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edison initiative

university of wisconsin-milwaukee
Nigel Rothfels
Savages and Beasts
Reviews of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.

Chronicle of Higher Education


"How People and Animals Coexist"


When Dudley Dursley stops at the zoo's snake display in the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, he angrily demands that the sad creature entertain him. "Move!" he yells, rapping on the glass. When the boa constrictor fails to perform, Dudley turns away disgusted. His cousin, Harry, strikes up a conversation with the animal: "Sorry about him. He doesn't understand what it's like, lying there day after day, watching people press their ugly faces in on you."

Harry and the snake develop a sympathetic connection, each recognizing the other as a special being whose powers are unappreciated. Harry works some unconscious wizardry, and in an instant the glass disappears and the snake (whispering a quick "thanks" to Harry) slithers off to freedom, while the hapless Dudley falls into the enclosure, replacing the snake.

My sons, raised with polemical fervor about where animals belong and where theydon't, responded exuberantly to that scene as a vindication of our family ethos. But, I'm afraid, few others in the audience got the radical implications. Even had they appreciated the snake's unhappiness in the zoo, they may not have tapped into the larger injustices. Did audiences reflect upon the miseries of all the other animals that remain imprisoned? Or the exploitative dynamics of spectatorship? Did people confront the tensions between empathy and otherness?

Our culture manifests a tremendous consciousness of animals, for good and for bad. The $30-billion-per-year American pet industry may testify to people's closeness with companion animals, or it may indicate the commodification of our furry friends. The fashion fad of animal-print clothing may signify an appreciative sense of connection with zebras and leopards, or a cheap, irreverent appropriation of their biological beauty. Zoos are becoming much better, we are told (usually by zookeepers), but what exactly does that mean: more reflective of our ecological interconnectedness with animals and more responsive to complaints about mistreated animals? Or just more adept at deflecting criticism by providing greener venues, where animals are just as exiled as ever from their natural habitats but people feel less guilty about the spectacle? Animal movies proliferate: Free Willy, Babe, Stuart Little, The Horse Whisperer, A Bug's Life -- but do those indicate interest in seeing animals in any intellectually meaningful way, or are we simply coopting them into infotainment?

These are some of the questions asked by a growing number of scholars today. Along with other ecologically concerned citizens, scholars are trying to articulate the place that animals occupy in our world -- or, less anthropocentrically, how human and nonhuman animals share this world. This work involves deconstructing the divisions and prejudices that separate people from animals, going all the way back to the Great Chain of Being in Aristotle's scala naturae and the proclamation of human mastery over animals in Genesis. Much of the most exciting current research comes out of the humanities and social sciences rather than the natural sciences. While this work is informed by the scientific study of animals, it seeks to add perspectives from sociology, cultural studies, literature, philosophy, history, art history, and the history of science (as well as interdisciplinary fusions of those fields).

Anthrozoology (the study of human-animal relations) examines what our associations with animals illustrate about us. Some of the more activist literature even asks, How can we atone for what we have done? Until fairly recently, the status of animals in scholarly work was comparable to that of women before feminism: regarded by the dominant group as inherently subordinate and defined by the dominant group in generic and reductive terms. As with feminist scholarship, social movements outside academe have inspired anthrozoology, whether or not a given piece of work explicitly integrates a political sensibility from the animal-rights movement.

In the 1970s and 1980s, foundational work in this field came from John Berger (whose 1977 essay "Why Look at Animals?" is still, I think, one of the most unsettling and insightful considerations of human-animal relations), Carol J. Adams, Jim Mason, Tom Regan, Harriet Ritvo, Paul Shepard, Peter Singer, Yi-Fu Tuan, and E.O. Wilson. And currently, growing out of that base, we are seeing a second generation of prolific scholarly inquiry. The earlier scholars laid down some important theoretical questions and perspectives, while the current generation is filling in the answers with specific studies of interactions with animals in different cultures, as well as raising new theoretical questions.

Some of the best recent work contributes to building an archive that restores and renders animals three-dimensionally in cultural history. Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Paris, by Louise E. Robbins, an independent scholar and editor at Cornell University Press, exemplifies such historical reclamation. The book initiates a new series from Johns Hopkins University Press called Animals, History, Culture, edited by Harriet Ritvo (a historian and author of the groundbreaking 1987 book The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age), which promises to provide a broad base for future work in human-animal studies.

