“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil … for there are enough champions of civilization”
-Henry David Thoreau (1862), “Walking”, (p. 1)
And I, too, wish to speak a word for wildness. For freedom, too. Freedom for critters, and freedom for people. I seek knowing human participation in wilderness.
Over the last ten years we have come to learn that wilderness is a human construction. I think, therefore, we need to be careful and deliberate in what we construct it to be. As we bring wild nature into our purview, there needs to be a call for restraint and humility. It is to that need, and of our relationship to the wild that this essay speaks.
My fundamental premise is that wilderness is becoming more and more like a zoo. Today we rightly have increased calls for wilderness to play a significant role in protection of biodiversity, for purposes of ecological restoration, and for the preservation of naturalness. My concern is the prioritization of those goals over and above all others for wilderness.
Notice how similar the purpose of zoos and of wilderness. Both of them prioritize science and research. Both are concerned with biological conservation. Today, both aim to provide immersive experiences, and both are retreats for harried city dwellers. Both zoos and wilderness are sources of civic pride and identity. Both have educational objectives, of inspiring appreciation and care for nature. Both tend to be particularly known for unique and charismatic mega-fauna. However, while there are many similarities in purpose, we must remember they have very different philosophical and historical origins.
In the way in which visitors are managed, wilderness is becoming more and more like a zoo. For example, to maintain the quality of the viewing experience, some zoos control the number of visitors allowed in at any one time. There it is controlled access where the gate is opened to let in a new visitor only when one leaves. Intriguingly, some wilderness areas are doing the same. In one canyon, where there is essentially only one way in and one way out and where numbers are strictly permitted at each end, the total number of visitors within in the canyon never exceeds a set capacity. In both zoos and wilderness human facilities and human manipulations are increasingly being hidden. Architecture and landscaping is used to hide infrastructure and change. This is done in order to let nature predominate, to let nature speak for itself.
Zoos are also striving to become more like wilderness. They offer immersive recreational experiences, where you leave behind the modern world and enter as much as possible into the animal world. There is an increasing focus on the sublime, with attendant experiences of awe, spectacle, and humility that are much in the line of wilderness tradition. The animals and their lives are magnificent to behold and awe-inspiring in their stature and existence. Promisingly, zoos are hoping to educate the visitor on the importance of nature, using the power and influence of recreation experiences. This is similar to what the Sierra Club and others did to activate initial political and financial support for nature in wilderness. As Bill Conway wrote in 1968, when director of the Bronx Zoo, “It is the Bronx bus driver and the corner pharmacist whose votes will determine the fate of the Adirondack wilderness, the Everglades, of Yellowstone Park. You must give your visitors a new intellectual reference point, meaningful and aesthetically compelling; a view of another sensory and social world; a feeling of personal interest in diminishing wild creatures and collective responsibility for their future which is so closely tied to that of man” (How to Exhibit a Bullfrog). He was writing about zoos, but he may well have been writing about wilderness.
We must carefully consider what this concordance between zoos and wilderness says about our changing relationship with wild nature, particularly in how it characterizes our treatment of animals. As I progress through the next section, you might ask yourself whether you would endorse doing similar things to humans. As we examine how we treat animals, we must also ask why we treat them differently.
Animals are studied, analyzed, ID’d, tagged, tipped upside down and understood, but only within a human system of knowing. We give little or no consideration to animal or other ways of knowing. We remove the mystery, the respect and the sacredness of wild nature. Animals have often become objects only to be known and appropriated within the human realm. One example is bio-mimicry, with technology looking to wild nature for models to copy. When we study animals in zoos and other places, each animal is just an animal, easily substitutable, each replaceable by another of its species. We often don’t treat them as unique individuals, intriguing and worthwhile in their own right, but merely as representatives of their species. We control and subjugate that individuality to the pedagogy of science. And, the easier it becomes to justify the co-option in the name of good scientific endeavor, the more people will expect to do so. We get used to it. That is, we get used to objectifying animals. Further, the confining and displaying of natural objects is fundamentally an act of classifying, ordering, defining, categorizing, and putting everything in its ‘right’ place. The total number of species (biodiversity?) is still a measure of success in both zoos and in wilderness.
