Zooland

 

(This 1140th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 27, 2013.)

 

 

University at Buffalo law professor Irus Braverman has written an extremely important book about zoos. Her Zooland: The Institution of Captivity (Stanford) is a penetrating and insightful study of the business of zoos. It will serve as a basic reference and should be in the personal library of everyone interested in them.

 

Please remember what I said there as you read on, because much of what I will write now will be critical for this book does not represent zoos as I know them. In fairness to Braverman, I realize that my problem is not with what she presents but with what I wish she could have added.

 

It might be argued that Animal Rights (AR) positions are not well represented in Zooland. For example, Braverman conducted 68 interviews, only three of those with AR activists. But Ken Shapiro, clearly an AR representative, has written a generally positive blurb for the book endpages and the cover portrait of a forlorn caged ape certainly presents their point of view. However, I believe that the author was right when she said in her recent talk at Printed Pages Bookstore that criticism of her book from both zoo and AR advocates suggest that she has presented a balanced portrayal.

 

But that is not my problem with the book. Here I borrow two words from the AR people: companion animals. I generally consider these words a nonsensical substitute for pets, words used to salve the consciences of those pet-owners who support their organizations. But in zoos I believe that the words convey an important reality.

 

My problem with Zooland is that nowhere does it convey the love for animals that is evident in every zoo employee that I have ever known. From the assistant curator who has to clean up after them to the zoo veterinarian and zoo director, every one of these employees is deeply committed to these caged birds and beasts. And love is not too strong a word to use about their commitment.

 

The recent WNED program about zoos made this case clearly. It showed the deep sense of loss when a crippled penguin had to be put down and the special extra care given to the elephant Karishma who its keepers knew would have a difficult delivery.

 

I think that case could have been made here even better. Braverman quotes a gorilla keeper asking her son: "'If you were going to tell someone else about how incredible gorillas are, would you have them watch this movie or would you take them to the zoo?' Without hesitating, he said 'I'd take them to the zoo.' And I said, 'Why?' And he's seven, and he was like, 'when you're watching them on TV, you're seeing them through someone else's eyes, but when you're at the zoo, you're actually seeing them with your own eyes.'"

 

Braverman can argue that her book is not about employee attitudes; rather, her book is only about legal and administrative matters and zoo visitors. Tell that to Donna Fernandez or Jean Miller. As director and registrar of the Buffalo Zoo they probably spend 95% of their time on business, but mention any one of their hundreds of animals and their eyes light up and you have a different level of attention. This is a central ingredient of the culture of any zoo and it is not well conveyed in Zooland.

 

Another problem I had is the book's focus on what I consider insignificant details. Yes, the zoo is about conservation and education, but no matter what we say in response to questionnaires, we go to the zoo for entertainment, for the atmosphere, to get close to wild animals. Who cares what "wild" means in this context? Do we need five pages to qualify that word?

 

Braverman is careful to point out that she is not a zoologist. But this restriction also causes problems. She claims that animals don't watch those observing them. I consider this nonsense. Watch a lioness when a toddler stands alone before her cage. Her eyes will focus in like a laser contemplating that possible meal.

 

This is indeed an important, high-quality book. I only wish it conveyed more than its legalistic portrayal of zoos.-- Gerry Rising