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Nigel Rothfels
Savages and Beasts

Reviews of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.

Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Featured Reading, January, 2003

Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo by Nigel Rothfels
Review by Anna Williams

Despite its apparently narrow historical focus, this book raises important questions about the history of the modern zoo and our seemingly endless cultural appetite for spectacles of animal confinement.

Examining the historical roots of contemporary zoo culture, Nigel Rothfels explores the business enterprises of nineteenth century German entrepreneur Carl Hagenbeck. Hagenbeck is best know today as the founder of the Hamburg Tierpark, the first modern zoo to largely dispense with metal cages as a means of confinement. This more subtle architecture of captivity, using moats and trenches, has been widely depicted as evidence of an increasingly benign attitude to non-human animals in which the zoo becomes a space where animals enjoy a protected ‘freedom.' Within this historical narrative Hagenbeck himself features as a man remarkable for his ‘ love' of animals. Rothfels takes a more nuanced look at the Hagenbeck enterprises, paying particularly close attention to the relationship between the displays of indigenous people and animals, and the economic function of the Tierpark.

Rothfels points out that in his lifetime, Hagenbeck was best know for his people shows, spectacular exhibits which in which hundreds of indigenous people were exhibited to European and North American audiences. Hagenbeck was able to outdo his competitors in this exhibitionary niche because he was able to successfully persuade potential viewers of the authenticity of his shows. Rothfels demonstrates that the success of this claim was a measure of Hagenbeck's ability to fulfill the audience's fantasies of what these ‘alien' cultures were like, with predictably racist and voyeuristic results. Rothfels also documents the enormous scientific interest in Hagenbeck's shows. He describes the ruthlessly invasive examinations to which the participants were subject, all in the name of science, and the ways in which they resisted

Significantly, Rothfels documents the close connection between Hagenbeck's people shows and his animal displays. The claim to be showing animals ‘as they really were,' in the apparently unconfined surrounding of the Tierpark, was taken wholesale from the displays of indigenous peoples. Having demonstrated that the claim for authenticity functioned as a measure of domestic mores, Rothfels' historical work raises important questions about the contemporary display of captive animals and the desires to which these exhibits respond. The narrative of authenticity implicitly asks us to overlook the evidence of confinement that is literally right in front of our eyes. The ease with which so many people seem to be able to participate in this denial is surely evidence of the powerful ideological rewards at stake.

Injecting financial realism into the tendency to depict zoos as selfless institutions devoted to conservation and public education, Rothfels puts the Tierpark into context as an economic enterprise. The park was both a revenue generating spectacle and a warehouse for Hagenbeck's business, which specialized in the hunting and sale of wild animals. Rothfels draws attention to the impact of hunting expeditions on people and animals. As an instance of colonial commerce these expeditions brought very limited benefits to local people. As the nineteenth century progressed hunting expeditions were subject to tighter metropolitan control, with native hunters increasingly sidelined.

Rothfels also underlines the incredible violence of the animal hunt in which whole herds were slaughtered to secure a small number of tractable offspring. In other instances the numbers are startling. An inventory of animals received at the Tierpark in 1913 includes "8,000 top quality clean Horsfield's tortoises packed in sacks." Seven years later Hagenbeck trapped and shipped 8,000 rhesus monkeys to the Rockefeller Institute in the United States to be used in the study of yellow fever (187). As Rothfels so eloquently demonstrates it was precisely this traffic in wild animals that made possible the myth of the zoo as a benevolent site of conservation and protection.

The contradictory claims made on behalf of the Tierpark, that the animals enjoy a freedom in confinement, are today made on behalf of a range of popular institutions from including zoos, ‘safari' parks, and aquaria. Rothfels provides a rewarding inquiry into the larger history of this exhibitionary trend and raises important questions about the display of people and animals. His book is required reading for anyone interested in the history of the zoo as a cultural institution.

About the Reviewer:
Anna Williams is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio, Film, and TV at Eastern Mediterranean University, Northern Cyprus. She has a PhD in Visual Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester. Her research examines the impact of industrial meat production on the representation of animals.


Last updated by ntr:
November 2, 2009