Photo of Harambe by Cincinnati Zoo

Must We Sacrifice the Beasts at the Altars of Our Fierce Gods?

Like the Aztecs before us, and despite the sheen of humane treatment, zoos continue to be sites of ritual animal sacrifice.

This past May, zookeepers at the Cincinnati Zoo shot and killed a 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla after a three-year-old boy fell into its enclosure. The incident stirred a debate that, at least initially, circled frenetically around whom to blame. Some commentators had it out for the mother of the child, citing negligence on her part; others, the zoo itself. Shortly thereafter, discussion turned to the wider question of whether it’s ethical to keep gorillas in zoos in the first place.

It’s no coincidence that defanged, so to speak, representations of animals have proliferated with the rise of industrial democratic societies.

Defenders of zoos argue that they serve a dual purpose: to educate the public and to conserve endangered animal populations. Frans de Waal, a prominent primatologist from Emory University, recently toldNatalie Angier, reporting for the New York Times, that he was a “big fan” of well-designed zoos. “For great apes,” he said, “the record is excellent.” Gorillas born and raised in captivity are generally healthier and live longer than their counterparts in the wild. Zoos have learned over the past few decades to engineer experiences for the apes that keep them, as far as the experts can tell, entertained.

One trend is to design enclosures that appear natural — in part, by simulating the apes’ native habitats, but also by eliminating obvious indicators that the gorillas are trapped within a cage. The “naturalness” of the enclosure in this case was, at least indirectly, to blame for the little boy’s plight. He had squeezed through a gap in the boundary and fallen down an embankment into a ravine within which the gorilla had free rein.

As wild ape populations are further decimated by the relentless creep of civilization (and by casualties of war and illegal animal trade), it’s becoming clear that the role zoos might play as instruments of conservation has been vastly overstated. Gorillas bred in captivity are ill-prepared for the rigors of life in the wild. The rate of population decline outside the gilded cages of First World zoos exceeds their capacity to restock.

With the myth of conservation laid bare, we’re left with the cold comfort of zoos as vectors for education. Presumably, as we become further ensconced in the manicured landscapes, both suburban and virtual, that swaddle us, an encounter with a gorilla can be a transformative experience that reminds us of our shared kinship — and the majesty of nature. We must keep up our zoos for the children.

In her article, Angier points out that when “the first apes were exhibited in the West, in the late 18th century, they were seen as trophies, evidence of imperial victory over savagery.” The Enlightenment apotheosis of human superiority may have added another layer of rationalization to the subjugation of savage beasts, but the deeper motivation for zoos has always been their political value; that is, what zoos say about their patrons in the face of other people, whether imperial rivals or lesser social classes. The newly minted Western powers were merely picking up where predecessors, such as the Romans, had left off. Zoos embody the dark side of Enlightenment inquisitiveness.

Consider this passage from Bernal Diaz’s account of the conquest of Mexico. Here he’s describing the court of the Aztec king Montezuma when Hernan Cortez and his army first entered the city of Tenochtitlan in November 1519:

Let us go on to another large house where they kept many idols whom they called their fierce gods, and with them all kinds of beasts of prey, tigers and two sorts of lion, and beasts rather like wolves […], and foxes and other small animals, all of them carnivores, and most of them bred there. They were fed on deer, fowls, little dogs, and other creatures which they hunt and also on the bodies of the Indians they sacrificed, as I was told.

Since zoos don’t actually conserve, nor educate, beyond the most self-serving and trivial ways, even in modern democratic cultures, they constitute a travesty in the old-fashioned sense of the word. One institution is dressed in the guise of another. Like the Aztecs before us, and despite the sheen of humane treatment, zoos continue to be sites of ritual animal sacrifice. What we sacrifice in zoos are other living creatures, both as curiosities and trophies. These sacrifices serve, not the dual purposes of conservation and education, but other more ancient, crueler purposes. First, zoos testify to the majesty of our conquest of the natural world. Second, zoos broadcast abundance amidst a cutthroat world hardened by scarcity.

Evolutionary biology long ago illuminated the continuity between all life forms. We’ve read that chimpanzees share 98 percent of our DNA. They use tools. They have rich social relations, culture even. Furthermore, our Hominidae cousins have complex inner lives, full of thoughts, memories, and feelings.

But translating the chimpanzee or the orangutan into the familial vernacular of “cousin” betrays our penchant to anthropomorphize animals. Animals have held a potent totemic significance in nearly all cultures across history. Animals are our neighbors, our rivals, our food, and on occasion, even our friends. But portrayals of animals in art and popular culture inevitably say more about us than they do about the creatures we’re representing. From Aesop’s Fables to Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to Bugs Bunny, representations of animals reinforce our own cloistered preoccupations, or own solipsisms. It’s no coincidence that defanged, so to speak, representations of animals have proliferated with the rise of industrial democratic societies. We must work ever harder to pixel over the cognitive dissonance between Babe and the mass incarceration and slaughter of cows, chickens, and pigs for our fast food dining pleasure.

Giving this particular Western lowland gorilla, raised in captivity, a name such as “Harambe”, only confirms the solipsism. It’s highly likely that Harambe had absolutely no use for the name given him. That the name sounds vaguely African makes it all the more condescending. A benign form of Orientalism.

One of humanism’s great unreconciled paradoxes is its take on animals. On the one hand, our discoveries have made it blindingly obvious that we are they. On the other hand, the more we learn about animals as objects of study, the more we realize that other living things are fundamentally unknowable. This is why the zookeepers at the Cincinnati Zoo came to the grim conclusion that, as Harambe poked and thrashed that fragile three-year-old boy around, they had to shoot him dead. They just didn’t know what he was thinking, what he would do. The grimmer moral calculus of zoos forces us to articulate, if not in word then in deed, that a human life is worth more than a gorilla’s.

We tend to think of animals as discrete entities. They occupy a quasi-category between object and person. With some animals, we have long-standing relationships, relationships we might consider intimate. It’s not at all clear whether it was we who domesticated dogs or the other way around. With dogs, unlike gorillas, there’s the semblance of an equitable pact, if not pack. But with others, it’s all too easy, for reasons obvious (dinner time) and subtle (that pernicious solipsism), to shunt most animals over to the object end of the spectrum.

Nevertheless, an animal is an organism, a complex aggregation of cells tightly coupled to a particular environment. That environment is both social and physical. The subspecies Gorilla gorilla gorilla is known as the Western lowland gorilla for a reason. It’s native to the western lowlands of central Africa. The Western lowland gorilla belongs to and belongs in the western lowlands.

Dr. de Waal says enthusiastically that gorillas “like to work on computers”. As we amuse ourselves by gawping at them in simulations of their native habitat, we can try to amuse these gorillas with computer games. But a gorilla, a complex organism tightly coupled to an environment, is only the shadow of its authentic self in a zoo. If we project the human value of dignity on our cousins, to grant them their dignity, the least we could do is leave them alone where they are.

To accomplish that, though, we must undertake a monumental reckoning. We must resolve whether to carry on sacrificing all kinds of beasts at the altars of our fierce gods.