Fifth Estate #316, Spring 1984, Vol. 19 No. 1, page B1
A zoo is something we all take for granted, in much the same way we take our relationship to nature and ourselves for granted. We’ve accepted the idea that zoological gardens exist for the relaxation and enjoyment of the millions of spectators who visit them throughout the world, and that their main goal is to save some of the world’s last remaining wild animals—a globally accepted view. But as with most things we take for granted in the world today, the reality of the zoo is the complete opposite from what it appears.
As far as the “relaxing” aspect of zoos, the contradiction is hard to pin down. I personally find them extremely depressing and I don’t think I’m alone in this view.
To me, it’s impossible to happily roam the zoo while some of the most beautiful and rare animals in the world, neurotically prance in cages, tear hair from their skin and stare aimlessly from cells, pits and pools. Although I try to imagine how these fellow animals lived in the wilderness, I cannot overcome this spectacle of forced captivity. But it’s taken for granted (perhaps as a necessary evil), in the same way that people forced to live in cramped city conditions regardless of ones class—is an accepted given. Perhaps that’s part of the key to what depresses people about zoos—in the sad existence of these animals, we see our own lives. In the lives of these once wild animals, these last free spirits, now sitting and sleeping their lives away or participating in the neurotic and often violent activities of captives, we see the reflections of ourselves in modern society. Reflections of the same undeniable emptiness within our lives. In fact, I would go as far as to say that those humans who see only “joy” and “excitement” at touring zoos are perfect creations of civilization: unquestioning, accepting, unimaginative, and domesticated. Either afraid of freedom and spontaneity or unable to grasp the concepts.
Perhaps you’re thinking that I’m being too harsh or blowing the situation out of proportion…I think not. Especially when one also considers the relationships zoos have with all animals except homo sapiens.
In the perverted logic of western civilization, zoos have started to appear as the champions of the wild, protectors of the animal world. The only thing saving animals from extinction and oblivion. This is true, but in a very back-handed way. These animals are not being protected so much for their own sake, but more for the appeasement of the very same species that is slaughtering them and destroying the wilderness. They are being saved—no not saved, preserved, preserved in the same manner that a collector or museum curator maintains the last artifacts of a “primitive” society that has been destroyed by “civilization.” Preserved so as to settle the guilt from our love/hate relationship with the rest of the planet. It’s a concept that refuses to come to grips with the fact that a gorilla, for instance, is a complex living being, that is defined as much by its surroundings as it is its physical makeup. If you remove a gorilla from the wilderness and force it into a cage or onto a small parcel of land surrounded by fences and moats, it ceases to be a gorilla except in name and appearance. It becomes a mutation that looks like its African, free-roaming kin, but lacks the spirit of an animal born free—it’s the difference between the wilderness and civilization; freedom and domestication. It now shares with all captives that feeling of emptiness, that lack of fulfillment.
A perfect example is the life of Jim-Jim, the Detroit Zoo’s lowland gorilla who died of heart failure on July 3, 1983.
Writing in the August 2, 1983 issue of the Detroit Free Press, Patricia [words missing in original print edition]
Greek mythical character Adonis, because of his beauty, but I’m sure that Chargot didn’t realize that this gorilla had more in common than just appearance with this tragic Greek.
According to myth, Adonis was gored to death by a wild boar, while in reality, Jim-Jim was bored to death by domestication. For the 28 years that the 406 pound Jim-Jim spent behind bars in a 12×12 foot cell, he was never allowed out of the zoo’s Great Ape House and very rarely saw sunlight. He was a victim of western civilization and its fear of anything wild or free, anything outside of its control. He was the victim of the fears of our species, an animal that has become terrified of its origin—the wilderness—and has attempted to destroy and dominate it to “protect” itself, finally incarcerating the few remaining wild animals to protect them from extinction! It’s a twisted logic to say the least.
Brought to the zoo in 1955, Jim-Jim was considered extremely dangerous, i.e. was not domesticated, and was immediately caged. According to a Free Press account of the two-year-old gorilla’s arrival, he “broke down and wept, just like a baby, as the cage door clanged shut, and real tears were seen streaming down his face.” What a beast, a threat to society, a killer! Thank god for bars of steel!! But the absurdity of this quickly generates anger when one considers that Jim-Jim’s parents and kin were probably slaughtered in the capturing of him. Killing-off the adults, so as to make it safer to take the young, is a common method of capturing apes and monkeys. A strange way of saving endangered animals, to say the least.
So where does this leave us? First it should be obvious that zoos do not save animals from extinction, but are an integral part of the systematic elimination of the un-caged. They allow us to think we’re doing something to save the wilderness—to breathe easy—while in reality, the world we’ve created is destroying the last of the uncontrollable.
But we must also realize that the same process of domestication is at work on us, its creators. Once nature has been subdued and the wilderness destroyed to make way for apartments, industrial complexes, military bases and chemical dumps, it’s gone forever. The free spirit that is the dreams and fears of all of us will be gone, and although something calling itself freedom may appear, it will never be the same. If we destroy the wilderness, we destroy all that is free—including ourselves. The choices are simple: domestication or rebellion.