The Mall of the Wild

by Benjamin Reeves


It’s impossible to talk about modern zoos without talking about modern environmental crises — global warming, habitat loss, extinction — but zoos are also these kind of strange, liminal spaces that connect people and cities with wildlife, as David Grazian, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains in his latest book, American Zoo. Zoos, in essence, are a physical manifestation of the way that people have tried to separate themselves from the wild — which of course reveal how our very concept of “nature” is a social construct.

Grazian lives in New York City, so I met him Think Coffee, a coffee shop rife with undergrads in one of their daytime natural habitats, to talk about wild animals and concrete jungles and zoo weddings.

What was your research method when you went into a zoo?

The two zoos where I did the bulk of my observations, I signed on as a volunteer. I got to know people pretty well; I told them that I was a college professor and I was interested in learning about zoos. Over time I got to spend four years at two different zoos, cleaning animal enclosures, preparing animal diets, learning how to handle zoo animals and display them to the public.

Did people know you were writing a book?

They knew that I was doing research. Obviously, when you’re in the middle of research, you don’t know what it’s going to turn into and you don’t know if you’re going to have enough for a book until the whole thing is over. So you can’t really approach people on the first day and say you’re writing a book.

Before this, you were doing research on the late-night blues scene. How did you make the transition?

In 2006 my son was born, so it was no longer all that feasible or desirable for me to go out to cocktail lounges until four in the morning. But I did find myself going to the zoo every weekend, taking my son, as any parent would. So I found myself in this space and was struck by all of the interesting similarities between zoos and nightlife establishments and not just the fact that they’re both places where you can observe strange mating habits in public. They’re places where authenticity is culturally performed for an audience. They’re places that people invest with meaning.

The idea is that someone who comes through the doors already has expectations about what they’re going to get. If I go to the Blue Note I have an expectation that I’m going to hear jazz. Same thing at the zoo, everyone goes and expects to see the bears and the penguins.

And everybody expects the animals to act in all sorts of ways that they wouldn’t necessarily act in the wild. Ultimately they get disappointed when they discover that the lion is sleeping even though a lion in the wild rests twenty hours a day.

It’s not fake for a dog to live in someone’s apartment. It’s not fake to keep animals that are endangered in the wild in sanctuaries in the United States. But you’re not seeing animals in some kind of virgin, unadulterated state. You’re seeing animals in a human institution, a social institution. Generally speaking, zoos do operate in the best interest of animals. Zookeepers were among the most committed animal lovers that I’ve ever met. But sometimes what’s in the best interest of an animal may not seem that way to a lay audience.

One day that I was at the zoo, someone was having a wedding. On the one had it’s kind of cool. They’ve got the big trees and the architecture and the animals, right? But on the other hand, parts of the zoo smell like poop; if you go by the penguin enclosure, it smells like fish. There are barriers around the exhibits, and you think, that’s to keep the bear away from the people, but it’s also to keep the people away from the bear. How do people think of zoos as places to get married but they would also take a four-year-old to eat ice cream and look at a monkey?

There’s a real value to taking children to zoos to see animals up close, particularly if we want to help children develop an appreciation of the natural world and the sense that we humans are not alone on the earth — and that we have an obligation to protect the earth. I know of no more convincing way to teach someone about human evolution than to have them look into the face of a gorilla or or a chimpanzee.

My own personal opinion is that when zoos stray from a message of conservation — providing a sanctuary for endangered animals, animals that are injured in the wild, a place of education — zoos go astray when they use their exhibits simply as a sort of theatrical wall paper for a fundraiser or for a wedding. There are many zoos that are privatized and for-profit; Disney’s Animal Kingdom, for instance, can presumably do whatever it wants with its space.

But plenty of zoos, even private institutions, if they have non-profit, tax-exempt status, ought to serve the public accommodation, rather than the space being bid out and auctioned to the highest bidder. If zoos lose this fundamental purpose of educating, of inspiring, of teaching about the importance of biodiversity, of warning of the dangers of the climate change crisis, then zoos no longer have a warrant for keeping animals in captivity in such close quarters.

