Kiskadee: Changing the Way We Understand Zoos

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By Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Welcome to Kiskadee, a yellow-breasted, black-masked, ruffling and squawking celebration of nonhuman vitalities. In this column, you’ll find true stories of nonhuman beings living extraordinary lives, defying human comprehension, and inspiring masterpieces.

A baby girl is kidnapped from her comfortable two-parent home by armed men, shipped across the world in a box, and, warped by Stockholm Syndrome, forced to live out her life in a cage. Other people, especially children, pay to stare at her for fun and edification. Nearly everyone she knows believes her fate to be a happy one. They believe that for this little girl and others like her—most of whom get to watch while their kidnappers shoot their parents—such a turn of events is a stroke of good fortune. 

What could possibly give these facts the appearance of a sane and happy story?

There’s a lot riding on stories. Stories can spawn and transmit ideologies: false beliefs which, though a moment’s thought would show them for the lies they are, go viral and grow so strong that entire practices are built on them. Some totally mistaken notion may be so deeply woven in the fabric of a culture that the wrong idea becomes the normal way of thinking which everyone takes for granted, even as a rationale for irrational behavior. All because of stories.

The baby was named Dinah. She was kidnapped in Gabon in 1913. Nobody knows what became of her parents, who, like Dinah, were gorillas. Dinah became an attraction at the New York Zoological Park, now the Bronx Zoo, where she died of malnutrition. In 2019, historian Tracy McDonald became the first to try to write Dinah’s story from a critical perspective. With a dozen academic colleagues, McDonald and Daniel Vandersommers collected stories of zoos and captives, calling out the false beliefs which make a limitless prison sentence appear to be a reasonable and natural way of life. They called their anthology Zoo Studies: A New Humanities.

Of all insidious anthropocentric stories, the most infectious is Noah’s ark. Randy Malamud says in his Zoo Studies chapter: 

“If we take the story of Noah as a template (as zoos very commonly do), the narrative implies that we are in a troubled time and the waters of destruction will rise, but they will recede soon afterwards, and then we can go back to business as usual. God shines his favor upon those who build these modern-day arks, so once we weather this ideological hiccup, we can return to our old ways and find ourselves back in the driver’s seat, oozing hubris, knowing incontrovertibly that we have and deserve dominion [‘over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, and over all the earth itself and every creature that crawls upon it’] just as promised in Genesis 1:26.”

Over time, Noah’s thinking became foundational. The myth that we humans are superior and therefore deserve to have our way with everything, that even our mere curiosity justifies the basest cruelty, is such an ancient force in Western culture that it’s rarely uttered, only assumed. Our species’ brimming over with divine favor is its tacit rationale for everything from factory farming to animal testing to nonhuman trafficking for entertainment. 

One way to think about it: the first zoo was God’s idea. By way of validation, what more could anyone wish for? 

The superiority complex, as if divinely sanctioned, remains the go-to model for how a self-appointed ruling power condescends to its not-just-nonhuman subjects. Marianna Szczygielska’s chapter in the volume shows how the Toronto Zoo publicizes giant pandas as “ideal immigrants.” Cute and quiet in their stereotypically Orientalist enclosures, reproducing only on demand, declining to contaminate North American society while functioning as docile diplomatic currencies and family-friendly displays of lucrative heterosexuality. Pandas serve as “living mascots of the Chinese-Canadian friendship,” unwitting players in “another narrative of harmonious multiculturalism, where the history of Canadian Sinophobia is being conveniently unremembered.” Szczygielska’s point is racism, xenophobia, and nonhuman trafficking are all grounded in the myth of North American superiority and share the same fake-inclusive cover-up.

Another Noah-inspired myth says in the present ecological emergency “animals in captivity are happier, healthier, and more comfortable, and ultimately better off”: a typical excuse, according to Zeb Tortorici’s chapter, for treating nonhumans as commodities. 

