What do we really learn from zoos? What do we learn looking at the pathetic, dejected, angry, or insane animals? What do we learn beyond the platitudes on the plaques in front of the bars, moats, or electrified fences?
We learn that humans are not animals. We learn that we are here and they are there. We learn that they are there for us, for our pleasure, our entertainment, our education: us. We learn that they have no existence independent of us. We learn that our world is limitless and their worlds are limited, constrained, constricted. We learn that we are more clever than they, or they would outwit us and escape. Or maybe that they do not want to escape, that the provision of bad food—the grizzlies in the San Francisco Zoo are now being fed commercial dog food—and concrete shelter within a cage is more important than freedom (the importance of having humans internalize this lesson for their own lives cannot be overstated). We learn that we are more powerful than they, or we could not confine them. We learn that it is acceptable for the technologically powerful to confine the less technologically powerful (once again, the importance of having especially less technologically powerful humans internalize this message cannot be overstated). We learn that each and every one of us, no matter how powerless we may feel in our own lives, is more powerful than the most mighty elephant or polar bear. Why? Because we can come, and we can go.
We learn that “habitat” is not unspoiled forests and plains and deserts and rivers and mountains and seas, but concrete cages with concrete rocks and the trunks of dead trees. We learn that “habitat” has sharp, immutable edges: everything inside the electrified fence is “bear habitat” and everything outside the fence is not. We learn that habitats do not meld and mix and flow back and forth over time. We learn that humans can make HABITATTM, and from that can come to believe that humans can make habitat.
We learn that you can remove a creature from her habitat and still have a creature. We see a sea lion in a concrete pool and believe that we’re still seeing a sea lion. But we are not. That is all wrong. We should never let zoologists define for us what or who an animal is. A sea lion isher habitat. She is the school of fish she chases. She is the water. She is the cold wind blowing over the ocean. She is the waves that strike the rocks on which she sleeps, and she is the rocks. She is the constant calling back and forth between members of her family, this talking to each other that never seems to stop. She is the shark who eventually ends her life. She is all of these things. She is that web. She is the process of being a sea lion, in place. She is her desires, which we can only learn by letting her show us, if she wants; not by encaging her.
We could and should say the same for every other creature, whether wolverine, gibbon, macaw, or elephant. I have a friend who has spent his life in the wild, and ecstatically reported to me one time that he saw a wolverine. I could have responded, “Big deal. I’ve seen plenty in zoos. They look like a big weasel.” But I have never seen a wolverine in the wild, which means I have never seen a wolverine.
Zoos teach us that animals are meat and bones in sacks of skin. You could put a wolverine into tinier and tinier cages, until you had a cage precisely the size of the wolverine, and you would still, according to what zoos implicitly teach, have a wolverine.
Zoos teach us that animals are like machine parts: separable, replaceable, interchangeable. They teach us that there is no web of life, that you can remove one part and put it into a box and still have that part. But that is all wrong. What is this wolverine? Who is this wolverine? What is her life really like? Not her life constrained by moats and walls, but her life in the forest, surrounded by that life, doing what wolverines do.
Zoos cannot teach us anything true about the lives of animals—not even human animals. They teach us that a wolverine/elephant/giraffe/anteater/grizzly bear/lion is a ridiculous animal pacing past its own shit in a cement cage. Zoos teach us implicitly that animals need to be managed, that they can’t survive without us. They are our dependents, not our teachers, our neighbors, our betters, our equals, our friends, our gods. They are our. We must assume the interspecies version of the white man’s burden, and out of the goodness of our hearts we must benevolently control their lives. We must “rescue them from the wild.”
Here is the real lesson taught by zoos, the ubiquitous lesson, the inescapable lesson, the overarching lesson, and really the only lesson that matters: a vast gulf separates humans and all other animals. It is wider than the widest moat, stronger than the strongest bars, more certain than the most lethal electric fence. We are here. They are there. We are special. We are separate.