Encounters in the performance of nature at the London Zoo


by Lena Kimming

The author and literature critic J.MCoetzee writes

“And indeed it is on creatures least able to bear confinement- creatures who conform least to Descartes’s picture of the soul as a pea imprisoned in a shell, to which further imprisonment is irrelevant-that we see the most devastating effects: in zoos, in laboratories, institutions where the flow of joy that comes from living not in or as a body but simply from being an embodied-being has no place “(1999, p. 34)

The above Coetzee quote is from a fiction novel where we get to read discussions on animal-human relations through a story of lecturer Elizabeth Costello and her adult son. When I recently visited the London Zoo I found myself arguing that if the animal does not have the cognitive ability to recognize his entrapment it is morally just for me to come see him at the zoo. I soon realised that my argument did not hold together. Both as many of the animals I encountered had high cognitive and memory skills. But also that my argument had a limping philosophical ground in terms of value of embodiment and life. I have therefore chosen to look closer at my encounters with the animals in the zoo and particularly in the London Zoo situated in Camden.

After I pay my entrance fee and get my picture taken by a staff at the gates my eye catches a vulture in the back of a cage. The cage has metal fencing to all sides also towards the sky. The inside has trees and grass terrain. I cannot help to reflect on the beauty of the patterns of the vultures wings. I stand amazed and think of how great it is that I get to see this. That this is available to me for a price of 19 pound (student price).  The lurking feeling that it is a guilty pleasure is calmed by the signs of care given from the zookeepers and the projects for helping endangered species and preserving animal rights that there is information and signs about around the grounds and in the information pack I just received at the entrance. This helps to stop the feeling that this must be horribly wrong. Holding back the questions on what life is like for these animals.

This got me into questioning what is it that I am practicing when I go to the zoo?

Architect and zoo director for 30 years David Hancocks who advocates better conditions for the animals in zoos writes that the first zoo known was in Ur in what is now southern Iraq” 4300 BC (2007, p.95). He also says that the zoo since then has been an obvious show of social rank as ownership of wild beast is a way of showing power. I wonder what that means for my zoo visit. I do not own the animals I see but I have bought my way into being able to view them up close and stand eye to eye with a tiger who is unable in this situation to choose to stand eye to eye with me. He is forced to.

Nicholas Ridout is an author that among other subjects writes on the implications when an animal takes place in a theatrical setting.  His main concern is not in the zoo but with encounters with the animal. Ridout says “Humans come into being not simply by knowing themselves to be different, but by making themselves different, through the practical and material revision of their relation with other animals” (2006, p. 114).

I am making the tiger into a natural object by looking at him in the zoo thus stealing his right to be a subject in a place where I preferably would not meet him eye to eye.  I am placing myself in a supposedly safe place behind a window screen, metal bar or other hidden domination and am practicing power.

I turn to Tim Ingold, social anthropologist, who argues that “The separation of humanity and nature implicit in the definition of domestication as a process of artificial selection reappears in a competing definition which emphasises its social rather than its biological aspect. “Domestication”, Ducos writes can be said to exist when living animals are integrated as objects into the socio economic organisation of the human group.  They become a sort of property which can be owned, inherited and exchanged. Property, however, is conceived here as a relation between persons (subjects) in respect of things (objects), or more generally, as a social appropriation of nature. Human beings, as social persons, can own: animals as natural objects, are only ownable” (2000, p. 64).  In the relation set up for me in the zoo the animal becomes an object for me to look at and the relationship with zookeepers and staff is also of the animal as object. Maybe not in their personal opinion but looking at the overall structure the animal as subject is not seen at a zoo.