Nonnative animals were prevalent in 18th-century Paris in fairs, natural-theology texts, animal fights, private households, and the commercial bird trade (conducted by oiseleurs, members of the guild that sold canaries, cardinals, parrots, parakeets, et al.). These animals appeared ubiquitously on the streets, in paintings, and in jokes. Robbins asks some good questions about the phenomenon: "How did these exotic animals get to France, who brought them and why, and where did they reside in Paris? What kinds of meanings did people ascribe to them, and how were those meanings related to other aspects of French culture?"

Interest in animals focused not so much on the creatures themselves, but rather provided "a way to think about human behavior and society," Robbins writes. In natural-history texts, animals "provided moral, social, and political lessons in a manner similar to that of fables." For example, Georges-Louis Buffon's Histoire naturelle -- a multivolume encyclopedia that was the period's most popular book on animals -- lauded the elephant as the best of all the animals: intelligent, dextrous, zealous, faithful, prudent, moderate, and powerful. While he "believed that his description ... was based on accurately assessing its capabilities rather than on attributing spurious marvels to it," Robbins writes, nevertheless there was a pronounced anthropomorphic license in the portrait that accentuated Buffon's view of the animal's moral exemplariness. Often, not just in bygone French culture but today as well, animals serve as a mirror held up to humanity. Is it fair and reasonable to use animals in this way? Or does it transform them into vehicles for our narcissism? Cultural formulations may be prone to relegate animals to the merely metaphorical, disregarding their inherent integrity.

It is both amusing and disturbing to read of people's bizarre interactions with animals in 18th-century France. Crowds at the royal menagerie in Versailles watched an elephant uncork bottles of wine with its trunk and take tobacco from people's snuffboxes. At a Paris display, a monkey was trained to strike a match and light a candle, which a lion would extinguish with its paw. At the Saint-Germain fair, a trained seal offered its paws to spectators like a dog; boys rode on the backs of tame cougars; and a chimpanzee "led visitors by the hand, sat at a table, wiped its lips with a napkin, poured and drank a cup of tea -- after stirring in sugar and letting it cool -- and ate so many bonbons presented to it by the crowds that, a year later in London, it died."

Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots conveys the joy and wonder Parisians reaped from the monkeys and elephants frolicking around in their society. As Robbins points out, lurking beneath is the animals' profound exploitation: their torturous importation from their native climes; their high mortality rates on the way to France (many died of maltreatment aboard ship; others, if food supplies ran low, simply became dinner); their minimally competent care if they happened to arrive in Paris intact.

The exotic species were, to their French admirers, highly sentimentalized, very much in contrast to the creatures that populate Steve Baker's The Postmodern Animal. Baker, an art historian, depicts his titular subject as generally tatty and oppressed; unstable, though all the more potent in our imaginations. If Robbins's work typifies the recovery of obscure information about animals' past, Baker exemplifies how animal perspectives can infuse cutting-edge theory in a way that portends a prominent role for anthrozoology in the future. Postmodern scholarship invites readers to focus afresh on subjects that have been marginalized and demands that they think outside the box; both these characteristics facilitate an eclectic and fertile consideration of animals.

"Animals are good to think," Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in Totemism in 1962, and postmodernism facilitates an "attempt to think the animal differently," Baker believes, via its radically shocking ways of seeing and its resistance to conventional forms. Instead of the standard animal fare one might expect in an art museum -- horses at rest in a field or birds of prey haunting a memento mori -- postmodern animal art gives us, for example, a picture of a taxidermist licking a severed cow's head; representations of animals marked by the animals (with prints or urine stains, or chunks bitten off by a wolf or shark); a series of 140 photographs depicting a woman's erotic relationship with her cat. Baker surveys a range of postmodern visual art and adds a few philosophers, most notably Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guittari, to the mix.

Postmodern artists believe, Baker writes, that animals in earlier artistic traditions had been too accessible and too heavily burdened with a legacy of fixed meaning. "Botched taxidermy" is how Baker describes a strain in contemporary sculpture marked by weirdly mixed media that undermine fundamental assumptions about what an animal is. At first glance, the artifact looks like a cheap, kitschy profanation of the animal. Mark Dion's "Tar and Feathers" features corpses of several animals -- a cat, a snake, a frog, a few birds -- tarred and hanging from a blackened tree, evoking a mass animal lynching. Jordan Baseman's "The Cat and the Dog" consists of two skinned animals nailed to the wall -- their pelts taxidermically preserved, and their heads modeled to look disarmingly lifelike and cuddly.

