BOOKS: Thought to Exist In The Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2007:

Thought to Exist In The Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos
by Derrick Jensen, with photos by Karen Tweedy-Holmes
No Voice Unheard (P.O. Box 4171, Santa Cruz, CA 95063), 2007. 143 pages, paperback. $19.95.

Hallmarks of hate literature are that it draws a distinction between us and them, asserts that all of them are like the worst of them, and concludes that none of them should be tolerated.
Many an insightful critique of zoos has appeared in recent decades, but Thought to Exist In The Wild is not among them. Thought to Exist In The Wild is essentially hate literature. Author Derrick Jensen hates zoos, all zoos. Acknowledging little significant difference among zoos, Jensen traces the origins of modern zoos to Roman spectacles, likens zoos to pornography, and argues that zoos exist chiefly to celebrate the human conquest of nature.
Roman spectacles certainly had parallels, on a much smaller scale, in the baiting and other animal torture that made the Tower Menagerie notorious for many of the 600 years that it existed in London as the most prominent proto-zoo in Europe. In 1832 the Tower Menagerie animal collection was transferred to the newly opened London Zoo. The London Zoo, populated by rare species from British colonies, was more-or-less ancestral to most major zoos today.


However, this was scarcely a matter of linear descent. Nearly 1,000 years separated Roman spectacles from the Tower Menagerie, and the Tower Menagerie existed for almost a century before the first record of intentional abuses occurring there. After that, there were epochs of sadism and of attempted good animal care, reflecting the shifting attitudes of the ruling British monarchs, the people they put in charge, and the visiting public.
Meanwhile, as zoo historian, architect, and critic David Hancocks recounted in A Different Nature (2001), in the 16th century “The Mogul emperor Akbar the Great established zoos in various Indian cities which…provided spacious enclosures and cages, built in large reserves. Each had a resident doctor, and Akbar encouraged careful study of animals. His zoos were open to the public. At the entrance to each he posted a message: ‘Meet your brothers. Take them to your hearts, and respect them.'”
Nearly 200 years after that, the remnants of Akbar’s zoos–among other aspects and institutions of India–appear to have influenced British military officers who, upon returning home, founded the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1822, and made abolishing the Tower Menagerie one of their first priorities.
The London Zoo, like Akbar’s zoos, was founded to promote education about animals and appreciation of nature, in an atmosphere where women and children could feel safe. Like the London SPCA, which became the Royal SPCA in 1840, the London Zoo was opened in an effort to reduce public violence, and to try to mitigate the effects of the Industrial Revolution on nature.
Of course the zookeepers did not get everything right. Of course zookeepers are still rethinking, redesigning, and re-evaluating their roles and messages. Of course the most problematic aspect of zoos has always been that they are animal prisons, if the animals realize that they are captives–and no issue has more concerned the zoo community. Some zookeepers rationalize captivity. Others try to minimize or mitigate it. Few, if any, celebrate captivity for its own sake.
One point that zookeepers have gotten right, contrary to Jensen’s assertion that captivity is a step toward killing, is celebrating living animals. The London Zoo and other modern zoos originated at the same time as taxidermy came into vogue. From Victorian times until the mid-20th century debut of the major U.S. museums of natural history, zoos competed for market share with vast arrays of elaborately mounted stuffed specimens.
That competition tilted decisively in favor of zoos when zoos began learning how to keep animals who looked happier and livelier than their dead counterparts.
Thought to Exist In The Wild relies heavily on Karen Tweedy-Holmes’ black-and-white photos to support Jensen’s contention that zoos are still mostly bleak, unhappy places for the animals. Certainly some zoos are–but the best zoos would scarcely be as successful as they are, well beyond the attendance levels of the pre-television era even adjusting for human population increases, if a bleak and unhappy atmosphere prevailed.
The visiting public can no longer be credibly accused of simply not noticing animal suffering when thousands of zoo-goers have registered complaints about stereotypically pacing polar bears and swaying elephants. Zoo-goers are perceiving zoos’ shortcomings, and challenging management to respond as never before, even if the last elephants in a zoo must be sent to distant sanctuaries where few people will ever see them in person.
Much of Jensen’s critique is outdated, including discussion of zoos selling animals to hunting ranches. Prohibited by the American Zoo Association since 1991, this has subsequently occurred in only a handful of documented cases, mostly involving prosecuted criminality by individual zoo staff.
Some of Jensen’s claims are just plain wrong, such as the assertion that there are 10,000 roadside zoos in the U.S.–about five times more than ever existed, and about 10 times more than remain, even counting former roadside zoos now passing as sanctuaries.
Zoos, however, are not really Jensen’s target. Thought to Exist In The Wild is actually less about zoos than a tirade against civilization itself, stuffed with claims that tribal cultures are more respectful of life and nature, and less inclined to consume their own environments.
Jensen and Tweedy-Holmes might take their next photo safari not to the safety of a zoo, but rather to the Congo, where the young men of tribal cultures hell-bent on eradicating each other raped 27,000 women in South Kivu Province in 2006 alone, according to the United Nations, often doing the victims irreparable physical injury. These same warring factions have exterminated much of the wildlife of the region for bushmeat.
“There used to be a lot of gorillas,” Congolese gynecological surgeon Denis Mukwege recently told Jeffrey Gettlemen of The New York Times. “Now they have been replaced by much more savage beasts.”
Gorillas may soon survive only in zoos, unfortunately, because civilization has been unable to secure their habitat. But the establishment of civilization, somehow, remains the only hope for the victims of the tribal conflict.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *