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On the Weirdness, Wonder, and Terror of the Contemporary Zoo

harambe

At the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, habitats include:

–The Cat Canyon
–Africa (which includes lions apparently unwelcome in the Cat Canyon)
–Night Predators
–The Reptile House
–Dragons! (exclamation included in official habitat title)
–Giraffe Ridge
–The Kroger Lords of the Arctic (polar and Andean bears)
–P&G Discovery Forest (the two-toed sloth, blue and gold macaws, and boa constrictor)
–Wolf Woods (made up, naturally, by wolves, the grey fox, and sea otters)
–Insect World

I’m not sure why the Andean bear, most commonly found in South America, is a Kroger Lord of the Arctic. I can see the polar bear having some attraction for the grocery conglomerate, people presumably interested in refrigerating stuff, but I can’t immediately see the logic behind the Andean. I guess they’re bears too, and it makes some sense to group different kinds of bears together.

The zoo needs money, of course. Money provides better habitats and care for the animals. But this categorization also reveals the uneasy relationship in the modern zoo between commerce and animal welfare. The way we group and separate and name them shapes our relationship with these animals, how children grow up thinking about wild animals, the angle at which they see themselves in relation to the natural world, and the role of entertainment and spectacle in that world.

The Cincinnati Zoo was just voted the best zoo by USA Today’s 2019 Summer Readers’ Choice poll. In general, it’s a good zoo. The habitats follow the Hagenback model, using open spaces and pits to provide secure separation between the animals and humans while maintaining a sense of connection, in general allowing the animals some space.

Occasionally, this causes problems. Harambe, the famous Cincinnati Gorilla, was shot when a three-year-old climbed through a fence into his enclosure. Public outrage quickly followed—the gorilla was just doing what gorillas do, people argued, that kid shouldn’t have crossed the barrier, his mother should have been watching him more closely—and you can still see Remember Harambe memes and stickers around the city.

Boundaries are tricky.

The way we group and separate and name them shapes our relationship with these animals, how children grow up thinking about wild animals, the angle at which they see themselves in relation to the natural world/

In Paul Shepard’s The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, he argues that the naming and categorizing of animals is an essential part of childhood development. Directly following the identification of human eyes, nose, mouth, toes is the naming of animal parts and sounds. The subject of picture books and stuffed animals and mobiles. What does the cow say?

“The identity, names, and behavior of animals,” Shepard writes, “give us some of the first satisfactions of the mind.” He goes on to talk about how this animal-naming and identifying is etched into the way we attempt to understand and communicate our world across cultures and time periods, animals as yoga positions, zodiac signs, sports teams, and car models. The Chinese year of the pig/horse/rat. We see the shapes of animals in the clouds.

On the Japanese island of Hokkaido, Shepard writes, the Ainu communicate their levels of pain using a system of animals—a “bear” headache is like the heavy pounding steps of a bear; a pain that feels sucking and chilled is an octopus. This seems to me such a useful, elegant way to try and communicate something—degrees of pain—both impossible and absolutely necessary to communicate. I wonder what else we could better communicate using the animals. I’m in a fox mood—sneaky, quick to spook, hungry for chicken eggs, ripe for symbolism.

Maybe there are other ways to categorize the animals at the Cincinnati Zoo, better ways, more accurate, more whimsical, closer to how we experience actual nature, how our souls react to the presence of a wild animal:

–The fluffy ones
–Those with very sharp teeth
–The ones that turn in circles like your dog
–The ones that look like a dog but act like a cat
–The ones that take your breath away
–Ones with long necks, big eyes, pointy ears, spots
–With eyes that look through you, into some other wilder realm only they can see, answers forever hidden yet right in front of us
–The ones that can kill you
–The crawly ones
–The muddy, bedraggled, and mangy
–That make you suddenly have an overwhelming urge to scratch your armpits
–The ones that make you feel glad to be alive
–The ones that make you question what it means to be alive

I’m not sure when or why exactly the zoo became a place I go. When it became occasionally necessary to take a walk and see caged snow leopards.

