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Excerpt from Thought To Exist In the Wild

Children and Zoos (p. 92)

Children, it ends up, are the usual instigators of zoo visits. Children, more even than most of us, require connections with nonhuman others. This accounts for some of the popularity of teddy bears (and teddy alligators, aardvarks, anteaters, elephants, monkeys, and so on), as well as books illustrated with animals, animated films starring nonhuman animals, and wildlife murals for children.

Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier observe, “Children’s attention at the zoo is most focused when they are between the ages of four and ten. When younger, they tend to see only smaller animals (pigeons, sparrows); when older, they lose interest in the subject to some extent. Between four and ten, however, they project their own imaginary bestiaries onto the animals they see, who thus serve as illustrations of a sort of virtual reality. Children begin by examining animals’ morphologies, remarking on their characteristic traits (trunk, neck, hump) and using their own experience to identify them. They ask their names or give them names of their own. The youngest children (four to six years) speak to animals and assign them places in a human universe (house, daddy, mommy), preferring species that [sic] look like their plush toys.” I would say instead that children prefer those species who look familiar. If you know wild animals you will feel connections with wild animals. If all you know is plush toys then you will only be capable of connecting with animals these plush toys resemble (exemplifying John Livingston’s point about being in solitary confinement, with no references save those of human origin). Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier continue, “Older children choose those that [sic] correspond to the heroes of their books and films, and attribute similar characteristics to them. Some writers discern in this a dulling of animal imagery and a failure to appreciate the reality of nature, which is in fact cruel [sic] and entirely focused on the fight for survival [sic]. But this perception is just as false; children are merely amplifying the anthropocentric vision of adults.”

As much as I appreciate so much of Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier’s work, they missed the boat on this one. They are correct in stating that writers are wrong when they say that children do not appreciate “the reality of nature, which is in fact cruel and entirely focused on the fight for survival,” but not for the reason they probably think. The writers who believe “nature” is cruel and animals are “entirely focused on the fight for survival” have spent too much time with capitalists and not enough time with wild animals. They are just plain wrong, and guilty of the worst sort of projection: pretending that the whole world is as cruel, exploitative, and unfriendly as this culture. This culture frantically insists that all cultures are based on violence, that all cultures destroy their landbase, that men of all cultures rape women, that children of all cultures are beaten, that the poor of all cultures are forced to pay rent to the rich (or even that all cultures have rich and poor!), that all cultures incarcerate animals. Perhaps the best example of this culture trying to naturalize its violence is the belief that natural selection is based on competition, and that all survival is a violent struggle where only the meanest, most exploitative survive. The fact that this belief is nearly ubiquitous in this culture, despite it being demonstrably untrue and logically untenable, reveals the degree to which we have lost our senses in the echo chamber that is this culture. If you let me use a couple of semicolons, I can disprove the notion that competition drives natural selection in one sentence: Those creatures who have survived in the long run have survived in the long run; if you hyperexploit your surroundings you will deplete them and die off (as we shall soon see with industrialized humans); the only way to survive in the long run is to give back more than you take, to improve your habitat. Instead of survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the fit: how well you fit into your habitat, how much better you make it, on its own terms, by your existence. The deer and the wolf work together to make them both stronger, faster. This understanding of the fundamentally cooperative—and joyful—nature of reality is directly in line with many indigenous, noncivilized, wild cosmologies.

A few years ago, the Indian writer Vine Deloria Jr. said to me, in words that reveal the absolute contrast between the echo chamber into which we in our culture have confined ourselves and the relationship most humans throughout time have entered into with their surroundings, “What happens in the different Indian religions is that people live so intimately with their environment that they enter into relationship to the spirits that live in particular places. Rather than an article of faith, it’s part of human experience. And I think non-Indians sometimes experience this also when they spend a long time in one place.

“Living in this universe, Indians believed that everything humans experience has value, and instructs us in some aspect of life. Because everything is alive and making choices that determine the future, the world is constantly creating itself, and because every moment brings something new, we need to always try to not classify things too quickly. All the data must be considered, and we need to try to find how the ordinary and the extraordinary come together, as they must, in one coherent, comprehensive, mysterious story line. With the wisdom and time for reflection that old age brings, we may discover unsuspected relationships that make themselves manifest in our consciousness and so come to be understood.

“In this moral universe, all activities, events, and entities are related, and so it doesn’t matter what kind of existence an entity enjoys—whether it is human or otter or star or rock—because the responsibility is always there for it to participate in the continuing creation of reality. Life is not a predatory jungle, ‘red in tooth and claw,’ as Westerners like to pretend, but is better understood as a symphony of mutual respect in which each player has a specific part to play. We must be in our proper place and we must play our role at the proper moment. So far as humans are concerned, because we came last, we are the ‘younger brothers and sisters’ of the other life-forms, and therefore have to learn everything from these other creatures. The real interest of old Indians would then be not to discover the abstract structure of physical reality, but rather to find the proper road down which, for the duration of a person’s life, that person is supposed to walk.”

