I have been dreaming about seeing a Snow Leopard.
My infatuation with animals started before I was born, when my brother narrowly lost his campaign to make my first name “Dormouse.” I was that dinosaur kid, always with a plastic Stegosaurus action figure in my pocket. Every Saturday morning, I faced off against my mother in Dinosaur Monopoly Jr. As I grew older my interest in things wild and beast-like did not diminish, but I always drew the line at zoos. I had been faithful to this pledge since I was seven-years-old.
After thirteen years of boycotting, I somehow found myself at the entrance of the Roger Williams Park Zoo. It was a suspiciously warm Saturday afternoon in February. On the front of the admissions ticket to the park it says “Have a wild time!” Despite this, zoos might be the least wild places on earth. They house the fastest, deadliest, largest, and rarest animals on earth, and confine them to an exhibit for people to ogle at all day.
Electrified children run amok, dragging their parents to each exhibit in turn, taking a look, and promptly moving along. The physical space is riddled with signs in bright primary colors introducing the pronghorn (a funny-looking relative of the antelope) and the Watusi and directing visitors this way and that. The park offers wonder, a day of interacting with the beings that rule the Himalayas, bathe in the Amazon, and reign the skies. Those creatures that live out our childhood dreams of running fast, climbing high, soaring among the clouds.
Teeming with childlike anticipation, I approach the Snow Leopard closure. At first, I think it is empty. The tempered light of the overcast sky, mucky remnants of the last snow dusting, accumulation of deciduous twigs and leaves, and the grey rock of the zoo’s enclosure make it a difficult scene to digest. Then, I see it—furry, white, and perched on the highest point of the rock formation. About the size of a German Shepherd, it is lying in a small nook where the rock swoops a little lower creating a small basin. Its peppered coat blends into the enclosure and its speckled tail hangs heavily off of the ledge like a red, velvet rope. After searching for a few seconds, I spot the second one, huddled on the lip of the greater bowl-shaped rock formation, squeezed between the black netting that sealed the containment from the top and the cold, grey rock. Its girthy tail flicks periodically. There is a pair of 20-something-year-olds standing next to me at the exhibit. One of them says with amazement, “These are the best animals in the entire zoo!” Indeed they are.
Here stands one of the most scarce and enigmatic creatures on earth. The 5,000 Snow Leopards left in the wild can leap six times their length, live in some the harshest habitats on earth, and roam across 1,000 square kilometers. And here are two, 7,500 miles away from their natural habitat, stuffed into an enclosure the size of a classroom, and forced to listen to a Steve Irwin-wannabe in a peacoat and Sperry topsiders.
Take a look at true wilderness! But instead of taking the detour to West Africa or Alaska, you can see it right off Exit 17 on I-95.
The zoo, trying to curate its exhibits, collects animals like stamps from all over the world and puts them together in a sampler of the animal kingdom. The cohabitation of the Radiated Tortoise that hails from the woodlands of Madagascar and the Huacaya Alpaca that can only be found in the grasslands of the Andes is oxymoronic. Forget wild, their close proximity is laughably artificial.
The animals’ enclosures mimic the animal’s habitat, giving the illusion that spectators are witnessing the wild. “We do not like to acknowledge that animals are enclosed, and so modern zoo exhibits are designed to disguise the enclosure using glass panels, moats and other deceptions,” says Jason Michael Lukasik in his article “Is it Time to Break With the Colonial Legacy of Zoos?” All this elaborate decoration is so that the guy in the topsiders can focus on how cool the snow leopard is without noticing the manufactured rock and enclosed netting in which it is contained––a hilarious attempt to imitate the Himalayan mountains.
The animals themselves are stripped of their free will and have altered behavior patterns as a result of their captivity, so they do not act as they would in the wild. Animals at the Roger Williams Park Zoo are given names like Riley and Gigi. The signs describe the bison as “friendly!” and the Snow Leopard as having a “toasty tail” (whatever that means). Birthdays and gender reveals of animals are celebrated by the zookeepers. I was informed that Riley, a White-faced Saki, had cake at his party.
Ball is life for the red panda—or so the balls placed in their enclosures suggest. The balls are a shameless symbol of the zoo’s real purpose—to curate imaginative scenes for onlookers to observe and fantasize, rather than be a place for people to observe “authentic wildness.”
The separation between wilderness and humanity that the zoo promotes is a controversial topic in environmental philosophy. In a 1996 paper entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness: or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” William Cronon argues that the division between humanity and wilderness is harmful to both parties. Cronon writes that if “wilderness leaves no place for human beings… then also by definition it can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems that confront us.” Thus, it is very unlikely that we will be able to realize the “ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like” when wilderness is thought to be seperate from humanity, a dichotomy that is reinforced by the observer-subject relationship at the zoo. Cronon believes this is a crucial misunderstanding that may prevent humans, in industrial societies that create such divisions, from being able to conceptualize a sustainable future that includes a union between the human and natural worlds.
Furthermore, Cronon argues that by occupying our increasingly urbanized spaces, yet pretending that wilderness is our “real home,” we “evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead.” Cronan describes that wilderness is often thought of in a mystical, religious, or supreme light. It is seen as the true home of all living things. He posits that this thinking results in a lack of responsibility for all the places that are non-‘wilderness’––thereby justifying the destruction of the lands that we actually occupy.
Hence, visitors of the Roger Williams Park Zoo celebrate and glamorize the beauty of foreign wilderness while the Narragansett Bay is treated as a dumping ground and the New England Cottontail population plummets dangerously.
