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Excerpt from Thought To Exist In the Wild

Popular Entertainment (p. 91)

Another argument put forward by those in favor of zoos is that zoos are immensely popular entertainment. In North America, for example, more people visit zoos than go to all professional sports events combined.

At ten to twenty dollars a head to get through the door, along with another eight for parking, six for “zoo burgers,” “rhino shakes,” and “monkey fries,” and twelve for stuffed furry toy animals, it becomes clear that zoos are staggeringly big business. Perhaps it becomes clear, too, why zookeepers refuse to empathize with the animals they incarcerate: Who was it who said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”?

It would be easy enough to explore the power relationships made manifest by the immense popularity of zoos. Within a culture organized so completely and fundamentally on hierarchical ways of perceiving the world and being in the world, it can be a tremendous relief—and great fun, in a sad sort of way—for those who are essentially powerless, whose own lives are so desperately out of control (and in a world being killed as we watch television, flipping faster and faster through the channels and trying so very hard to find something—anything—that will hold our attention and make the miserable, lonely time pass just a little bit faster, all our lives are by definition out of control), to get to look at those whose lives are even more wretched than ours, more out of their control, more tedious, more helpless.

Although I’m certain that this accounts for a good portion of the popularity of zoos, and a good portion of the cruelty associated with zoos, I’m equally certain that there are also other, perhaps more interesting, factors in zoos’ popularity.

Just today I was speaking with Robert Shetterly, the painter responsible for the powerful collection of portraits entitled Americans Who Tell the Truth. I told him about this book, about trying to find the reasons for zoos’ popularity. He said, “When I was a child I always both loved and hated zoos. I loved them because I got to see real live animals, as opposed to animals on television, and I hated them because the animals were so obviously unhappy.”

There you have it. This was my own childhood experience of zoos, and this has been the response by nearly everyone to whom I’ve mentioned this book.

It’s a cliché among pro-zoo books, by the way, for the authors to state that the responses of their friends were similar to the responses of mine in that whenever they’d mention they were writing a book on zoos their friends would say something to the effect of, “I hope you’re in favor of shutting those horrid things down.” At this point the pro-zoo authors would inevitably do the literary equivalent of a heavy sigh, and then with great patience—as well as smugness—explain why zoos are not only great places in their own right but why they are necessary and beneficial for the animals themselves. The real point of their discussion, and this is the point of so much discourse within this culture, is to lead people away from their own instinctual feelings, their own revulsion at what is so obviously wrong, their empathy for the suffering of others, and to lead them to trust experts: “Oh, I thought I hated zoos, but I guess he’s writing a book on zoos, and so obviously he must know more than I. Maybe zoos are necessary and good after all.”