like toys,” I would respond. “They look like red pandas. If you want to look at a panda and see a plush toy, ok, they look like a plush toy. To you.”

Bockheim and his troops are expending a lot of energy looking for Sunny– she still is on the loose – with drones, bloodhounds, infrared cameras, zoo staff canvassing the neighborhood from door to door, looking in people’s gardens and yards. This is all a farce: this is not the right way to view animals. It is, of course, not the “intended” way to look at Sunny. The intended way was to view her sitting, or pacing, in her cage, whenever a zoo goer should choose to stroll by.

Quite possibly there are red panda plush toys in the gift shop, not far from her cage, who have not escaped, so zoo goers can take home a model of Sunny and continue to look at her at will. It would be sort of the same thing, if we follow the zookeeper’s train of thought, since Sunny does look just like a plush toy. Though wouldn’t it be wonderful to imagine (this is what would happen if I were writing the script) that before Sunny vamoosed, she broke into the gift shop and bagged up all the plush toy images of herself to take with her?!

But the current viewing practices, drones and cameras and search parties, as reported in weekly newspaper updates, are certainly a possible consequence – an actual consequence – a by-product of that planned-cage-viewing. What are these drones and infrared cameras and other searchers trying to view now? A plush toy run amok? An escaped convict? An embarrassment to the institution? A revenue gap?

Animals escape zoos not that infrequently, though usually they are rounded up pretty soon after they make their breaks. They are not very well equipped to survive in Virginia or wherever. But Sunny has been on the loose for a while now. She is still “at large,” like Al Capone, on the lam. If recaptured, she will once again be, I guess, “at small.”

On the same day I read the Times story about Sunny, there was another article: about one of George Washington’s slaves, Ona Judge, who escaped in 1796, and was never recaptured. (A lot of slaves tried to escape; many were recaptured, some remained free.)

This was a prominent slave – or rather, a prominent man’s slave; they never stopped trying to recapture her – and, of course, they would have called in the drones and infrared cameras had such things existed at the time. There was a weird discomfiture in news stories from that era (written by and for the white dominant culture) and other accounts that persisted for many years about how no one was able to recapture her.

A slave is, in that respect, like an animal in a cage. People expect to be able to view them on demand, always. And when they can’t, when they are denied this view, when the captive subjects disappear, it’s an interesting aporia, an interesting gap, that may productively unsettle, deconstruct, the viewer’s presumed viewing privileges.

Ona Judge died in 1848, more than 50 years after her escape, a free woman, in Portsmouth, NH. Sunny is, as I deliver this talk, still on the loose.

Frozen fish at a skating rink

Here’s another odd way to view animals: a Japanese amusement park created an ice-skating rink that featured 5,000 fish and other sea creatures frozen beneath the surface.

Some patrons were upset (and some weren’t – some thought it was snazzy!), but the park bowed to public pressure, closing the rink, saying they would hold a memorial service for the dead animals and then use them as fertilizer.

What does this mean? How did these people want to view these animals? As decorations, ornaments. As dead corpses for people to skate over, people who are somehow invited to think of themselves as being all the more alive because of the frozen, lifeless animal forms arranged beneath, in a pattern perhaps approximating how the fish might have swum in a school when they were alive? Their still, stuck, frozen deadness somehow augments, or embellishes, the skaters’ vivid, dynamic alive-ness?

These are just a couple of strange, disturbing accounts of how people view animals. I could go on at great length about many more cases on a spectrum of weird, depraved, perverse ways of viewing animals. Animals in cages. Animals in ice. Animals on the run. Animals who have lost the battle and suffer the consequent toll of being stuffed, mounted, eaten, viewed.

“Not so big and wild now!” the passerby thinks gleefully.When the zoo, the first one, opened in London in 1828, it was always-already wrong; and the tradition of putting wild animals in small urban compounds has not improved our appreciation of nature, no matter how voraciously we do it, with whatever good intentions, which are always mixed in alongside a lot of bad intentions, too, diminishing other animals, big animals, exotic animals, wild animals (“Not so big and wild now!” the passerby thinks gleefully, with schadenfreude).

Zoos are places where people come to view animals conveniently, a lot at a time, quickly. These are animals who are ripped out of their contexts. Animals in prison. Kidnapped animals. Unhappy animals. Animals who pace in their cages, and gnaw at their fur, and manifest depression and anxiety. And every so often, like Sunny, make a break for it.

I think it is manifestly evident that zoos are terrible places for animals. But think about what dangerously delusional places they are for people. Why do spectators go there? What are they looking for? They will say that they are looking for animals, for nature, for communion, connection, empathy. But they are in fact viewing animals from a position of privilege, of exploitation, of decontextualization.

Next: Page 4: Putting It All Together