I try to go on off days. Tuesday rainy afternoons. When there may be fewer animals visible, but fewer people too. A chance to wander around for an hour or so, leave before that combination of joy, sadness, curiosity, and soul-weariness seeps all the way in. My boyfriend got us annual passes, and the zoo is a ten-minute walk from our apartment, a surprisingly treacherous walk across typical Cincinnati blind curves and busy curiously-angled intersections, then straight uphill. When I get to the entrance, I’m always—no matter the weather—sweating and breathing heavily.

By examining the ways we’ve collected and displayed dead animals, Poliquin reasons, we can gain insight into that moment’s general cultural attitude toward the natural world.

Francesco Patrizi in the 16th century called wonder what “creates a movement in our soul, almost contradictory in itself of believing and not believing. Of believing because the thing is seen to exist; and of not believing because it is sudden, new, and not before either known, thought, or believed able to exist.”

I first encountered Patrizi’s conceptualization of wonder in Rachel Poliquin’s The Breathless Zoo, in which she explores “taxidermy and the cultures of longing,” tracing taxidermy’s relationship to our cultural attitude toward the natural world over the last couple centuries. She writes about the first cabinets of curiosity, the specimens preserved and displayed of creatures most people had never actually seen, representing the exotic, adventure, wildness. She writes about animal art and natural history museums. She writes that taxidermied animals “are always surrounded by a poetics of strangeness. They exist just beyond full elucidation.” By examining the ways we’ve collected and displayed dead animals, Poliquin reasons, we can gain insight into that moment’s general cultural attitude toward the natural world.

Though they’re alive, the zoo animals we’ve decided to collect and display, and the way we’ve decided to do this, can logically also provide us some insight into our current cultural moment. The wonder we experience at the zoo—faced with the fungal smoosh of the Brazilian Porcupine’s nose, the crabby bewildered face of the Angolan Colobus Monkey with its meringue wisps of white hair, the long fat furry spotted tail of the snow leopard—surfaces as a result of and at the price of the animals’ containment. Though they’re fully alive, they’re displayed, sectioned off, half-wild and half-domesticated. Existing and not existing, believed and not believed.

I can’t really talk about the Cincinnati Zoo without bringing up Fiona. The baby hippo who survived all odds. The camera-bold starlet with a hashtag presence most celebrities would kill for, with—as of recently—six children’s books written about her, T-shirts and koozies and onesies and socks, an ice cream flavor, a beer, a Facebook show, numerous articles, and the cover of three Scholastic magazines.

Fiona-related facts:

–The hippopotamus is the most dangerous large land mammal, leading to the deaths of about five hundred people a year in Africa
–Fiona was born to her mother Bibi prematurely and underweight at 29 lbs (the typical newborn hippo is 55-120 lbs)
–Historically, zoos have waited to promote newborns or share information too soon
–Harambe the gorilla had been shot six months before Fiona’s birth
–After Fiona’s entrance on the scene, zoo attendance went up twenty percent and the zoo doubled their number of Facebook followers
–The zoo estimates that Fiona has brought around three million dollars into the local economy
–The team in charge of Fiona’s public presence won a 2018 “Excellence in Marketing Award” for their #TeamFiona campaign
–“Kinderschema” is the name for what’s activated—when we see a baby—to motivate us to care for it and includes traits like a big head, forward-facing eyes, and round ears
–Hippos in the wild are threatened by habitat loss and poaching for meat and the ivory from their large canine teeth
–Many of the stricter anti-poaching laws don’t extend to the hippo

In front of Fiona’s enclosure, it isn’t uncommon to hear children and adults alike squealing with anticipation and glee. Everyone has their phones out. They exclaim that Fiona is looking right at them. She’s getting bigger, but she still isn’t as large as her momma, who placidly swims back and forth close to the glass, without the fanfare, the zeal with which Fiona pushes off underwater from one of the rocks, surfaces, poses.