In Guro Flinterud’s chapter, the idea of captive animals as ambassadors of conservation—“the ideal messenger[s] for our core concerns, such as [the] protection of species”—is unmasked as another ark-like justification for “keeping animals in terrible conditions.” It’s about “education”: staring at nonhuman prisoners teaches people to love our slaves, inspiring visitors to want to “save” other animals even if the one in front of them is beyond help. McDonald quotes a zoo visitor who said if only Dinah understood that she was serving “the cause of science . . . she would have been a willing martyr.” If imprisoned animals had the sense to be happy, in other words, they would be.

The truth according to Zoo Studies is quite different. McDonald suggests that misery was at least partly to blame for Dinah’s death. Violette Pouillard’s chapter on Gust, a gorilla who died in Antwerp Zoo, tells of his descent into insanity. The longer he lived in captivity, the more time he spent throwing himself at the walls, pulling out his hair and eating it, chewing his cage — which gave him lead poisoning — and when he vomited (eight times a day) eating his own vomit off the floor. 

We cannot pretend not to have known incarceration causes insanity. We see it all the time in our own species. Matthew Senior’s chapter identifies several similarities between one of the earliest zoos, Louis XIV’s Ménagerie, and the Sun King’s Paris “hospital” where mentally ill humans were on display. So the relationship between zoo captivity and psychological degeneration has long been recognized. It’s just that prettier stories sweep it under the rug.

Zoo animals need different stories. They deserve to be known not according to stories of how farsighted and magnificent humans are as stewards of “our” planet, but according to their own stories. “Set aside your cultural training,” write Vandersommers and McDonald. “Forget The Zookeeper’s Wife, We Bought A Zoo . . . and forget the headlines.” Instead, if we can only listen past ourselves, “zoo animals can begin to tell us new stories.” 

How? For a writer, this is a pressing question: how can I, a human, help to articulate nonhumans’ stories?

First of all, says Pouillard, ignoring individuals’ biographies, their own experiences of their unique sensations and emotions, is a kind of “mute violence.” Unless humans stop reducing individual nonhumans to “representatives of their species and ‘reservoirs’ of genes as breeding tools,” conservation is doomed to be just another form of commodity-centered capitalism. 

My favorite parts of Zoo Studies are the stories of individuals refusing to behave as predictable mechanisms. McDonald says Dinah often did the exact opposite of what she was told. Vandersommers tells of the monkey who refused to be tricked into talking to a graphophone, of the birds who refused to be manipulated as flying-machine prototypes. John Kinder remembers the pythons, chimpanzees, and lions who stood firm in their “gastronomic resistance—their outright refusal to bend to the zoo’s dietary dictates.” Szczygielska and Pouillard tell of pandas and gorillas who, forced into relations with conspecific strangers, refused to produce even a single fuzzy baby of marketable cuteness. Instead of tales of model prisoners who submit serenely to their assigned roles as breeding machines or “messengers” of their captors’ agendas, I want stories of nonhuman resistance. 

And I want to help to tell them. The authors of Zoo Studies narrate resistance not by projecting their own voices onto captive animals but by critiquing documented facts in ways that unconceal both insidious human ideologies and individual nonhumans who refused to buy in. But as a novelist, my job is to think and feel beyond documented facts. How can a novelist tell nonhuman stories without anthropocentrism or anthropomorphism—without projecting her agendas onto other animals—but while continuing nonetheless to be a novelist, a writer who by definition plumbs her own depths for emotions and sensations which, though they are only hers, somehow converge with truths which are beyond her and even truer than she is? This is the task Zoo Studies sets me.

Bermudian author Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s award-winning books include the fiction chapbook Awabi (Digging, 2019); the nonfiction chapbook Artificial Wilderness (Selcouth, 2020); the essay collection Listen, we all bleed (New Rivers, 2021); and the internationally acclaimed novel Drafts of a Suicide Note (Regal House, 2019), which was a top finalist for American Book Fest’s Best Book Award for Fiction, an Eyelands Book Award finalist, a Permafrost Book Prize finalist, a Conium Review Book Prize semifinalist, and a PEN Open Book Award nominee. She is also the author of the collection Animals Across Discipline, Time and Space (McMaster Museum of Art, 2020). She holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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