Putting it all together
What’s the connection between zoos and the global warming I talked about at the beginning? Zoos facilitate our delusions, our misperceptions, about the toll that we take on the planet. They promote the pretense that we like animals, that we care about them, that we want to help them, and that we can and do choose to live in ways that help sustain them and their worlds.
But animals don’t really live in zoos. They’re not meant to. They live in forests. In oceans. In other places. They live in habitats. Not in Atlanta. Not in Virginia. We can’t see that – we don’t want to see that – when we see animals in cages, animals in skating rinks, animals in 100 other places, frames, contexts, that allow us to forget, to repress, where they really belong. These other animals belong in nature, whatever that means, whatever bits of it remain before we have destroyed it. They belong in places that we have polluted, and clear-cut, and overdeveloped, and mined. They belong in places that aren’t there anymore, that aren’t habitable anymore.
I think I used to believe that if I wrote against zoos well enough, with enough rhetorical flourish and ecologically analytical insight, they would cease to exist, they would close down.
That hasn’t happened.
I still hate zoos, but I don’t know how much I still believe that they will work as a site of intervention.
There aren’t that many animals stuck in zoos; perhaps tens of thousands, a very small number compared to the animals suffering and dying in so many other venues. Dolphins in Japan, and whales in the Faroe Islands. Bears in Chinese bile farms. Pigs and chickens and cows in factory farms. Spectacular, charismatic, photogenic animals facing extinction, like cheetahs and white rhinos and giant tusked bull elephants, and pangolins and British puffins, and less photogenic (but nevertheless ecologically important) animals like pacific salmon, sturgeon, Oahu tree snails, mountain robins, mold beetles, Wyoming toads.
When we separate ourselves from them, through a cage, we are proclaiming: “I am NOT an animal! You, in the zoo, you are the animal!”And bees. We have to worry about the bees.
And toads and beetles are pretty engrossing and engaging and fascinating, too, depending on how you view them, what you’re looking for. But really, does it matter how I view these animals? They are who they are. They do what they do. And if human viewers want to fetishize our own perspective on them – our voyeurism, our beauty standards, or nature standards – well, that’s our issue.
But, in another sense, it does matter how people view animals, because our views are the first step, the foundation, of our control, our colonization, our discipline and punishment (think Foucault, Bentham, panopticons). Our appetites. Our ethical empathies.
So, how do we view other animals? Inauthentically. Self-flatteringly. When we look at other animals, when we separate ourselves from them, through a cage, through a sheet of ice, through a frame that asserts our fantasy of dominion over them, when we alienate ourselves from them, we are proclaiming: “I am NOT an animal! You, in the zoo, you frozen in the ice, you are the animal!”
People make animals ‘the other,’ ‘the lesser,’ in the same way that men have done to women, and straight people have done to queer people, and wealthy people have done to poor people, and Europeans have done to the rest of the world: to create a hierarchy where we, by definition, by our definition, occupy the top rung.
What are the consequences of such redefinition, misrecognition, of natural biological and ecological realities?
As HBO warns us, it looks pretty much as if the world is coming to an end. So, let’s make sure our final thoughts about all this, our closing words, are as honest, authentic, and insightful as they can be.
That’s all, folks.