A recent article examines the toll Instagram tourism has taken on our national parks, which have seen an incredible spike in visits, tourists trampling the wildflowers and overflowing trash bins. Not to mention the people who are dying in increasing numbers by “selficides,” falling to their deaths while attempting the perfect shot.

When I asked a friend of mine what it is exactly that draws her to Fiona, she can’t immediately say. “I just remember,” she finally says. “When they publicized her first neck roll—because she was born premature and underweight, it was a big deal—and everyone was like hell yeah.”

Fiona’s been a role model and ambassador for body image positivity, female empowerment, and unfair beauty standards—kids who were born as “premies” have written letters to Fiona, to say that she is like them, that they’re glad she made it, that they’re survivors together.

On a Tuesday rainy afternoon, it’s just me and a group of three older women in front of the tank. We watch Fiona gracefully pirouette underwater then emerge, nose pressed to the glass in a shameless kissy-face photo op. One of the women, hands shaking, fumbles with her phone trying to take a selfie with the hippo.

“I think I got one,” she says, looking at her phone’s screen, jubilant. Her friends gather around her. She seems close to tears. “Look at that.”

What is she feeling in this moment? Is it awe, a moment of connection with a wild animal? Is it simply contagion, the desire to cast herself as part of the mythology of Fiona? Or is it something so entirely private nobody will ever be able to guess at it?

The Guardian recently published an article about the toll Instagram tourism has taken on our national parks, which have seen an incredible spike in visits, tourists trampling the wildflowers and overflowing trash bins. Not to mention the people who are dying in increasing numbers by “selficides,” falling to their deaths while attempting the perfect shot. A trip to Yellowstone not any different than a trip to Disneyworld, tourists chasing after an Instagram-famous image—beyond recording one’s vacation for posterity: trying to recreate the exact shot they saw on Pinterest or Instagram or Facebook, the desire to project one’s own image onto a coveted other’s. Or the people risking their lives for photo ops with lions and bears. Treating up-close shots with wild animals as just another thing to post to social media to show to friends and family you have a life, that you take risks, you aren’t afraid of mountain lions despite the warnings and statistics.

Another way to document wonder. Another category. Another barrier.

I’d like to remain pessimistic about the commercialization of celebrity animals like Fiona. And for the most part, I do. But there’s also something about her, about the mythology surrounding this hippo, that I respond to. On those Tuesday afternoons, when she twirls like a ballerina underwater and surfaces right where I’m standing, her mouth pressed against the glass, I feel something. I feel a kind of exchange that is rare at the zoo.

John Berger, in his essay “Looking at Animals,” says, “Nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.” But Fiona is different. She hasn’t been immunized to encounter. She’s been trained for it. Not only has she been raised by humans, hand-bottle-fed as a baby, but she’s grown up with an audience.

But maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe my experience, my not-super-unique experience of communing with Fiona at the zoo, is not about how she was raised or what has been sold to me in terms of what she symbolizes, how she fought and survived. Maybe it’s much simpler than that, and maybe it’s beyond my human understanding.

It’s so hard to talk about wonder. It feels impossible to communicate the personal experience of wonder, just as it’s so difficult to communicate pain. How can our categories include or encompass or invoke wonder? Why are we so invested in the categories to begin with? How does our urge to understand and know sit with our desire or capacity to be moved? And how does the act of trying to capture it, communicate it, change the actual experience of it? If wonder is beyond language, and I think in some ways at least it is, is there any point in trying to capture it in words, or even pictures?

Poliquin talks about the difference between Patrizi’s wonder and the wonder talked about by Descartes, who saw wonder as only valuable if it led to knowledge; otherwise, wonder was a “malady of those who suffer from a blind curiosity—that is, who seek out things that are rare solely to wonder at them, and not for the purpose of really knowing them.” As applied to the experience, say, of seeing an Andean bear at the Cincinnati Zoo, is our wonder only valuable if we then seek out knowledge of the Andean bear in the wild, if this wonder leads us into conservation work? Or can our wonder at the sight of the Andean bear fall more in line with Patrizi’s “movement in our soul,” be an end in itself, the same way a painting or poem is?

