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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.

Wall Street Journal, online: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/0,,SB1034891655305925948,00.html
October 18, 2002

"Captivated by the Captives"

Humans have been capturing and keeping wild animals for their own amusement for as long, probably, as they have been able to. Alexander the Great sent animals back from his campaigns to be studied by Aristotle. The Romans, of course, found all sorts of novel uses for beasts captured on the frontiers of their empire, as gladiators knew too well. And Charlemagne kept a large menagerie.

Today we have public zoos, and 130 million Americans visit them every year. Taking the kids to the zoo is as much a Sunday afternoon ritual as watching the NFL on television. But while the zoo is a pretty common experience, it is also an unsettling idea, causing the human animal to feel uncomfortable.

The word "zoo" itself replaced "menagerie," which carried aristocratic connotations. Indeed, the original "zoological gardens" of the late 19th century were democratic places, welcoming all classes and treating animals in an enlightened way -- unlike, say, carnivals and circuses. The ideas that sustained them were, as Elizabeth Hanson explains in "Animal Attractions" (Princeton University Press, 243 pages, $29.95), progressive. These were not seedy, sideshow affairs where you went for cheap thrills but places for "recreation, self-improvement and spiritual renewal."

The Public's Edification

They were also institutions that carried a heavy burden of urban pride, much like the subsidized stadiums where those NFL teams play today. In 1914, Boston children were encouraged to donate their pennies toward the "purchase of three retired vaudeville elephants for the new Franklin Park Zoo." Some 50,000 kids attended the ceremonial handing over of the elephants to their new home.

This democratic model of exhibiting wild animals for the public's edification did not come without problems. Too many animals, for one thing. Early zoos relied on contributions and were reluctant to turn down gifts. But there were limits, and "the steady stream of birds, bats, opossums and rabbits deposited on their doorsteps" became a burden, Ms. Hanson tells us. When one zookeeper asked another for advice, he was told to "purchase a big snake, which would devour those things rapidly."

Disposing of unwanted small animals was one thing, acquiring large exotics was another. The methods of animal collectors tended to be brutal, even when compared with traditional forms of hunting. Nineteenth-century collectors of lions, tigers, rhinos and other big-game species routinely shot nursing mothers before capturing their young. Frank Buck, an American swashbuckler who financed his first expedition with winnings at the poker table, was the archetype.

Buck was a disagreeable man and a skillful self-promoter whose mantra was "bring 'em back alive." The drama of his exploits, which he flogged in books and films, was not so much man-against-beast as man-against-bank. "Rather than a naturalist, hunter, or showman," Ms. Hanson writes, "Buck portrayed himself in his stories as a heroic businessman."

Animals as Prisoners

Still, he did what he considered necessary, including killing 21 Indian rhinos in the process of capturing one each for the Philadelphia and Bronx zoos in 1922. Among zoo professionals, Buck and his methods were treated as a dirty but unavoidable little secret.

What could not be concealed, however, is the central cause of the ambivalence so many people feel about zoos -- namely the sheer, undeniable fact of captivity. Traditionally, zoos meant bars. If you tended to anthropomorphize -- and zoos, by their nature, encourage it -- then you could not help thinking of the animals as prisoners.

This insight may not have originated with Carl Hagenbeck, but more than anyone in the history of the modern zoo he took it to heart, according to Nigel Rothfels, whose "Savages and Beasts" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 268 pages, $34.95) tells the story of Hagenbeck and his role in the evolution of the modern zoo.

Exhibiting 'Eskimos'

Hagenbeck was the son of a Hamburg fishmonger who got into the animal business as a sideline, exhibiting some seals that had been caught in fish nets. Carl took over the family animal business in 1859. By the turn of the century, it was a world-wide conglomerate, capturing, training and exhibiting exotic animals as well as selling them to circuses, zoos and private collectors. At one point, when the novelty of his animal exhibits was waning and the business was in trouble, it occurred to Hagenbeck that if animals from distant places would draw crowds, it might make sense to include people from those locations as well. In 1875, he brought some Laplanders in with their reindeer and put them on display. In 1878, the Kaiser himself visited Hagenbeck's "Eskimo" village exhibit in Berlin.

Unimaginable, now, of course. But Hagenbeck was a man both of his times and, in his thinking about zoos, ahead of them. In 1907, he opened an animal park in a village near Hamburg that brought into play a way of viewing animals not through bars but across moats and other barriers that did not suggest imprisonment. This became, of course, the new paradigm -- an illusion that the animals were not captive and that one saw them, somehow, in nature and not in a cell. Today we have many such free habitats at zoos and "wildlife parks."

One wonders, though, who is really meant to feel better, the animals or the people viewing them? Even now, zoos seem pressed to find new arguments to justify themselves. It is not sufficient, apparently, that we find wild animals fascinating and experience an atavistic thrill viewing them.

The claims for the modern zoo include not merely education -- often heavily weighted toward environmental activism -- but conservation. Without zoos, it is argued, and their captive breeding programs, some species would drift into extinction. Some zoo advocates even argue that the resident animals are better off than if they were back in the wild -- better food, antibiotics, protection from predators. That's the kind of program any good progressive can campaign for office on.

It is impossible, of course, to know whether the animals on display would choose the cushy, kept life of the zoo over the harsher, freer existence of the bush. But as both these books make clear, it is something that humans will eternally worry about. It is, after all, what makes us different from them.

Mr. Norman is a contributing editor of National Geographic Adventure.

Updated October 18, 2002

Last updated by ntr:
November 2, 2009