Zoos are about power. And, as even one pro-zoo author (and almost all zoo authors are, unfortunately, pro-zoo authors) writes, “You show power by keeping an animal captive; how much more powerful are you if you kill it?”
Entertainment has always been central to the functioning of zoos. In ancient Rome, this often took the form of mass slaughter of animals. Beginning in about the third century BCE, Romans forced captured bull elephants to fight in public arenas. Soon after, gladiators began fighting bulls, a practice that continues to this day in some countries. Within a couple of hundred years Roman generals figured out how to kill, as it were, two birds with one stone—how to keep discipline among the ranks of the military and provide public entertainment—by throwing army deserters into pits to be torn apart by wild animals.
Around 170 BCE the Roman Senate tried to outlaw these various spectacles, not because of concern for animals (including human animals) but as a means of “preventing their plebian political opponents from buying votes through the sponsorship of such popular events.” Their attempt at legislation failed.
One problem with spectacles—where more or less passive consumption of entertainment stands in for direct participation in events that affect one personally—is that spectacles substitute vicarious for direct experience and superficial identification for real relationship. Because spectacles are discrete packets of excitement that remain external to audience members, they are functionally incapable of providing consumers with a meaningful, lasting sense of emotional involvement or satisfaction. This is in contrast to real relationships and personal experience, which aren’tfunctionally incapable of providing this sense. Because individuals are infinitely complex, and because real relationships provide infinite opportunities for exploration and discovery—meaning they need not become boring—and because spectacles are by their very nature distant and superficial—meaning that with repetition they will become boring—spectacles must ratchet up their titillation in order to stave off inevitable boredom. They must keep people believing that they have experienced something, even if this belief lasts only for the short time of the spectacle itself. What once was daring becomes banal, then downright dull.
Because of this, the Roman slaughter grew ever more intense over time. To provide just one example among far too many, in 55 BCE the Roman consul Pompey acquired twenty-one elephants from Egypt, promising that they would not be injured. It should surprise none of us that he lied. As a finale to his festival of violence, Pompey had them publicly tortured: “The gladiators killed the elephants slowly, spearing them with javelins, the beasts flailing their great tusks, falling to their knees, trumpeting and wailing fiercely.” A few years later, thirty-five hundred animals were killed in twenty-six spectacles ordered by Caesar Augustus. And things keep getting worse: just one event during the reign of Caligula saw the killing of four hundred bears and four hundred animals from Africa. Nero flooded an entire arena so that gladiators could spear seals from boats. Historian W.E.H. Lecky commented, “Simple combat became at last insipid, and every variety of atrocity was devised to stimulate the flagging interest. At one time a bear and a bull, chained together, rolled in fierce combat across the sand; at another, criminals dressed in the skins of wild beasts were thrown to bulls, which [sic] were maddened by red-hot irons, or by darts tipped with burning pitch. . . . In a single day, at the dedication of the Colosseum by Titus, five thousand animals perished. Under Trajan, the games continued for one hundred and twenty-three successive days. Lions, tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, giraffes, bulls, stags, even crocodiles and serpents were employed to give novelty to the spectacle. Nor was any form of human suffering wanting. . . . Ten thousand men fought during the games of Trajan. Nero illumined his gardens during the night by Christians burning in their pitchy shirts. Under Domitian, an army of feeble dwarfs was compelled to fight. . . . So intense was the craving for blood that a prince was less unpopular if he neglected the distribution of corn than if he neglected the games.”
That’s not far different from today. We still live more in spectacles than in our own lives. People will suffer degradation and toxification of their total environment—and of their own bodies—with remarkably little resistance, but destroy the televisions and there would be rioting in the streets almost immediately. And while we no longer slaughter animals for entertainment, we should consider the even more egregious horrors of factory farming and the assembly lines of factory slaughterhouses. We should consider that 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans have been killed by this culture, that the great apes and the great cats will most likely soon be extinct. We should consider that this culture destroys the wild everywhere faster than ever before. We should consider that this culture is killing the planet. If this culture has evolved in its treatment of nonhumans, the direction of that evolution should not make us proud.
Zoos remain a deadly business. We’ve all heard the litany of animals killed by abusive patrons, of deer beaten to death by visitors who climbed the fence to get at them, of sea lions stoned to death, of sea lions blinded by cherry bombs, of giraffes stabbed by pitchforks, of the routine poisonings of captive animals, of the sticks, rocks, and other weapons wielded by those who enact the phrase quoted above: “You show power by keeping an animal captive; how much more powerful are you if you kill it?” And we all know that when these animals fight back, it is not their tormenters who get shot.
A century ago a supervisor at the Moscow zoo stated in language equally applicable today, “All day long, an immense crowd, rowdy and bothersome, filed past the cages. This multitude, which would have been seized by mortal panic at the distant sight of any one of these animals at liberty, took great delight in seeing them thus disarmed, humiliated and debased. They took revenge for their own cowardice by deriding them, heckling them in loud voices, and shaking their chains, and the keepers’ remonstrations would come up against an unanswerable argument: ‘I’ve paid.’”
The killing of animals is not at issue here; life feeds off life. It always has, and always will. At issue here is relationship. One reason indigenous cultures do not kill their landbases is that they recognize and participate in the fundamental predator/prey relationship: when you consume the flesh of another you take responsibility for the continuation of the other’s community. In addition, you are bound to respect the other and to give thanks for the life it gave to sustain yours, in full recognition that someday it will be your turn to give your life to sustain someone else.
One reason civilizations destroy their landbases—and one reason the current global civilization is killing the entire planet—is that as a whole they do not recognize and participate in this relationship: they neither respect nor take responsibility for nonhuman (or for that matter human) communities.
The truth is, civilizations don’t much recognize or participate in relationships at all, especially with nonhumans.