Yet zoo-goers are an audience. Death, predation especially, that’s not really something you’re putting on display. Vomit and excrement are covered up and hidden. The way life actually exists is concealed.

A lot of the realities of simple biology are censored from the visitors’ experience in order to create a kind of idealized experience that is staged than authentic.

You talk about zoos in the South where there’s discomfort over teaching and presenting evolution as well.

Not only zoos in the South. You see that in most zoos across the country, but particularly in the Bible Belt. I saw a reluctance to talk about human evolution in all sorts of contexts all over the country.

I mean, are they worried that no one is going to come to the zoo?

Obviously the scientists that work at zoos believe in the tenets of human evolution, as all scientists do. But one of the challenges that zoos face is that because they are so reliant on revenue that comes through the turnstile, and given that they attract such a mass audience of people from all backgrounds and education levels, they tend to be very timid — and I think cowardly — when it comes to teaching the public about issues that have been deemed controversial like climate change, like evolution, even though they’re basic scientific facts.

The Central Park Zoo is in the middle of Manhattan. The Park’s been sculpted, by Olmstead, but there are tons and tons of wild animals that live in there. In my part of the park we have loads of raccoons. So people will go to a zoo and look at a coati, for instance, which are related to the raccoon. People, my wife included, get all excited. (You’re right, it’s a place you take dates.) We’re walking home, and there’s a raccoon taking half a chicken out of a garbage can. People are reacting as if it’s some kind of negative thing that’s encroaching on them, even though it’s no different than what’s in the zoo.

Actually you’re witnessing animals that are truly autonomous.

It’s not just in Central Park. The city is full of pigeons. It’s full of red tail hawks, of course rats. The city is an ecosystem. The city is a jungle.

But there is this real discomfort at encountering an animal in the wild, especially for people who live in cities or suburbia.

Certainly. Part of that is because wild animals in the ambient environment are untamed. Humans aren’t protected from them. Very often they are species that are everyday parts of the urban environment that are therefore accorded a very low status. Often thought of in other contexts as pests or as vermin, as carriers of disease. What’s interesting is that in the zoo children are often as excited by seeing wild, untamed squirrels or pigeons as they are by the animals in captivity.

At this point An NYU undergrad in a deliberately frayed stocking cap — he looks like he’s probably reading Nietzsche for the first time and making lots of profound discoveries — walked up. “Excuse me, you’re talking really loudly,” he said. “Can you be quiet? People are studying here. Thank you.”

Is it a library? Are we not allowed to speak in public?

Can lower your voice?

Were you asking or demanding? It sounds like your demanding.

“It’s a public place. So keep it that way.”

That seemed really uncalled for actually, I don’t like your tone.

The student left.

I forgot about the attitude problems at NYU.

He said it’s a public place, keep it that way? So we can’t talk? If it’s a public place, then it’s a place for conversation. It’s not like I’m on my cell phone having a loud conversation.

You’re right.

Well, also, it was like a directive. It’s sort of stupid. He’s an NYU student, and he doesn’t know if I’m a professor at NYU.

Where were we?

Kids haven’t been socialized to think about these socially constructed boundaries between the human world and the natural world. Those [squirrels, raccoons, pigeons] are also animals that are — because they’re on a smaller scale — much more inviting to kids. Children’s literature is full of the anthropomorphizing of all sorts of creatures, like raccoons and squirrels and rabbits.

Do you think kids recognize that there’s a difference in the animals that wander in and the ones that live in zoo?

I’m not a child psychologist, so it’s hard for me to know. When they see those animals, they react with delight. It’s clear to me that children often have to be taught by their parents that a zoo is a kind of environment where animals are in captivity.

And that’s somehow different than the animal in the park or being at home and seeing the family dog.

Children certainly seem delighted by these sorts of small creatures. But children are delighted by all sorts of creatures that their parents don’t find all that enchanting. Children appear to show much more interest in insects — not only butterflies, but cockroaches, spiders — much more so than their parents. They haven’t been socialized to recognize these manufactured, symbolic boundaries between one type of animal and another.

If you read medieval texts they talk about the wild and everything out there, and then there’s the holdfast and the farm, and that’s what we can control in here. People carried that mindset into the modern era.

