“In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Noah’s Ark was the first ordered assembly of animals and man. The assembly now is over.”
--John Berger, “Why Look at Animals?”
I recently visited the Minnesota Zoo on book tour for Zoologies and had the pleasure of seeing their African penguins at play with human children. These penguins are native to the coast of South Africa where they hunt squid and sardines in cold waters that well up from Antarctica. But 80% of their population has disappeared in the last fifty years. The usual suspects: oil spills, habitat loss, diminishing fish in the sea because of changing climate. So here they are on display in an icy tableaux with a glass wall that extends down to ground level, the water just about deep enough for a six-year old human to stand head to toe with it. But the kids aren’t standing. They are running from one end of the wall to the other, darting, bobbing, popping up, squatting down, and on the other side of the glass penguins are racing eye to eye with them, arcing up and down, spinning back and forth, never missing an improvised change. Everyone is having a blast. These are not dulled out zoo captives. Well, captive, they are. But much has transpired in zoo culture in recent decades to provide enrichment for animals—bowling balls for elephants to play with, trout for bears to catch from their very own flowing streams, and companion dogs for cheetahs. In Minnesota children are enrichment for penguins. What excites me is that the looking goes in both directions, both species magnetized by the other.
In John Berger’s 1977 essay “Why Look at Animals?” (a chapter in his superb 1980 collection About Looking) it is one-sided looking that renders the zoo experience so disappointing. Adults take children to the zoo to observe and study the animal. To touch some archaic wildness that the animals arouse in us. But the animals are sleeping or pacing or, Berger writes, “their dependence and isolation have so conditioned their responses that they treat any event which takes place around them—usually it is in front of them, where the public is—as marginal.”
Perhaps no one knows the diminishment of the animal better than their keepers who witness the dulling of animal energies under the force of their artificial habitats. Hence the zeal of zoo people to improve the lot of their captives with enrichment strategies. Yes, Berger is still right that animals in zoos “constitute a living monument to their own disappearance.” The zoo today is less the representation of colonizing impulses over nature than it is a rehab facility for the victims of colonization. The new role of the best zoos is to protect the genetic viability of threatened and endangered species through Species Survival Plans. Researchers at the Minnesota Zoo have helped through captive breeding to reintroduce the magnificent trumpeter swan into the wild in that region, and they’re working to help a tiny butterfly named the Dakota skipper to adapt to climate change.
Where Berger most gets my admiration is in his yoking the history of our treatment of animals to the capacity for totalitarianism and varied expressions of “enforced marginalization—ghettos, shanty towns, prisons, madhouse, concentration camps.” He speaks of the “disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with the animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant.” The culture of capitalism has been rolling like a bulldozer over these people for centuries and so it continues. He speaks of (well, he doesn’t say this, but he leads me to do so) the exiling of the animals as a first straw on the camel’s back that leads to totalitarianism.
Berger is a Marxist, an art critic, novelist, painter and poet. He left England decades ago to live in the French Alps, where he has documented the lives of migrant workers and farmers living in small villages and their displacement into urban poverty. The documentation has been in the form of riveting novels, sparsely drawn essays of anecdotal observation, and eloquent essays of persuasive thinking. He is one of those writers a person falls in love with because to be in the company of his mind is a kind of erotic joy. When Berger won the Booker Prize in 1972 he gave half the money the Black Panther Party in England and kept the other half to fund his research on migrant workers.
Stories like these have a lineage: they were told by John Clare in 18th century England as the peasants were driven from their ancestral lands and by the populist poet known as Patativa in 20th century Brazil as they too suffered this fate. Maybe Gilgamesh is a way station in this tradition as it renders into the song the psychic wound of the separation of the human and animal worlds. When the Wildman can no longer drink with the animals, when they flee from him, he knows he is lost and his new work is to seek a destiny.
Genesis tries to get at this schism in the story of Noah, though you’d never know it from Darren Aronofsky’s ridiculous video game version of the tale. If ever in history or legend there was a man who stood to understand the importance of animals to the material and spiritual well-being of people, not to mention to ecosystems, it was Noah. Alas, poor Noah rendered as warrior by Russell Crowe can’t hear the word of God without taking hallucinogens and even then his only real occupation is ceaseless battle with himself and others. You’d think spending centuries on a ship loaded with all the animals in the world—and doing so at the command of the force he perceived to be the most powerful in the universe—would lead a man toward either empathy or science. What a laboratory the ark would have been! What a call to stewardship and the need to learn what each creature needed to survive. But, no, the animals are knocked out with magical vapors as soon as they board the ship and they are not heard from or noticed again. And Noah hates humanity so much he wants to kill the new-born child who represents a possible future for humanity. The real story remains to be told. Exeunt.
ALISON DEMING's most recent book is Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. She is Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada.