By Estelle Tang

All Good Things Are Wild and Free: Considering the Zoo

There’s very little that’s surprising about a visit to the zoo. Many of us have been familiar with zoos since we were small. Even before you enter, you know you’ll probably see a lion, a tiger, koalas and some birds. The aesthetic experience is special and strange, yet predictable and safe: creatures we do not encounter in the everyday are here in abundance, behind bars or glass to protect them and us. The seals frolic and the lions roar. Young families laden with snacks, icypoles and prams cluster around exhibits, while couples stroll hand in hand, cooing at creatures.

In 2012 I had the opportunity to visit Melbourne Zoo weekly over a period of two months, as a Wheeler Centre writing fellow whose residency coincided with the zoo’s 150th birthday celebrations. I had no project but to wander the grounds, looking, thinking and talking to people. For the most part I love visiting the zoo. Melbourne Zoo is one of three zoos managed by the not-for-profit organisation Zoos Victoria. Melbourne Zoo is large and beautiful, situated in the dusty-green bowl of Royal Park in Melbourne’s inner north. Last year it welcomed more than a million visitors. If the large and growing visitor numbers are anything to go by, it seems that many Melburnians consider zoos pleasant, wonderful, sweet places to be. But in my time at Melbourne Zoo, one thing did surprise me: I couldn’t pin down my emotions about it, or force them to stay on one side of the fence. Even after months of zoo-going, I couldn’t figure out whether I approved of zoos or not.

It would be a feat of Olympian speed and logistics to see each of Melbourne Zoo’s 3000 animals during a single visit. Animals are arranged by virtue of their native surroundings—the Wild Sea, Great Flight Aviary and Australian Bush areas are labelled cheerfully on the map like suburbs. Sometimes they are arranged in loose groupings, like the ‘small cats’ corridor lined with snow leopards, servals and caracals. Sometimes the animals live next to each other in counterintuitive combinations: with its short snout and hairy, hose-like body, the calmly bathing Brazilian tapir seems an odd neighbour for the skittish North American peccaries, boar-like beasts that trail each other in a line. It’s then that the artificiality of zoos comes to the fore; how unusual an environment this is. We’re not in ‘nature’, but an animal version of Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World’ ride.

This kind of emotional dissonance – the combination of delight and aesthetic or even moral uncertainty – means that I often leave a zoo’s grounds feeling troubled, as if I had perpetrated some kind of harm. Is it okay to keep animals in cages? Why are we so drawn to exhibit and gaze upon them, consume them? Should we be able to keep animals suspended in a half-wild, half-tame state? Why does it feel so enlivening to see and be near these creatures? Do we even need zoos?

Others share this ambivalence towards zoos; some people I told about my fellowship immediately declared that they were opposed to them. The animal-rights organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) ‘opposes zoos because cages and cramped enclosures at zoos deprive animals of the opportunity to satisfy their most basic needs. The zoo community regards the animals it keeps as commodities, and animals are regularly bought, sold, borrowed, and traded … And some zoos still import animals from the wild.’

To clarify one’s feelings towards zoos, one must first know what a zoo does, or what a zoo is for. In his 1985 essay ‘Against Zoos’, philosopher Dale Jamieson suggests a ‘rough-and-ready’ definition of zoos: ‘public parks which display animals, primarily for the purposes of recreation or education’. This view was echoed by other theorists and writers: a common early construction of the purpose of zoos was to ‘entertain and instruct’.

But now that animal rights and conservation have spurred change in the motivations of zoos, each one has as its aim a combination of entertainment, conservation and education, and the importance of each of these varies in degree from zoo to zoo. The rhetoric of conservation has become a stronger thread in how some zoos represent themselves. In its 2011–12 annual report, Melbourne Zoo phrased its mission thus:

To galvanise communities to commit to the conservation of wildlife and wild places by connecting people and wildlife by:

Opening the door to exceptional wildlife encounters that reach beyond the boundaries of our properties

Leading the way by communicating and demonstrating the role of conservation and research in all we do

Catalysing action through inspiring experiences that motivate participation leading to conservation and sustainability outcomes.

The first thing one notices about these statements is how human-centric they are. It is an admission that animals cannot save themselves. Humans must first understand and accept their value, be inspired, then act to conserve them. While animal species are the ultimate beneficiaries of zoo activity in this model, it is people whom zoos must attract in order to fund programs and pass on conservation-related messages.

This is an extract from Estelle Tang’s Meanjin essay, ‘All good things are wild and free: Considering the zoo’. You can read the essay in full on the Meanjin website from Thursday 19 September, or in the the current issue of Meanjin.

Portrait of Estelle Tang

Estelle Tang

Previously, Estelle worked as a literary scout and a staff writer for Rookie, Tavi Gevinson's website for teenage girls. Her writing has been published in the Guardian, the Age, the Australian, Salon, Pitchfork, Monthly and several other publications. She has been online editor at Kill Your Darlings and a board member of the Small Press Network; a member of the programming advisory committee of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and the editorial advisory committee of the Paper Radio podcast.

Further reading

Working with Words: An interview with Estelle Tang on the writing life and other bookish things

Pitying the Monster: Abuse and Empathy in Fiction: A long-form review essay on paedophilia in fiction by Estelle Tang

Video: A Night at the Zoo (with Estelle Tang, Cate Kennedy, Sally Rippin and Judy Horacek)