in Culture and Fiction
The Satya Interview with Randy
is Professor of English at Georgia State University. He is author of
several books, including The Language of Modernism (UMI, 1989) and Where
the Words are Valid: T.S. Eliot's Communities of Drama (Greenwood, 1994).
He recently spoke with Angela Starks about his latest
book, Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity
(New York University Press, 1998).
What is Reading Zoos about?
My endeavor was to present different ways to look at what is going
on with zoos, to think about it beyond just the status quo. I have two
young kids and the field trip to the zoo is set on the schools
agenda every year. Kids have birthday parties at the zoo and so many
people are going, and I think a lot of well-minded people are just not
thinking about what it means. Zoos are very established in our culture
and they are a very complex endeavor involving money and showmanshipthe
same paraphernalia that surrounds Disneyworld, amusement parks or any
other major cultural enterprise. I invoke an array of literary depictions
of animals and zoos and I link these depictions to our culture in order
to reveal what zoos say about us as people. I also touch on things like
songs, cartoons and even advertising.
You start the book with the comment "I do not like zoos."
What dont you like about them?
There are so many things. The smells, the sight of the animals who
are clearly unhappy and mangy and exhibiting stereotypic dysfunctional
behavior. They always look sad to me. You see all those potentially
beautiful and interesting species inside the bars; were slovenly
and were gawking at them. It really makes me feel guilty about
being a member of this empowered species on the planet. Why do we do
this? I feel embarrassment, cultural awkwardness and historical guilt.
Visits to the zoo seem like a sad and wrong way for so many people to
be spending their afternoons.
How do you arrive at a perspective on zoos via a study of literature?
Any individual work of fiction or poetry is of course only one persons
point of view, so in Reading Zoos I bring together all of these different
perspectives and show how a range of people are looking at zoos. With
their aesthetic consciousness, the authors lay bare the underpinning
of zoos; what they mean and how they work.
By far, the preponderance of literature that I studied does not romanticize
zoos, they deconstruct them, they problematize them. Novels are not
representative of the spectrum of human cultural behaviors at the zoo
because most people are happy to go to zoos whereas most novels say
that zoos are tawdry, scary, voyeuristic prisons.
In Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse Five, two characters are kidnapped
by space aliens and put in a zoo where the aliens come to gawk at them,
thinking "these are such pathetic creatures, we are so much better
than them." They watch them making love and think that its
weird and funny. The point that we get is that the aliens dont
really understand them; humans are not inherently as ridiculous and
stupid as the aliens think we are. So you can carry this analogy further
and say, well, we do the same thing with the animals that we put in
zoos. Theres a lot of imperialistic braggadocio involved on the
part of the people who manage to capture another species and put them
in a cage. One of the achievements of that novel is to take us outside
of ourselves. It encourages us to imagine what others would think of
us, and how it reflects on the whole construct of zoos.
Throughout literature, the zoo is depicted as a really bad place to
be and its the last thing that you would want to happen to you.
So it surprises me that if there is such a common consciousness about
this then why do we think the animals are any happier? Do we care?
Zoos are also used as depressing or violent images to represent human
situations. Doesnt this also say something about zoos?
Yes. For example, Sylvia Plath has a poem called "Zookeepers
Wife" in which she uses the zoo scenario as a metaphor for her
own distress; she is the caged animal and the zookeeper is her tormentor.
She had visited the zoo and seen animals who were brutalized and ripped
out of context and she obviously saw an appropriate symbol for her own
The Zoo Story, a play by Edward Albee is not evidently about a zoo,
but its called that because the protagonist comes on to the stage
and says hes just been to the zoo, then all this weird stuff happens.
The other guy keeps asking what happened at the zoo and he never really
answers, so we have to infer that he had a bad experience that has led
him to behave very aggressively and dysfunctionally. The zoo is used
that way in a lot of the works that Ive studied. Authors dont
usually write whole novels about zoos; they are used as a means to an
end because its such a rich, imagistic bundle of things. They
tend to be very dark, depressing novels in which terrible things happens
to animals and to people.
You say that although you sympathize with the animal rights perspective,
what you are concerned with is what zoos say about people. What do you
think zoos say about people?
