University at Buffalo law professor Irus Braverman has written a very important book about zoos. Her “Zooland: The Institution of Captivity” 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 zoos.
Please remember what I said there, because much of what I write here will be critical. In fairness to Braverman, I realize that my problem is not with what she presented, but with what I wish she could have added.
It might be argued that animal rights positions are not well-represented in “Zooland.” For example, Braverman conducted 68 interviews, only three of those with activists. But Ken Shapiro, clearly an animal rights representative, has written a generally positive blurb for the book end pages, and the cover portrait of a forlorn caged ape certainly presents their point of view. However, I believe the author was right when she said in her recent talk at Printed Pages Bookstore that criticism of her book from both zoo and animal rights advocates suggests she has presented a balanced portrayal.
But that is not my problem with the book. Here I borrow two words from the activists: companion animals. I generally consider these words a nonsensical substitute for pets. 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 I have ever known. From the assistant curator to the zoo veterinarian to the 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 clearly made this case. 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, whom 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 7, 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, but rather about legal and administrative matters and zoo visitors. Tell that to Buffalo Zoo President Donna Fernandes or Registrar Jean Miller. They spend much 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 and to get close to wild animals.