Indeed, I would point to what is probably the most famously depraved art, that of Damien Hirst. His installations present such tableaus as flies feeding on a rotting cow's head and then dying as they fly into an Insect-O-Cutor (titled "A Thousand Years"), and a pig sawed in half and preserved in formaldehyde in a pair of glass cases ("This little piggy went to market, this little piggy stayed at home"). However disturbingly, this sort of art does make viewers confront how we see animals and how we use them; works like this "undermine any sense of the viewer's omnipotence and point instead to their powerlessness" as Baker observes. And perhaps, at least for some viewers, these botchings exact some stance of redress.

If postmodern art involves audiences in the condition of animal subjects, the question of implication is profoundly more immediate in zoos: People take animals away from their own habitats and constrain them in ours, for our amusement or education -- and, also, to celebrate our predominance over the caged inmates. In Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos, Elizabeth Hanson examines how zoos have attempted over the past century to present nature on display. She sees zoos as a "middle landscape" where tensions are played out between wilderness and civilization, science and popular culture, education and entertainment. But she doesn't go far enough, leaving unchallenged the standard received history of zoos as fundamentally benign presences that enlighten and entertain visitors. Hanson, a historian of science at Rockefeller University, takes zoos at face value when she writes, "In the 21st century, zoos continue to grapple with a problem that has remained consistent from their beginnings: how to convince their audience to appreciate wildlife."

I dispute her premise: Zoos do not facilitate wildlife appreciation, nor are they fundamentally meant to do so. As John Berger wrote, "The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters." Zoos show how powerfully people are able to disrupt wildlife by detaching animals from nature. Zoos collect inconveniently wild specimens from the four corners of the earth and put them in convenient cages, thereby celebrating people's control over -- not, as Hanson claims, appreciation of -- animals and their world. Denuded and desecrated habitats give the lie to our culture's appreciation of wildlife: Zoos remove a few trinkets from that troubled and troubling wildlife and resituate them in a place that could hardly be further from nature -- surrounded by parking lots, gift shops, and hot-dog stands.

Zoos have always kept their more unpalatable machinations hidden behind the scenes. As she recounts the history of zoos, Hanson sanitizes the processes underlying exhibitions of captive animals. For example, in describing the role of animal traders in zoo development, Hanson recounts the 1922 acquisition of a duck-billed platypus for the Bronx Zoo -- the first time that animal had been seen alive outside Australia. Five platypuses began the journey from Australia by steamer and then by rail from San Francisco to New York; only one animal survived the trip, and that one (advertised as the "most strange and wonderful of all land animals") died 49 days after its arrival.

Hanson copiously recounts such details as the intricate cage fashioned to transport the animals: seven compartments, rising in steps, connected by a ramp, with a wet bottom chamber for a swimming pool, a dry sleeping den above, and rubber squeegees in the intervening rooms so that the platypuses could squeeze excess water from their fur while climbing up to bed. But the animals' demise is not characterized as any more significant in this enterprise than their cage or diet. Death is just one more pedestrian detail, unchallenged and rendered unremarkable.

A different way to regard this episode: Doesn't it drastically illustrate the scale of damage -- a 100-percent mortality rate -- that results when people decontextualize animals and frame them as displays? Doesn't this suggest that the Bronx is an unsuitable platypus habitat, and that people should leave the animals alone?

A crucial task for anthrozoology must be to decenter the human perspective and discover the animals' authentic reality -- certainly a complex concept, but one that may be more easily understood by antithesis to cultural constructions of animals. Nigel Rothfels sees "an inescapable difference between what an animal is and what people think an animal is." Rothfels, a historian at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, is the author of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo (also in the new Hopkins series). In the end, he writes, "an animal or species is as much a constellation of ideas (for example, vicious, noble, intelligent, cruel, caring, brave) as anything else."