There are placards by Fiona’s enclosure:

–Average hippo’s weight: Male: 3,500-7,000 lbs; Female: 3,000-4,000 lbs
–Habitat: Grassland, lakes, and rivers
–Fun fact: To assert their dominance and mark trails, males wag their tails back and forth vigorously like high-speed propellers as they defecate to fling feces all over the place
–Hippo populations in sub-Saharan Africa have greatly declined

In her book Zooland, Irus Braverman talks about how city zoos are respites from the bustle, a place where people can escape the stress and noise and grime of the city and experience nature. She refers to Leo Marx’s concept of the “machine in the garden,” which Marx uses to explore the ways nineteenth-century American writers like Melville and Twain introduce man-made machines—the train, the steamboat—into the pastoral landscape to say something about technology’s corruptions. Braverman inverts this idea to “garden in the machine,” emphasizing the city zoo’s function as a pocket of idealized nature in the middle of an industrial terrain. Accredited zoos are often also literally botanical gardens, offering trees and other plants not otherwise available to the city dweller.

Still, every time I go to the zoo, I have an experience of wonder. It’s different every time, and I still find myself unable to really communicate the nature of this experience, other than it most often happens when I’m alone. When I stand very still, and really look.

On one side of the zoo is the University of Cincinnati campus, on the other residential and commercial areas. The street I walk down to get to the zoo is lined with houses in various states of disrepair, litter clogging the gutters. Not a hundred feet from the entrance to the zoo, from where giraffe, elephant, rhinoceros, African-painted dogs, and the Buff-crested Bustard exist, where families pay a lot of money to see these animals and dust themselves in powdered sugar from poorly planned funnel cake, buy overpriced stuffed animals and T-shirts—there lies broken glass, old batteries, McDonald’s wrappers on the sidewalk. A kind of perfect microcosm of the city itself, which swings from one extreme to another in its excess and neglect.

But still, for me, and I imagine many others, the zoo is a respite from the bustle. Every time I go—and in the last four years I’ve lived in Cincinnati, I’ve been a few times—I have an experience of wonder. It’s different every time, and I still find myself unable to really communicate the nature of this experience, other than it most often happens when I’m alone. When I stand very still, and really look.

Before the summer hits, the last cold front makes it too chilly to see Fiona. It has to be 45 degrees or warmer for her and mother Bibi to be out. The water is startlingly clear. The tilapia, usually busy eating hippo poop, swim around the tank, winter light catching their silvery scales. They’re kind of beautiful, and I’ve never noticed. I crouch, leaning against the glass that is not, unlike every other time I’ve visited, smeared with the grease of so many child foreheads.

I think about the absence of hippo, the hippo-shaped spaces occupied by water and fish and air. The recent UN report that has just come out says that, among other catastrophic things, up to one million species of plants and animals are now in immediate threat of extinction. “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed,” says Professor Settele in the IPBES report. “This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

If only there was a way to more clearly show this, to make people feel their absence, the unpoetic strangeness, the lack of movement in our soul, of a world without wild animals. If one day we’ll look back on this time of zoos and think how preposterous, how foolish. What would happen if the list, the categorizations, the index, was those we’ve lost instead of those we display?

–The ones with hashtags and social media channels
–The emojis
–The ones in children’s books and animated films and old documentaries
–The coke commercial ones
–The ones that used to swim like ballerinas and pose like starlets
–The stuffed ones
–The ones that haunt our dreams and stories
–The gone

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The Rapture Index: A Suburban Bestiary by Molly Reid

Molly Reid’s The Rapture Index: A Suburban Bestiary is out now from BOA Editions.

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