I think they say that we are lazy, that we have this sense of entitlement,
that we want to see all these animals but we dont want to travel
far to see them. We want them arranged for our convenience in the zoo.
People seem to think that we have this right to rip up little pieces
of the planet with animals and creatures and landscape and arrange them
into this clearly sadistic, ugly cement and metal compound. We think
of ourselves as enlightened, democratic Americans and that we would
never have this imperialistic sense of entitlement.
When the zoo was invented in 1826, the British wanted to show themselves
to be the master of the entire world and every animal from every corner
of the world was gathered there in the heart of the Empire. I think
Americans are doing the same kinds of things now. Zoos confirm that
we have this cruel, heedless, imperialistic kind of attitude. This is
what I mean when I say it embarrasses me to see these people walking
around the zoo, standing in front of the cage.
Why do zoos represent what you describe as a "cultural danger"?
Its really about the lack of ecological enlightenment. Zoos
are always canny about giving the public what they want, shifting with
the wind, positioning themselves to hook up with the latest fads and
beliefs. One of the things zoos are doing very prominently now is saying
that they are very "green" places, where you come to learn
about your world and the other animals and ecological consciousness.
What is dangerous about this is that when a person goes to the zoo,
especially a child, they are getting exactly the opposite message of
what they should be getting. The lesson we really need to learn is that
we are very dangerous to the ecosystem. There are a lot of disturbing
messages that we should be getting in order to reform our sensibilities.
Instead, when people go to the zoo, the cultural lesson they get is:
"just by coming to the zoo, youre obviously so very interested
in the animal world. Youre really doing good by paying your admission
fee to help save these cute furry creatures." So it palliates peoples
guiltnever mind that an ugly animal might be much more important
to the ecological chain of events.
Theres a perverted Noahs Ark sensibility. The difference
being that in the Genesis story the animals were protected for 40 days
and then put back into their habitat, whereas here theres no place
to put them back. I think we appropriate a lot of this sort of Noah
imagery: God is showing his favor on us by giving us all these animals
and the wonderful technology and science to sustain these animals and
to capture them and rip them out from wherever they belong in the world
and bring them over here. I think that the danger of zoos has to do
with the context in which we see them and the sense of entitlement we
as Americans feelthat we deserve to have these animals, to see
every animal in the world. We want to see a rhino and a panda bear and
a giraffe, though the reality of these animals lives is that you
would never ordinarily see them.
You also say that zoos represent a "deadening of our sensibilities."
Ive read some 16th and 17th century accounts of explorers
who travel half- way around the world to see a rhinoceros and it would
be for them just the most amazing thing. They would write about it and
other people would read about it and there was this sense of tremendous
imaginative exuberance in the experience of this amazing animal that
they had never seen before. I dont think people have that anymore.
They just think: "Rhino? Oh yeah, great. I already saw a rhino
last month at the other zoo." And this is what I mean by culturally
dull and deadening the sensibilities. Animals have this inherent essence
that is drugged out of them when they are prisoners in a zoo and any
potential appreciation for them is drugged out of people when we see
the animals as lowly subaltern slavessmelly prisoners with ratty
hides who are chewing at their own body. The defense of zoos is always
"well, otherwise my kid will never see a giraffe." Theyre
not seeing a giraffe, theyre not seeing an animal. People may
half-heartedly attempt to look into the eyes of an animal, but in a
few seconds they move on to the next cage, and meanwhile the animal
is just stuck there.
In two novelsTurtle Diary by Russell Hoban and Setting
Free the Bears by John Irvingthe spectators go to the zoo
and decide that the only ethical response to what they see as a horrific
situation is to physically free the animals; to take the turtles back
to the ocean and let the bears out of the cage. Although in real life
thats not literally or biologically realistic, as an idealistic,
fictitious, extremist gesture it struck me as very inspirational. What
those activist heroes are doing is freeing the animals within fiction.
In a metaphoric equivalent, there are ways in which all of us can symbolically
free the animals, basically by not going to zoos in the first place
but also by imagining them free and getting used to not thinking of
them in cages.