Rothfels gets what Hanson misses about zoos: He is attuned to the ironies pervading zoos' mediation of people and animals and understands that zoos operate according to entrepreneurial rather than environmental principles. Despite more than a century of trying to present "the ideal exhibit," Rothfels writes, "the zoo still ultimately disappoints." Supposed innovations are exposed as disingenuous. For example, a conservation program features "'rain forest meters,' whereby visitors can put a nickel into an adapted parking meter to save a small piece of rain forest somewhere"; but the idea of controlling land in faraway places suggests "that the imperial impulses of the great 19th-century zoos are not as distant from contemporary zoos as we may want to believe."

A chapter on 19thand 20th-century exhibitions of non-Western indigenous peoples (Eskimos, Sudanese, Australian aborigines, Native Americans, among others) highlights the specious sense of superiority among spectators, whether they are looking at people or animals. Rothfels suggests that the dynamics are not that dissimilar between either kind of exhibit. The history of human displays conducted under the guise of anthropology and ethnography has been documented before, but never with such a keen sense of connection between these and zoo operations. Rothfels uses the experience of Carl Hagenbeck, a 19th-century animal dealer and a prominent force behind both zoos and human displays, to document the insidious links between the two enterprises: part of a sordid historical legacy that zoos have never confronted, much less expunged.

It is, indeed, necessary to conduct a large-scale re-evaluation of our cultural and intellectual history in order to understand how people and animals have coexisted throughout the centuries, and this is what Akira Mizuta Lippit achieves in Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife. Lippit, an associate professor of film studies and critical theory at San Francisco State University, re-examines the touchstones of Western intellectual development. In a dazzling interdisciplinary romp through Aristotle, Heidegger, Darwin, Freud, and up to the present with a discussion of Kafka, photography, and cinema, Lippit is keenly aware of how, throughout history, people have condescended toward animals -- the flip side of valuing humanity above all else. Inspired by Jacques Derrida's effort to track "the figure of the animal through the terrain mapped by conceptions of language," Lippit deconstructs the masking of animal consciousness in our intellectual traditions.

He demonstrates that the animals Descartes dismissed as irrational machines or automata are nonetheless fundamentally part of human consciousness, and he argues that even if, like Descartes, one denies animal rationality, that does not expel the animal from our community of sentience. (It only speaks to the perverse supremacist fantasy of so doing.) His point echoes Baker's proposition that an ecological sensibility is currently supplanting Cartesian dualism: "The future of the human in the postmodern world is so intimately and creatively bound up with that of the animal. From this perspective, the classic dualism of human and animal is not so much erased as rendered uninteresting as a way of thinking about being in the world."

Eileen Crist, like Lippit, explores the sublimation of animals' force and their own objective reality, which have been overwritten by various human enterprises. In Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind, Crist, an assistant professor of science and technology studies at Virginia Tech, examines the role of language in the portrayal of animals. Studying the writings of naturalists and behavioral scientists such as Darwin, Jean Henri Fabre, George and Elizabeth Peckham, and Konrad Lorenz, Crist finds, unsurprisingly, that the "portraiture" of animals varies widely from text to text. Paradoxically, while the scientists all "have this common goal of arriving at faithful representations of animals -- documenting with great care their life histories, habits, and instincts -- they nevertheless often reveal realities that are worlds apart." Crist highlights, for example, the striking differences between naturalist writing, in which animal life is regarded as immanently meaningful and subjective, versus ethological studies, which regard animals from an external perspective with an eye toward theorizing their behavior. Just as there is no intrinsic meaning to a falling object or a swinging pendulum, so an internal point of view is eradicated from animal life with the use of technical language in ethological accounts, Crist explains.

Can we know animals at all, I wonder? Our discourses are so subjective, and mutually contradictory, albeit cloaked in the conceit of positivistic omniscience. That serves to set people apart from animals, Crist writes; it "has fueled our self-importance and propped our thoughtless and destructive relationship with the natural world."

We need to seek real animals -- animals unencumbered by human constructs, frames, and prejudices -- if we hope to live harmoniously with them. Ecology, not to mention ethics, demands that we strive for an equitable relationship with other species, and we owe a debt to the scholars whose work helps advance that consciousness. The best of this work may inspire a "Potteresque" perspective on our coexistence with animals -- not the dull "Dursleyan" model that is all too prevalent.

Randy Malamud is a professor of English at Georgia State University. He is the author of Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (New York University Press, 1998) and Poetic Animals and Animal Souls, to be published by Palgrave in March.

Last updated by ntr:
November 2, 2009