This culture is killing the planet. In part this is because of how we perceive the world. We act according to the way we experience the world. We experience the world according to how we perceive it. We perceive it the way we have been taught. If we are to have any chance of survival, we need to change how we perceive the world.
A Canadian lumberman once said: “When I look at trees I see dollar bills.” If when you look at trees you see dollar bills you will act a certain way. If when you look at trees you see trees you will act a different way. If when you look at this tree right here you see this tree right here, you will act differently still. If when you look at women you see orifices you will act a certain way. If when you look at women you see women you will act a different way. If when you look at this woman right here you see this woman right here, you will act differently still.
How do zoos teach us to perceive nonhuman animals and our relationship to them?
Maybe we can get part of the answer from a front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “Grizzlies turn into cash cows.” The subtitle tells the story: “Free public contest is dumped in favor of getting big bucks from highest bidder—corporate or individual.” In the end, the zoo’s “contest” to name the newly imprisoned grizzlies was—and why should this surprise us?—little more than a public relations campaign. At the same time the zoo was ceaselessly promoting this “contest” through all available media, saying “People like the idea of naming them. It gives them a special bond,” it was “courting donors and preparing for an April 29 naming auction at ZooFest, an annual fund-raising gala.” The zoo hopes to raise $30,000.
As zoos demonstrate, within this culture everything is for sale. Recently a new species of monkey was “discovered” in South America. The person who “discovered” the species auctioned off the naming rights. A casino paid $650,000 to name the primate GoldenPalace.com Monkey.
I’m not making this up. I couldn’t if I tried.
Again, what is the point of zoos? What do they teach us about our relationship to nonhuman animals?
Today the San Francisco Chronicle carried an article entitled “Shark hits 100th day at grateful aquarium: Great White adds to survival record—and to gross receipts.”
Great white sharks generally do not survive captivity. Prior to this fish the record was sixteen days. And now? As the article states, “Every day that she fails to go belly up, the nameless shark sets a record for longevity in captivity. This makes the Monterey Bay Aquarium a very happy place.” Why? “Ticket sales [at $20 per person] have doubled, shark merchandise sells swimmingly, ‘great white’ wine has been added to the restaurant menu, an entire gift store has been converted from selling jellyfish trinkets to shark trinkets, and the children’s craft center is churning out 200 crayon-decorated paper shark hats a day.”
The article lists some of the merchandise available in the gift shop: “$15 shark boxer shorts, $70 neon shark lamps, $3 shark bottle openers, $35 shark silk scarves, $70 shark puppets, $13 shark thermal coffee mugs, and a dozen models of plush toy sharks, each more cuddly than the last.”
It concludes with a quote from a store clerk, “We don’t sell that much jelly-fish stuff anymore. It’s all sharks, sharks, sharks.”
This is the essence of the spectacle: absent relationship, emotionally benumbed, ever-increasing novelty is required to maintain a sense of “feeling,” a sense of “excitement.” This is the essence of zoos. One former assistant director of the National Zoological Park wrote, in a book entitled, significantly enough, The World’s a Zoo, “One reason we have so many species is that zoo men, like museum curators, are enthusiastic collectors. If a zoo director has never had [sic] kiwis, lesser pandas, colobus monkeys, Chinese alligators, marbled cats, or Komodo monitors, he wants them. A curator of reptiles wants almost any species he has never had before, the rarer the better. In zoo circles, it is a mark of distinction to have what no one else has. A collection of common species may please the public, but it is the rare items that [read who] make for status in the zoo community.”
The thrill is purely in the novelty, as with a rare stamp or coin. It isn’t in the animals themselves, who are in this purview nothing more nor less than commodities.