Philosopher Derrida who has formed some of his philosophy around encounters with animals writes on an encounter in nudity with a cat, “ the impropriety that comes of finding oneself naked, one’s sex exposed, stark naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see. The impropriety [malséance] of a certain animal nude before the other animal, from that point on one might call it a kind of animalséance: the single, incomparable and original experience of the impropriety that would come from appearing in truth naked , in front of the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant”(2004, p.113). Derrida writes on the embarrassment he feels before the cat, which is not being naked- not having knowledge of its nudity. The encounter with domesticated cats at home or in the zoo triggers emotions, shame being one of them. Shame of nudity, shame of history. The tiger I meet in the zoo stands eye to eye to me but the structure of the zoo doesn’t fully allow him to look at me. I am the one doing the looking.

It is a rainy day in England so the Africa section in the north end of the park feels terribly misplaced. The African hunting dogs are nowhere to be seen as they will not come out of their house. The giraffes are also staying in their house but they are out of luck when it comes to privacy as we get to go in and look at them in their house. The giraffe’s house is the same house that was the home of the giraffes in the beginning of 1900s when the zoo was opened which gives it a romantic flair. The people with money and social rank (not everyone was admitted back then) used to go here and wonder on the animals. I realise that I am doing the same. No different, same house, different examples of human and giraffe specimen a hundred years later. I am also realising that even if no one is turned away at the zoo gates today it is a luxurious pleasure for the middle and upper class.

So what are we practicing then and now? Hancocks writes “By the twentieth century, modern zoos in the Western world regarded themselves as repositories of knowledge for the public good, like botanical gardens and libraries. They also claimed to be science –based educational institutions, and in the closing decades of the modern era began to position themselves as latter day Arks, saving endangered wildlife from extinction. A closer examination, however, reveals the paucity of these claims “(2007, p. 95).  The London Zoo is linked to The Institute of Zoology, The Institute of Zoology (IoZ) “is a world renowned research centre working at the cutting edge of conservation biology, specialising in scientific issues relevant to preserving animal species and their habitats” (quote taken from the Ioz website). I find out about the IoZ as I am researching for this essay and I am further questioning why I couldn’t get more of that research at the zoo. I was surprised at how little information was given during my visit. For instance the meeting with Raja that I will now share my memory of.

I stand in front of a giant lizard. It is as big as me. In front of it is a sign that says that it is not a lizard but a Dragon. I start to get images from fairy tales in my mind and I am wondering if there really are dragons that spit fire living somewhere. And, I wonder were this particular dragon usually resides when not in London. There is no post about any of my questions. Just a post about the name of this dragon in front of me.  His name is Raja. I pull up my smartphone and google the dragon and find out it probably lives in South East Asia. I start thinking that this dragon probably never lived in South East Asia. It is here for my visual pleasure and how it got here is not supposed to be important for the visitor so this information is not very available or visible. John Sorenson, a professor of sociology and animal rights defender, talks on how some animals in zoo like situations got to where they are,” These imprisoned individuals are beings who have been, in many cases, abducted from their families and societies through violence, subjected to various forms of abuse and deprivation as they have been transported over long distances and finally confined in severely restricted cages where they cannot escape the gaze of human spectator and often must perform on command to receive food”. Sorenson writes that “A visit to these animal prisons offers all the moral benefits of a trip to the freak show” (2008, p.201). In any way Raja got to where he is now behind dragon proof glass appearing to be looking back at me his destination doesn’t seem to give him very much or me. Sorenson writes “Marinelands website promotes a visit to the amusement park as a chance to experience a “unique thrill.” It may be the case that having dominion over animals, forcing them to behave in grotesque and unnatural ways in order to obtain food, actually does provide some people with a sense of singular excitement that cannot be obtained in other ways. However, it is worth asking whether this psychological state is one that should be cultivated, especially among children, who will be encouraged to believe that such an approach to the world is acceptable and healthy “(Sorenson, 2008, p. 199). The performance of nature as full of objects and rid of subjects apart from humans cannot in my view move us forward. The historian and author Jason Hribal writes “the zoo industry is full of such contradictions. It helps people learn about the importance of animals, but not what is vitally important to the animal itself… The industry encourages you to care about them, so that you and your children will return for a visit. But it does not want you to care so much that you might develop empathy and begin to question whether these animals actually want to be there”(Hribal, 2010, p. 152).