The culture of expropriating wilderness for the benefit of humans dates back millennia. From its earliest iterations, collecting animals has been a symbol of wealth, power, and conquest. The origin of the contemporary zoo is thought to be the royal menagerie, a private collection of exotic animals usually kept by wealthy rulers. In 2009, a 3,500 BCE menagerie was discovered by archaeologists in Hierakonpolis, Egypt. It held hippopotami, hartebeest, elephants, baboons, and wildcats. Rulers like King Solomon of the Kingdom of Israel and Judah and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia kept animal collections. Alexander the Great sent animals from his conquests back to Greece, Roman emperors famously collected and made rare animals fight each other and humans for recreation, and Charlemagne kept an elephant named Abul-Abbas. In the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, there was a diverse animal collection tended to by 600 men. 500 turkeys were needed daily to feed the animals in the collection.
To hold animals captive is to express dominance over them and their environment. When Alexander the Great captured animals, they became tokens of the lands that he conquered and the power he held over the animals, geographies, and peoples alike.
The first modern zoo was Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria. First an imperial menagerie, it was made available to the public in 1765. In the next few decades of the Enlightenment Era in Europe, zoos in Madrid and Paris were also established mostly for scientific purposes. Similar to the museum, another institution established by European colonialism, the zoo functioned to display the curiosities of distant lands and classify other cultures in a European system of knowledge.
“The colonial project sought to bring the world under both physical and epistemological control,” says Lukasik, “Colonialism was, in large part, an educational project. Places, animals, and people were named and ordered through a Western lens.”
The connection between the colonial power that motivated royal menageries and the belief that animals exist for the entertainment and enjoyment of zoogoers that is held today is unmistakable. Zoos offer an opportunity for visitors to experience bite-sized “wildlife experiences,” feel closer to unfamiliar and fetishized lands, and vaunt their supremacy over nature, just as emperors celebrated tokens of their conquest. Visitors stroll through the “Fabric of Africa” section and grab a snack before bopping over to the Asian creatures in “Marco Polo’s Wild Journey” and checking out the “North America” section.
The animals of each exhibit must sit, entertain, and behave as objects as visitors gawk and are treated to the “exoticism” of the animals and the geographies from which they came. This obsession with the exotic is loaded with a racist and colonial logic, a history of orientalizing the unknown and usually non-white as a way of justifying white-european supremacy.
As Lukasik puts it, “Zoos engage visitors in an historic ritual of a Western ordering of the world, teaching them to “gaze” at creatures made to be exotic through our imagining wild and faraway places.”
A man in a long winter coat holds his daughter up to the glass of the Moon Bear (named for its black coat and white bib-like marking) exhibit and the five-year-old asks, “Daddy, could the bear smash through the glass if it wanted.” The father, robotically, says, “I am not sure sweetie, maybe.” The daughter chews her question for a few seconds before saying, “Yeah, I think it could,” and with that, she squirms out of her father’s arms and runs to another exhibit.
The girl commented on the bear’s ability to escape its confinement. Not the habitat or diet of the bear. Or if the moon bear’s conservation status is classified as threatened. Or if a Moon Bear is made up. It sure sounds like it is.
In 1847, the London Zoo, designed to be available for the regular Londoner, opened to the public. In 1860, the Central Park Zoo became the first public zoo in the United States. Contemporary zoos seek to explore and communicate the animal world to the common zoogoer. How common is learning and what do visitors learn?
Zoos vaunt their potential to generate an appreciation of animals and conservation. I learned about the jumping ability of the Tree Kangaroo, when born wallabies are about the size of grapes, and Harbor Seals can dive up to 1,500 feet!
However, the evidence is conflicting. A study surveying 2,800 children found that 62 percent conveyed no positive learning about animals by visiting zoos. It showed that overall, the children “did not feel empowered to believe that they can take ‘effective ameliorative action’ on matters relating to conservation after their zoo experience.”
There are other ways to cultivate an appreciation for animals that do not require holding them captive. Take it from a diehard Planet Earth fan, the possibility to observe, learn about, and appreciate animals digitally is abundant. You can watch the mesmerizing hunting style of the ping-pong-sized Golden Mole or the eccentric recreation of a Colorado Brown Bear, all in the comfort of your room. As virtual reality and technology becomes more and more accessible, it will become easier than it already is to observe and learn about animals digitally without forcing them into captivity.
Of course, it is not the same. The exhilaration of being so close to creatures of bizarre sizes and adaptations is unparalleled. And althought no children are begging their parents to go see a Barnacle Goose or the endlessly populated New York City subway rat, what if instead of touting the largest and rarest creatures from all over the planet, zoos did focus on educating visitors and conserving animals endemic to the area—like the illustrious Barnacle Goose? Imagine a place that educates people on the animals in their backyards, how to identify them, what we can learn from them, and how to live with them.
As I turn to leave, a red-tailed hawk sails into a nearby tree. Clutching a branch of a winter-stripped oak tree, it deliberately surveys the scene below. I cannot help but wonder what the hawk (and the rest of the not so scarce wildlife in the park) think of what is going on here. Do the ground finches that roam the park keep their distance from the three bald eagles that could shred them to bits if it were not for their injured and nonfunctional wings? Do they feel sorry for the captive animals? Are they jealous of the attention they get? Do they sit, like I do, and wonder how far the elephants have come and what wisdom they might share with us?
JESSE BARBER B’19 asks, “Have you seen the bird on the Main Green.”