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new internationalist
issue 215 - January 1991

Tess Lemmon watches people watching animals.

'Look! He's waving at you! Wave, wave. Say "hello". Look at his tail he's waving at you... '

'Not very fierce is he? Come on then, show us your teeth... '

'Make a nice rug, wouldn't he?'

The tiger lies on a slab of concrete, stares into space, Hicks its tail. People stop, make comments, then go - having taken their photos, made their jokes and had their 'good day out'.

But hang on a minute. This is 1990. We're all turning green, running round trying to save rainforests, ozone layers and the insects in our own backyards. Whatever is a tiger doing lying in a cage in this day and age?

It depends on where you're standing. From inside the zoo director's office, for example, the tiger is living it up like nobody's business. Saved from having to earn its own living in the tough outside world, it has meals handed to it on a plate, and mates provided at regular intervals. It doesn't even have to walk anywhere. I have heard one zoo director - with his tongue only half way in his cheek - describe the zoo as a 'welfare state' for wild animals.

But the zoo director assures us the tiger is earning its keep by educating the public. Education is the main justification trotted out by zoos whenever their existence is challenged. The argument goes like this: all the nature and wildlife documentary films in the world can't replace flesh and blood. There's just nothing like the experience of coming face to face with real, live, wild animals. Having communed with wild animals, zoo visitors will be so turned on to the wonders of the natural world that they will start to care deeply about their plight, go off and do something about it. Along with all the other caged animals, the tiger - to use a favourite zoo phrase - is 'an ambassador for the wild'.

As an anthropologist, I'm interested in why people go to zoos, what they get from looking at animals in cages, and what zoos say they get. Having spent hours watching people watching animals, my feeling is that no zoo can fulfil the lofty educational role it claims. No zoo can bring about a meaningful encounter between people and animals because by its very nature the zoo - good, bad, best in the world - presents a distorted picture of wild animals and of our relationship with them.

Zoos are therefore for people, not animals. Many of the main European zoos were founded at the beginning of the last century so that people could see weird and wonderful creatures from exotic lands. Hand in hand with the spirit of adventure came conquest and acquisition, and a desire to tame, to control. It is no coincidence that the zoo as we know it sprang up in the colonial era. You only have to look at some of the caging of that time to see the most blatant links: monkeys housed in replicas of Hindu temples, the elephant house as a mud hut.

These days the idea of keeping rows of animals in cages just so people can go and gawp at them is being challenged. So what do the zoos do? They talk a lot about their serious scientific research, their total commitment to conservation, and their vital role as educators. Meanwhile, people do what they have always done. They go to the zoo to see the animals - and to be entertained.

Just what do people see when they look at an animal in a zoo?

They see an idea. Most of us don't have much to do with the natural world, yet we're surrounded by wild animals. They leap out from advertising hoardings, logos, stories, song lyrics ... As symbols they express human emotions, values, rules and principles. These are the animals we know best. These are the ones we bring with us to the zoo. They are there to tell us about ourselves, not about animals. Zoo visitors respond to their idea of a tiger: the disguised human in a story, or the essence of fierceness.

This is no crime - although the fact that people come and go with their images intact does question any zoo's claim to be leading us into the natural world. But much more harmful is the way the zoo fosters another whole set of assumptions to do with people being at the centre of the universe. Just as symbolic animals are there to serve us - to carry our principles - so, too, the real animal is entirely at our beck and call. Torn away from its own life, stripped of all autonomy, it is reduced to an object to be observed. In the zoo, humans are always on top.

In the zoo, the expectation is that the animal should please me. People demand to be taken notice of, are positively insulted to find themselves ignored. The animal is 'lazy', 'snobbish', should 'come here and say hello then'. The ugliest examples include teasing, challenging, banging on cages. Sadder is the search for some kind of recognition. One flick of an eyelid and 'he's looking at you'.

The time I spent outside the cages showed me how the zoo sets up barriers to any true understanding of animals. Robbed of all its natural dignity, the animal is enclosed in a space which is designed and controlled by people. With their painted backdrops, hidden moats, zoos are the masters of illusion - and the relationship they set up between visitor and exhibit is that of spectator and performer.

There is another way in which the zoo widens the gulf between animal and human. The gorilla picks its nose, the hippo urinates, the chimps mate in full view of an audience. How disgusting! How could they? People never do things like that. People back away. Yet the laughter at this bad behaviour, these examples of our superiority, is often an awkward, embarrassed kind of laughter. In a zoo people find themselves in the position of voyeurs, unsure of their own responses.

The only way we can bring about any healthy and relaxed meeting between people and captive animals is to scrap the whole concept of the zoo and start again. Start with the animals, not the people. Start by asking what justification there is for ever keeping animals in cages. Start by finding ways of offering them a realistic substitute for the wild - which doesn't mean a plastic tree, but an imaginative space of appropriate size, a chance to relate to members of their species as they would in the wild, a chance to get away from the public gaze - a chance, basically, to live their own lives.

Then we should ask how we should behave in order to earn acceptance by them on their own terms. There's nothing to stop this happening. Naturalists have done it often enough by meeting animals on their own ground, by watching them in the wild and gaining their trust. By not imposing themselves on the animals, a relationship based on mutual respect can develop. It is also being done in a few places which specialize in keeping one species of animal in captivity, and where years may be spent learning about one animal.

The zoo - good, bad, best in the world - is just not enough for animals or people. In demeaning animals we demean ourselves. How much longer is the tiger going to have to lie on its slab of concrete? How much longer are we going to drag children past this 3-D version of their storybook character and urge them to wave at its tail?

Tess Lemmon is currently writing two children's books about monkeys and woodlands.

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New Internationalist issue 215 magazine cover This article is from the January 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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