What is then this thought I have that if they are not aware of their imprisonment then it is ok. If they don’t have the cognitive or memory ability to know that they don’t want to be here then I can look at them. Derrida quotes the 18th century author, lawyer and philosopher Jeremy Bentham in his essay and phrases his argument “The first and decisive question will rather be to know whether animals can suffer “(2004, p. 121). He continues “With this question-“ can they suffer?” – we are not standing on the rock of indubitable certainty, the foundation of every assurance that one could, for example, look  for in the cogito, in Je pense donc je suis. But from another perspective we are here putting our trust in an instance that is just as radical, however different it may be, namely what is undeniable. “

It is clear and undeniable that animals including the human animal suffer.  I cannot be sure if Raja’s life would involve more suffering in South East Asia or in Camden but my gut is telling me Camden.

In the performance of nature that is offered at the zoo there have been shifts in architecture and organisation of exhibiting animals. Some early zoos in central London put many animals in the same room in small cages, lions on top of tigers. The architecture has then moved forward to create more naturalistic environments around the animal.  Both for the animals’ sake and for the viewers. The enhanced view is a positive for the viewer when bars are replaced by screens or water filled ditches and the illusions that the animal is at home in the environment helps us forget its modern cage. This influence can be seen in London zoo today.  In for example the gorilla exhibit we are invited to walk through Gorilla Kingdom. As I enter I am not sure if I will meet a gorilla. We walk through one of those plastic gates and it feels warmer even if we have walked through to an outside enclosure. I soon realise that there are birds and figures of gorillas but that the animals themselves are behind glass screens further along the way. The faint idea in my head that I would actually meet a gorilla was perhaps mostly from fantasy but the thrill of not being sure if I would meet a gorilla, being transported to a land where I could meet a gorilla works. I lose my sense of place for a while and it is not until I leave the gorilla exhibit that I realise we are still in Camden.

I notice that the animals’ behaviour is quite limited as they are mostly with their own species apart from some species that live jointly. Many of them are placed two and two and in some way confirm twoism that is the behaviour of the humans. I notice how I am anthropomorphising as Simone Forti words as “falling into a state of passive identification with the animals” (p.91).

I walk up to the red ruffed lemur. He has lost his partner who passed away recently so the keepers go in the cage and give him affection, closeness and grooming. As soon as the keeper enters the cage the lemur comes close and makes himself available to be picked up and cuddled. When he is picked up we see him really going in for the hug and affection. A very moving moment. It feels like he is trying to fill up with as much of that as possible before the keeper has to go away again.

The home of the red ruffed lemur is in one of the scariest houses in the zoo. It has concrete flooring and has ditches of concrete before the places where the pygmy hippos and camels stand. It is quite cold in there and immensely grey. Between these concrete stages are cages where the lemur and other smaller animals reside. Apparently our lemur gets to walk around the zoo and meet visitors at some points during the day. This lemur’s life scares me.

The choreographer Simone Forti is known for among other work her animal studies that she carried out in zoo and transformed into her own movement practice. She writes that “I (Simone) was trying to achieve a kind of concentration that I found in some of the animals in the zoo, and I later came to think of “Sleep Walkers” (title of work) as zoo mantras”(1974, p.91). Forti writes that “even ear to foot had a different relationship” (1974, p.91) in the encapsulated world the animals in a zoo live in than in their natural habitat where they served a part of the ecology.

