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July 2000
Zoos in Culture and Fiction

The Satya Interview with Randy Malamud


Randy Malamud
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 school’s 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 showmanship—the 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 don’t 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; we’re slovenly and we’re 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 person’s 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 Vonnegut’s 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 it’s weird and funny. The point that we get is that the aliens don’t 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. There’s 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 it’s 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. Doesn’t this also say something about zoos?
Yes. For example, Sylvia Plath has a poem called "Zookeeper’s 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 pain.

The Zoo Story, a play by Edward Albee is not evidently about a zoo, but it’s called that because the protagonist comes on to the stage and says he’s 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 I’ve studied. Authors don’t usually write whole novels about zoos; they are used as a means to an end because it’s 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 don’t 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"?
It’s 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, you’re obviously so very interested in the animal world. You’re really doing good by paying your admission fee to help save these cute furry creatures." So it palliates people’s guilt—never mind that an ugly animal might be much more important to the ecological chain of events.

There’s a perverted Noah’s 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 there’s 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 feel—that 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."
I’ve 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 don’t 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 slaves—smelly 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." They’re not seeing a giraffe, they’re 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 novels—Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban and Setting Free the Bears by John Irving—the 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 that’s 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.


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