We have also limited the freedom of wild animals. This is implicit in the boundaries and fences surrounding both wilderness and zoos. The animals are told where it is appropriate to live, under more and more human notions of how it is appropriate for them to live. Sadly, we haze animals back into wilderness when they wander out, we relocate the further away from humans and our livestock, we take blood samples from them, test them, subdue them, and even send them off for slaughter. Clearly there are penalties for the animals misbehaving, including confinement, revocation of the privilege to act freely, and invasive search, much as is the case in human prisons. Just as escapes from prisons are a big deal, so, too, are escapes from zoos and from wilderness. When wild animals enter into the urban or suburban world, people feel terrorized. To some it is the appearance of chaos and there are quick calls to re-establish law, order, and control.
The question of liberty, of freedom, is a big one. It is a question of self-determination, of a self-willed existence, or an untrammeled wilderness. In contrast, zoos display a pattern of paternalism, a form of animal slavery where we put them to work for us. We are never likely to allow animals to be completely wild. That would be too much of a threat to the established order of things. Instead, our relationship to animals is quite hierarchical. Could we ever imagine a situation where we put animals first? But, surely, our relationship to otherness doesn’t have to be so adversarial/
The more we consider zoos perhaps the more notes of danger and caution we can sound for wilderness. Most zoos started out as displays of wealth and power. They were frequently royal menageries, endorsements of colonialism and the taking of wealth from the colonies. Zoos represented the pacification and civilization of savage lands. The riches and wonders were appropriated for the entertainment and satisfaction of the colonizing power. The animals were to become part of the natural heritage of the empire.
Zoos are remarkably popular, and thus considered successful public enterprises. It has been estimated that over 120 million visit zoos each year in the U.S. They strike a popular accord and that is tied largely to the charismatic mega-fauna housed within. We are attracted to the cute and cuddlies, to the exotic and the pretty. And we put them in artificial, specially-constructed environments. However, the animals are frequently out-of-context, with species aggregated together into un-natural collections and settings. For example, we may see polar bears in California and Arizona, right alongside brown and black bears. And, the grizzly is often portrayed in a mountainous, forested setting; which should make us wonder whether that is its historic context or not. Instead, they meet our expectations of what belongs where and with whom. Strangely, the behaviors of the critters seldom live up to our expectations. The animals are seen as lethargic and dull, regardless of their nocturnal nature and resulting lack of activity during our daylight visiting hours. Some visitors respond with frustration and impatience, tapping on the glass, wondering “why it isn’t doing anything”!
Increasingly, we are also anthropomorphizing animals, sentimentally treating them like people. We romantically memorialize them with sympathy cards, tributes and plaques. This is doubly ironic since we wish for zoos to now look and function as natural as possible. Zoo designers and architects can do such a good job at this that we can have a hard time recognizing and remembering the fakeness of the whole setting. But, as visitors, we want to think the setting is natural and we end up satisfied with the result. However, as John Baudrillard would remind us, the image can be more powerful than the real, and almost inevitably it becomes hard for the real to compete in our minds with the new expectations of what could be and what should be. The next step is for the public to want wild nature to be more like zoos: safe, controlled, predictable, and convenient.
I think it has become not so much a question of who will speak for the animals, but who can and will be able to listen to them. I wonder why bad stories about zoos continue to abound. In France, I hear of elephants being used to uncork bottles of wine. In the Xili Lake Zoo in Shenzhen province, I have read of the opportunity to sit next to a drugged, declawed, defanged tiger while they are struck in the mouth to make them snarl for the camera. Other tales of such photographic opportunities can be said to occur in the U.S., Latin America, and Australia. Stories of beatings are also all too frequent, as control and submission of larger animals is sought.