I walk down to a basement and the room is dark and the activity is on-going.  I stop and reflect on the fact that the lights must be on in here during the night so that the animals sleep in electrical lights during the night and are more active in the day when it is made dark. During opening hours. The bats reminded me of a piece from Jeremy Deller’s exhibition Joy in People at The Hayward gallery spring 2012. Jeremy Deller is a British artist. In this work of his we got to see a shortfilm shot at a bat spot in California. We were given 3D glasses before entering the film so the bats were flying in front of our eyes appearing closer to us than the screen. I started wondering if this experience was different for me than the zoo experience. The bats were supposedly really there at the zoo and I was seeing some sort of live representation of them. There was a thick screen (window) between us and the bats at the zoo. The flight pattern of the bats is very quick and asymmetrical so the experience I had in this instance was different but not very different from the film. The film had been constructed. But this situation was also very constructed.  I had a strong feeling that the bats disappeared in front of my eyes.

Back in the rainy Africa section the zebras also stayed indoors mostly on this day but had what I chose to talk of as a dance. The below described sequence repeated itself the whole time I stood there (roughly 15 minutes).

I see the indoor designated zebra space. It is an empty room with concrete floor and clinkered walls. There are black bars and an empty space before a wooden rail between me and the room. It has some feeling of a lab or butcher. It is clinical, sparse and a bit scary in its emptiness and anticipation of what might come next.

One zebra enters from an opening right upstage tightly followed by another zebra. They walk up to front stage and partly look at me but also touch each other a few times either affectionate or a bit playfully harder. They turn around and face front again.

A third Zebra enter from upstage right and goes straight to the food compartments or saltstone that is placed to the left and start eating without acknowledging us or the other zebras. One of the previous zebras walk up and stand next to the last zebra to enter. The other zebra follows and walks from the front bars to stand next to the other zebras or behind. They all exit together to the right again. Once they exit there is a brief pause of maybe 20 seconds before the first zebra entered again. Were again I look at the empty room.

This repeated itself over and over.

It looked like a routine. A dance. Quite a depressing dance. Something that looped and looped forever on a rainy day when the outdoor was not so inviting. Hediger writes on space “It is quite untrue to assert that there are no traditions in the animal kingdom. There is very definitely an extremely strong tradition in space patterns, as is shown by the age-old salt licks, those places exceptionally rich in minerals that are constantly visited by animals to satisfy their salt hunger”(1955, p. 19). This tradition, routine and dance were not of the same kind of the ones Hediger writes on. The dance I witnessed was of a different nature. Space patterns looping and repetitive patterns are unfortunately common in zoos where the space patterns are severely limited.

When I left the zebra room I saw them through the outdoor part standing in the wings just before the entrance in the above loop. With their striped behinds turned towards me performing the dance for the next people who came in or for the empty white walls surrounding them.

Ridout writes while talking about a theatre play where a mouse entered the stage during a performance that “by stepping onstage even the mouse in The Caretaker is matrixed in such a way as to have intention readily imputed on it. The stage alone seem to be matrix enough to generate this uncanny effect.  If this is the case then no animal can ever take the stage without producing the illusion of intention” (2006, p. 102). I wonder if the intention really is an illusion.

Heini Hediger was a zoologist and animal psychologist. He wrote that in animal psychology Morgan’s law became the universal canon in the second half of 19th century. “This law states that an animal’s actions must never be considered as a higher psychical performance, but must always be ascribed where possible to simpler elementary causes “(Hediger, 1955, p. 13). The words reflex or intuition are commonly used as explanations to why an animal behaves in a certain way. The canon created by this law lead to the view of animals possibly as subjects but with a very low status.

Hribal writes on trials being held with animals in the Middle Age, where animals were sometimes also dressed up in human clothes in the courtroom and judged by the law “..The qualities and rights the so called medieval mind ascribed to the defendants: rationality, premediation, free will, moral agency, calculation and motivation. In other words, it was presumed that animals acted with intention, that they could be driven by greed, jealousy and revenge” (2010, p. 7). This is very different from how we view animals today in the court room. Hribal asks “How did animals come to be viewed as mindless commodities? The great Cartesian disconnect not only cleaved mind from body but also severed humans from the natural world” (2010, p. 9).