For most of human history, the wilderness has been something to be feared. Just ask Little Red Riding Hood or the Wandering Israelites. It’s only really been in the last two hundred years or so that humans have begun to re-conceptualize the wilderness as something sacred, as something worthy of being protected, as something that invokes inspiration and awe. The very way that we think about and socially define the natural world is historically determined and socially constructed in a way that would probably not be recognizable to most generations of humans up until modern times.

The origins of zoos go back to the Victorian period. Their origins were in a previous era during a period of industrialization and railroad building and taking control of rivers and the natural world; the creation of zoos mirrored the creation of national parks in the U.S. with Roosevelt. Do zoo have to modernize or change?

There’s a real difference between the motivations for creating the zoos of the early nineteenth century in Europe and American zoos which emerged in the late nineteenth century. In the United States, zoos emerged during the beginnings of what we could call the American conservation movement of the mid-nineteenth century, inspired by people like Audubon and Teddy Roosevelt and the development of the national parks, the interior department. Many zoos, the Bronx Zoo, were created with an eye toward saving the American bison.

Today, zoos have no choice but to adapt, or they won’t survive. By the nineteen seventies the environmental movement was ascendant. Americans had clearly become interested in the welfare of the animals. The old-fashioned zoo was no longer going to cut it. People were no longer going to tolerate seeing animals in concrete cages with iron bars in closed quarters. At the same time a whole set of international laws made it impossible to collect endangered species in the wild, so zoos had no choice but to rely on captive breeding programs.

In order to survive, zoos needed to create naturalistic zoo exhibits, or they would otherwise alienate everyday Americans that want to see captive animals as comfortable as possible. By the same token, in an era of environmental crisis, on a planet beset by massive species extinction, biodiversity loss and habitat destruction, zoos have a moral imperative to sound the alarms. I think they know this.

A lot of the changes in zoos come from within, particularly as zoos started hiring more scientists and as zoo-keeping became more a caretaking job as opposed to one of human dominance over animals. So within zoos, there’s a real sort of push to create scenically attractive, aesthetically beautiful, edifying exhibits that harken to a kind of scientific realism that can inspire and educate mass audiences about the importance of wildlife conservation. It’s incumbent on zoos to lead in this capacity and lean in as far as they can without fear of alienating religious groups that might be disturbed by the realities of human evolution or conservative climate change sceptics.

Is there a risk that people abstractly hear that pandas, for instance, are endangered but they kind or know that they can go to the national zoo or log-on to the panda cam and see one?

I have to think that there’s a kind of consciousness around the endangerment of pandas. There’s a reason why the World Wildlife Fund uses the panda as a mascot. They use the symbolic power of a beloved creature in order to talk about environmental devastation, habitat loss, and in some ways, it’s those animals that people cherish the most that will motivate people to learn more about the environmental crisis.

When you were starting this project did it ever feel subversive to go into a zoo and observe the people? Did you feel like you were transgressing what zoos were for in doing that, since people go to zoos to look at animals.

I guess there is something subversive about turning the gaze onto the visitor. On the other hand, I think that the social scientist’s intentions are generally to increase greater understanding about how humans behave and interact in the world. That’s very different than ogling an animal in a cage because you feel superior to it. As an ethnographer I also know that I have my own sets of human prejudices and desires. I too am attracted to active rather than passive animals.

What are you doing next?

Well, my son is sick of zoos. I think I wore him out. We went to too many.

How many did you go to?

We traveled to twenty-six zoos across the country. The zookeepers got to know him — he got special privileges when we went to zoos. He sometimes got to peak behind the scenes, not in a way that would be dangerous.

You’re not putting him in the lion pit or something.

Even the zookeepers don’t go into the lion enclosures by themselves unless the animal is tranquilized or dead.

So you’re not sick of zoos yet.

What I’m leaning more toward now is thinking more generally about nature in the city and the blurry boundaries between the natural environment and the urban environment, particularly in places like New York; Manhattan is surrounded by rivers. We’re surrounded by domesticated environments like botanical gardens but also wild habitats.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Photo by volna80