Death, in particular, is trivialized in zoos. It is in that context that we can recognize values of dignity, equality, and respect, or the lack thereof. In 1992 at the Bronx Zoo, for instance, the first platypus alive outside of Australia was housed. However, it was one of five that set out from its native land. Four died in transit and the last was to soon die in the elaborate, specially built cage. With 100% mortality, little of value was gained in the exercise in exchange for their lives. Animals will compete with each other, and with other species. If you have limited space in which these animals fight for territory, then a certain amount of mortality is to be expected. Death in captivity can be due to high levels of stress caused not only by the concentrated proximity of other animals and their impacts upon the environment, but also by the chemicals we introduce. In the habitat of animals we bring fertilizer, weed control, pesticides, cleaning chemicals, and even vitamins, antibiotics, and contraceptives.
One of my biggest concerns is that zoos must operate more on an entrepreneurial basis than an environmental basis. There is a constant need to maintain a generous and supportive public constituency, and as a result zoos are planned and managed with human convenience and experience in mind. Icky animals smells are eliminated, if possible. Live or putrid feed is not delivered to animals in view of the public. Instead, feeding times are carefully orchestrated, scheduled, promoted and even broadcast. Similar promotions are now occurring on when and where to see wild animals, such as wolves in our national parks. Reifications and fetishism also abound in zoos, where visitors figuratively put wild animals on pedestals, treat them as totemic objects and almost seem to worship them. The animals represent a nostalgic curiosity, a romantic yearning for a simpler and more essential past when we were close to them. In zoos, and increasingly in parks, animal souvenirs are common, there are animal clubs you can join, websites to allow you to keep track of your favorite animal and newsletters and events to mark major events in the animal’s life.
So, to my concluding questions and concerns for wilderness. Is this a right relationship to nature that is being modeled by zoos? Or is it a further separation of the human world dualistically from wild nature? What does it say about our sense of what it means to be an animal? I worry that zoos, and wilderness areas, have become a palliative for a greater sickness. If so, then we don’t sense the need to make fundamental changes because we’ve saved some critters, set aside some big country and don’t therefore have to question the underlying structure of our relationship to wild nature. They have let us off the hook.
Can we ever escape our tendency to want to know all, to map and bring into our sphere of influence and control? Does it serve animals well that we claim to the right to know and to decide which we will know? Sometimes we can’t know, such as with hard questions like the appropriateness of fire (when it kills many individual animals) or the ideal level of insect evolution.
We must ask of the importance that wilderness plays in inspiring us. What sorts of inspirations do we get from wild animals and from wilderness? Is it the same we might get from zoos? Is that inspiration respectful of the sacredness of the animals, of the sacredness of the wild? Or is it inspiration born of our own abilities, our own artifice and our own disruption in the name of preservation?
Can we live with the wild? It can’t be brought under law, if by definition wildness is indefinite and intractable. Can we manage for wildness, which, of course, is difficult to chastise, to ostracize. It wants to be open and spontaneous, rebellious, and impolite. I think we will find wildness (and its advocates) pushing up against the bars, arguing with the managers and gamekeepers. Is our in ability to live with wildness a reflection on us? Are we becoming too willing to give up freedoms?
My final question is whether in treating wilderness more and more like zoos, does this achieve appropriate ethical outcomes? Will it lead us to greater ecological connectedness? To greater care and responsiveness in our relationship to animals? Will it help us see animals in newer, respectful and meaningful ways? I don’t think so. Therefore, I sound a note of caution regarding a narrow focus on biological preservation and the protection of biodiversity in wilderness, because the more we prioritize just those values (however good and worthy they are) the more we treat wilderness like zoos.
Guest writer Bill Borrie is with the College of Forestry & Conservation at the University of Montana, where he teaches classes in Wilderness & Protected Area Management. His favorite research has been in Yellowstone, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and Petrified Forest National Park.
This paper was first presented at the annual Wilderness Issues Lecture Series at the University of Montana, Missoula. It was particularly inspired by, and draws from, the writing of Jack Turner and Tom Birch.
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