The projection that the world is “cruel and entirely focused on the fight for survival” reveals far more about the psyches of those who claim it than it does about physical reality.

Further, I do not believe that, as Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier say, “children are merely amplifying the anthropocentric vision of adults.” Quite the opposite: I think that instead they have not yet been fully inculcated into this culture’s anthropocentric—narcissistic—mindset. They’ve not yet forgotten their kinship to nonhuman others, not yet had that vital bond severed between themselves and the wild. Some have not yet become convinced that nonhuman animals have nothing to teach us.

Humans visit zoos because we need contact with wild animals. We need wild animals to remind us of the enormous complexity of life, to remind us that the world was not made just for us, to remind us that we are not the center of the universe. We need them to teach us how to live.

Children need this contact even more than do adults. It is no coincidence that most zoo visits are instigated by children, nor that children are interested in animals’ anatomical features and names.

The ethologist Paul Shepard thought and wrote about this a lot, writing, for example, “One of the most astonishing aspects of language [in humans] is its ties to the personal calendar. The unfolding process, starting with the yearling, is as tightly regimented as a fire drill: cooing, lallation, babbling, single nouns, adverbs, conjunctions, all in their time. . . . Primary language learning is scheduled to be basically complete in the individual by the age of four. Yet the kind and amount of communication as speech done by four-year-olds hardly seems to demand language at all. . . . Whatever could evolution have been thinking of, to rig our personal timetables so as to put words in the mouths of babes?”

He answers his own question: “Speech is the means by which category-making proceeds, representing things that could be pyramided and stacked in memory by classifying. . . . Thinking is, of course, far more than naming, categorizing, and recalling, but these are basic to it. The meaning of words is straightforward for the child. The subtleties of symbolism, serendipities of insight, and the permutations of ideas are of great value, but they are only potential for the individual if he has a proper infancy of mundane name learning.

“As surely as he ‘learns’ to walk, the two-year-old begins to demand the names of things. By vocal imitation and repetition, he begins a compulsive collecting of kinds that will go on for a decade. The process has that inexorable quality of the growth of plant tendrils, and one can almost feel the neural cells putting down rootlets that organize the soil spaces beneath them.”

His point is that human children have an innate need to categorize, an imperative as natural, strong, undeniable, and fundamental as the cutting of teeth. This seeing, hearing, experiencing, and categorizing is crucial to every child’s development of the abilities to think, to reflect, and ultimately to gain wisdom and to understand the roles we are to play in the larger symphony of life.

But why nonhuman animals? Why can’t children simply learn to think by categorizing types of cars, or memorizing presidents, or learning baseball statistics?

Recalling for a moment John Livingston’s description of humans doing solitary confinement in an echo chamber should give us the answer: we need those others to keep our thinking from becoming purely self-referential—narcissistic—and we need them to keep us grounded, to remind us who we are and why we’re here. Years ago Paul Shepard told me, “Once frogs and salamanders and condors are gone, and we have nothing in their place but our sheep and stupid cows and horses—horses who have become our model for horsepower and therefore for dominance—when we have nothing left but those, there will be no evidence that we are not actually the purpose of the whole thing—a delusion. There will be no true otherness in the world to keep us both sane and small.”

But there’s far more to it, as Shepard makes clear: “Mentally and emotionally, children, juveniles, and adolescents move through a world that is structured around them following a time-layered sequence of mother and other caregivers, nature, and cosmos. Infants go from their own and their mother’s body to exploring the body of the earth to the body of the cosmos. . . . The study of nature among primitives begins in childhood but is a lifelong preoccupation.

“The most crucial human experience is childhood—its bonding, socializing, and exploration of the nonhuman world, its naming and identification. Speech emerges according to an intrinsic timetable. Language must be taught. But nature is the child’s tangible basis upon which symbolic meanings will be posited.”

This is why children want—need—to go to zoos: they understand in their bodies the developmental necessity of being in the presence of wild animals. They understand—but of course cannot articulate—that to fail to enter into these relationships with nonhuman others—whether because the children live in cities, which are inimical to most animals; or because the ideology handed down by their elders proclaims nonhumans beneath any other than utilitarian consideration—is to take a major and often irreversible step into the delusion-inducing echo chamber of human-centered thought. If “nature is the child’s tangible basis upon which symbolic meanings will be posited,” and if the child does not experience nature, the child—and later the adult—will have a warped sense of meaning.

As we see.