Problems at the Zoo

While revealing the complex social ecology of zoos, David Grazian's ethnographic safari ends up defending moral twilight zones.

Books (and films) about nature and animals often suffer from a conspicuous absence; people belong inside these categories but are often omitted. The assumption being that animals are the objects of our gaze, unaffected by our actions, inhabitants of a separate sphere. David Grazian’s American Zoo: A Sociological Safari redresses this omission in its focus on the “human life of zoos” (3), that is; the social ecology comprising zookeepers, trainers, volunteers, designers, managers, audiences, animal advocates and the creatures great and small around whom they circle.

As he informs us early on, the responsibilities of new parenthood lead Grazian to switch from hanging out at nightclubs and cocktail lounges (his previous books were about urban nightlife in Chicago and Philadelphia) to volunteering at two urban zoos over a period of four years, as well as visiting countless others, often accompanied by his young son. Attentive to the shared theatricality of urban entertainment venues and zoos, Grazian examines the technologies of enchantment, or the ways in which our encounters with zoo animals are mediated. His argument that nature is a cultural construct that reflects the human imagination is convincing, if uncontentious. Zoos are “Where the Wild Things Aren’t”, as one of the many catchy chapter titles has it.

Grazian has a sharp eye for detail and ethical tensions. We all want something different at the zoo. Audiences form “interpretative communities” (77), with shared and conflicting recreational, educational, and affective aims. Zoos themselves must juggle these desires, as well as the well-being of the animals and profit margins. Thus, synthetic plants help institutions to mimic tropical habitats. While some visitors might scoff at simulated nature, others learn about ecology, and that inorganic, pest-free trees might even be healthier for the inhabitants.

Flamingos get beta-keratin supplements to maintain their famous pigment for “their public performances as ‘wild’ pink birds” (35). Animals’ lives are “enriched” by toys, sounds, and scents (African wild dogs have a penchant for Chanel No. 5, but giant pandas prefer Ralph Lauren Polo for Men). Stagecraft manages what audiences do not see, especially the legions of defrosted mice consumed offstage at feeding time.

Grazian notes that “size matters” in our attachment to charismatic megafauna (45) and zoos must feed this desire, even if it means that more endangered but less photogenic creatures are sidelined. On the other hand, we’re alienated from bugs, despite their contribution to the sustainability of our planet. Adults are usually disgusted by spiders and cockroaches. One visitor even jokes about squishing a millipede (Grazian misses the opportunity here to reference the weird practice of “crush porn”).

Kids, though, socialized by the anthropomorphic animals of pop culture, are more open to being charmed by the likes of Charlie, a Madagascar hissing cockroach. In a classic strategy, Charlie is named to individualize him — though he looks identical to his 60 companions –to provoke the type of empathy usually reserved for pandas and primates.

Endeavoring to enlighten audiences about animals and deliver a broader environmental message, zoos emerge as sites of contradiction. Visitors traipse out of displays at aquariums into cafés to consume fish and chips, even asking if the fish comes from the aquarium’s own collection (162). Women comment that lizard skins would make nice handbags (52). Visitors dump trash in the Philadelphia Zoo’s Cell Phone Recycling bin, undermining its support of a primate rescue center in Vietnam (195). Gift shops stock a host of plastic replicas of real animals, destined to wind up in local landfills or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Commodified encounters abound. SeaWorld San Diego charges for the chance to pet and feed its dolphins; “City Zoo” accepts donor contributions in return for “a twenty-minute private session” with a chosen animal (297 n. 23). As well as prostituting their charges, zoos also collude with corporate greenwashing, with many well-respected Association of Zoos and Aquariums [AZA]-accredited zoos taking money from the likes of Sonoco and ExxonMobil (in 2010 named the top two corporate air polluters) on the grounds of “organizational sustainability” (201).

Indeed, in pandering to corporate connections and political sensitivities, zoos end up compromising their worthier aims. Global warming joins sex (not suitable for children), death (unless of a celebrity animal who gets a PR release), and evolution (so as not to offend creationists), as an unmentionable topic.

The more we know about these moral twilight zones, the more we might wonder if zoos have a future as repositories of ethics as well as animals. That this is not Grazian’s conclusion highlights issues in his own project, which are showcased in the book’s subtitle, “A Sociological Safari”. Grazian stays firmly within his chosen disciplinary boundaries to legitimate his “scientific” perspective and ethnographic practices.

He rightly notes the disguised deprivations of aquariums (so long as the marine life keeps swimming, we fail to recognize their limited living space and abnormal behaviors). But he sees the inspirational project of aquariums as mere hocus pocus, relegating all invocations of spirituality to the unscientific realm of “New Age speak” (159).