What happens to the animals when confined to the logic of the zoo. Author and art critic John Berger writes in Why look at animals: “ Lastly, their dependence and isolation have so conditioned their responses that they treat every event which takes place around them –  usually it is in front of them, where the public is- as marginal( Hence their assumption of an otherwise exclusively human attitude –  indifference)” (2009, p.35).

When will the zoo not be necessary as entertainment, education or science? What could supplement the zoo so that the animals can be as subject in their own right?

Ridout writes “the animals are always with us, there is nothing strange about them. Except the strangeness we impose upon them in order not to see them looking back, in order not to experience, as affect, the shame of our violent shared history”(2006, p. 127).

Hribal shares with us the story of the female sea lion Lily who escaped from a zoo in early 1900s. “Where once Lily could play in the sand, explore kelp beds, and swim along a sea of fish she now resides in a lifeless, sterile environment. She experienced extreme sensory deprivation” (2010, p. 126). He continues to write on the level of chlorine in the water that affects the sea lions eyes and the lack of shade in the pool making the suns reflection unbearable. Lily escaped to a river and swam away 1910. Unfortunately looking at the pools of today there is not much shade offered. As Hribal writes “visitors prefer it that way” (2010, p. 126) – visitors want to see the animals they have paid to see preferably all the time. Can an institution like a zoo exist if the animal’s needs and rights are put first?  There are other examples of animals not performing or showing resistance as with bottlenose dolphin Lucky “With the stands full of paying audience, he (Lucky) would just stop in the middle of a show and float about lazily. And the other dolphins would follow suit (Hribal, 2010,  p. 134). I read it as an attempt to make themselves subjects in an objectifying constructed world.

The American artist Bonnie Sherk made a piece in a zoo in 1971 that she speaks of in interview “The first major piece that I did with food was Public Lunch at feeding time in the San Francisco Zoo. I ate in the lion house while the other animals ate in their cages. It was a piece that was concerned with different kind of equalities, because I was served in the same manner as the lions and tigers, except that they had raw meat and I had the human version.  It was about analogies and being an object on view.”(Montano, 2000, p. 211). This is one example of an artist working within the zoo to make a point.

Back to Derrida who we encountered earlier. He writes “ The animal in general, what is it? What does that mean? Who is it? To what does that “it” correspond? To whom? Who responds to whom? Who responds in and to the common, general and singular name of what they thus blithely call the “animal”? Who is it that responds? The reference made by this what or who regarding me in the name of the animal, what is said in the name of the animal when one appeals in the name of the animal, that is what needs to be exposed in all its nudity” (2004, p.128).

To get back to the philosophical query I began this essay with on my right to go the zoo and enjoy the visual pleasures as long as the animals weren’t aware. The questions regarding value of embodied beings and our relationship to the world. I would like to end with a quote from Ralph Acampora, environmental philosopher, stressing the felt sense of a human-animal relationship.

“Now, typically, those ethicists who champion compassion tend to assume or stress a mentalistic account of empathetic concern (via projective imagination, for example). Diverging from this sort of moral psychology, I have contended that (especially cross species) moral life is primarly rooted- as a matter of phenomenological fact- in corporeal symphysis rather than entirely mental manoeuvres in the direction of symphaty. As I have used it symphysis is meant to designate the felt sense of sharing with somebody else a live nexus as experienced in a somatic setting of direct or systemic (inter)relationship” (Acampora, 2007, p. 148)

As I leave the zoo grounds I am shown the picture taken on me when I entered. I see myself photoshopped in front of a background that looks like a safari landscape. There is leopard inspired pattern on the paper frame. This could be mine for under £15. I decide not to buy this piece of memorabilia.  I do not need a proof that I have been in relation to these animals in their imprisonment. It is already inside me. I especially do not need one that does not address any of the questions I encountered when visiting the zoo but instead reframes it as an exception from the world we encounter every day. The zoo pulls us further away from the animals we meet every day and places us at a viewing point to the felt world.


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