The Empire, the Elephant and the Egalitarian
Imperialism, a large mammal and a concept within political philosophy; not three subjects you would usually combine. In fact, one might assume that I have had too much fun with the alliteration of the letter “E” in the title and that the assertion that they must all link is a post-colonial historian’s fairytale. However, there is an overarching link. Greed. The untamable need for more fuelled the empire, powered the expansion of zoos, and widened the moral divide between exotic animals and humans. How does the birth of zoological gardens affect the modern-day zoo and its own morals; can and should we put its past in the past?
Colonial enterprise, particularly for Britain and France peaked in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when brutal attacks on the orient were commonplace. Zoos became a way of demonstrating colonial achievement and power while simultaneously marginalising the ‘other’. Due to the nature of colonial expansion taking place abroad, it was up to the people in authority to spread the successes of the empire to the ‘ordinary’ person. As Berger put it “the zoos, with their theatrical décor for display, were in fact demonstrations of how animals had been rendered completely marginal”
The significance of this theatrical display is important to note. A person does not spend money on a Rolex to be able to tell the time more accurately nor does one lavishly spend on a wedding with no guests. I digress, the decadent display of these animals was an example of colonial showboating, a game played by the colonial powers in an undeclared social proxy war. It begs the question, would zoos exist as they do today without empire?
Having established the basis for the inception of a Zoological garden more generally, one species, seen as the jewel of any zoo was the Elephant. Often housed in replica places of worship such as mosques, the Elephant symbolised a majestic, controlled power becoming a favourite for many visitors of the early zoo. Still today, Elephants are a favourite of any child visiting the zoo but are we missing a more sinister subliminal persuasion that fits into our preconceived idea of our place in the animal kingdom? Put simply, our place at the top of the global fauna is dangerously unchallenged to the point that humans begin to show a total disregard for animals, completely marginalizing them as the ‘other’.
Cue the egalitarian, a person whose political philosophy builds on the concept of social equality. It is this idea of social equality, or their lack of that links it to empire and zoos. What might an egalitarian think about zoos and why is this important to understanding their future? As Oscar Horta writes prolifically in his article “Egalitarianism and Animals”, egalitarianism implies rejecting speciesism in an attempt to reduce inequality by favouring the worse off. In this case, these worse off are caged in a zoo. Therefore, no matter what facilities are put in place to make the conditions more humane (note the word humane to describe non-human, animal habitats) the animals are still worse off and therefore equality has not been reached.
Finally, how much has the empire created this inequality and separation between animals and humans and how are zoos to move forward? Where is the future for its past?
The empire is synonymous with inequality. The idea that one group of colonisers, in this case, the global north, can oppress and rule over whole countries, peoples, and their cultures spells out inequality phonetically. So YES, the empire did help to create the zoos that place humans on a pedestal but has the separation between animals and humans been caused exclusively by the empire, probably not. For example, Berger places the blame on the rise of 19th-century capitalism. Animals did not enter the human imagination as commodities such as fur or meat but instead as spiritual beings with real value. He writes that;
For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial.
The empire was capitalist in nature, designed to accumulate wealth through total control of its overseas territories. These two work together to explain the disparity between humans and animals and highlight the uncomfortable, unnatural nature of the zoo.
The Empire captured the Elephant and can be freed by Egalitarian. Equality is key, what makes us think we are any better than these animals?