He sticks to Erving Goffman’s model of participant observation, whereby the scientific witness “physically and ecologically penetrate[s]” the lives of his or her informants, rather than the more self-reflexive tradition in cultural studies, going back to Janice Radway’s work on romance readers, or the long-standing focus on audience complexity in media studies. Throughout, alternative epistemologies are resisted.

Grazian also has a somewhat naïve trust in scientific conventions, notably the use of pseudonyms to protect identities. As commonsense (he’s already given up nightlife for his son, so it’s not likely he will be spending his days far away from home) and Google quickly reveal, “Metro Zoo” shares with Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the departure of its conservationist director and his replacement by a local entrepreneur. These well-publicized changes transformed the zoo into “Chuck E. Cheese with animals”, as one ex-employee so memorably puts it (177).

More significantly, while eco-criticism is represented, the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of human-animal studies is not. Major figures like Donna Haraway and John Berger appear only in footnotes; Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, Randy Malamud, Jonathan Burt, Frans de Waal, Kari Weil, Ralph Acampora, and others, not at all. This is a pity, as the absence of their insights about non-human emotions, mixed species communities, and co-citizenship allows Grazian implicitly to validate Peter Singer’s utilitarian perspective on zoos (whereby human gain is weighed above what animals might lose) over Tom Regan’s focus on absolute “rights”.

Once animal rights activists have been marginalized as “bunny huggers”, Grazian concludes that zoos are morally defensible if only they would do a better job at being sanctuaries for wildlife protection, schools for biosphere education, and showcases for urban living (261). That’s a strange place to end up after a journey that exposes their shortcomings.

Grazian’s use of the metaphor of the “safari” to structure the book is also odd. As the recent international outcry over the death of Cecil the celebrity lion makes clear, safaris remain enmeshed in histories of imperialism and violent masculinity. Our author, however, seems far removed from a big game trophy hunter and safe from the trolling, or hunting, of Walter Palmer.

Grazian shows how zoos traffic in fanciful myths of the Global South in ways that stereotype aboriginal people. Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s framing of indigenous people as noble savages and eco-stewards is “a kind of minstrelsy” (163). Grazian subscribes to a colorblind ideology in describing zoo keepers and visitors. He’s sympathetic to the plight of low paid, low status workers, including older male working class keepers stranded in an outdated macho world.

Also, he mucks in at the zoo, literally spending hours and hours scooping manure and enduring the experience of animals urinating, excreting and vomiting on him (84). It’s hard not to warm to someone prepared to do all this. He is sensitive to the ways in which this “dirty work” entails a type of social as well as physical pollution for those involved through choice or necessity.

However, while his safari annotates exploitations of race and class, women are fair game. Dads are a relatively privileged species at the zoo but mothers get short shrift. They are stupid—asking “without irony” if the zoo has live prehistoric specimens (49), and shrill—“the mother shrieked in frustration” (74). Male volunteers have dignity and a serious “social ethic of volunteerism” (110); women are trivialized as gossipy, obsessed with the relative sexiness of George Clooney or Antonio Banderas (111). The chapter on the female labor force endemic at zoos both critiques and buys into the ideology of feminine nurture.

The predatory connotations of the safari are nowhere better materialized than in the discourse within which Grazian’s co-workers are presented. Christina is “the twenty-four-year-keeper with the snake tattoo”; Heather has “brown hair and funky nails”; “athletic” Ashley sports a “pierced lip and tongue”. Grazian returns obsessively to hair color (“auburn-haired zookeeper”, “raven hair”, “straight blonde hair”). All are the objects of a fetishistic gaze in a way that essentially distinguishes them from male informants, and casts them as more akin to exotic birds (the chapter is called “Birds of a Feather”).

Perhaps Grazian was contaminated by his own imperialist trope. In any case, an editor should have caught this.

Near the end of the book, Grazian speculates that criticism of zoos has less to do with the morality of animal captivity and more with its “visibility” (218). It’s noteworthy that apart from the ET-ish cover picture of a girl and a giraffe trying to connect across the structures of containment, there are no images of animals who might confront us with the power dynamics of spectatorship. The book is unconcerned with other immersive ways for humans to gain access to unfamiliar creatures, notably wildlife documentaries (for all their own problematic framing of our animal encounters).

Ultimately, despite the plethora of wonderful details in American Zoo, Grazian can only tell us how people feel about the animals they care for or contemplate. The power of the visual, however, lies in the affective demands images can place on us. In this sense, American Zoo can supplement but not supplant the moral ambiguities so poignantly explored many years ago in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Zoo.

RATING 5 / 10