14 August 2007

Put Me in the Zoo

Ah, the zoo. Fascinating children and adults alike with displays of exotic, dangerous, elusive, and rare animals. How many of us are ever going to see a baboon in the wild, after all?

Zoos have changed a lot in recent decades, with critters moving from concrete bunkers and iron-barred cages to more realistic and natural settings amid trees, rocks, and flowing water. As a child, I read the book "Put Me in the Zoo," and wondered why Spot the independent, mischievous leopard would want to be in a zoo. Now, with wild habitat shrinking and zoos improving, it kind of makes sense.

Still, zoos still face controversy, as two recent stories point out. In Seattle, the Woodland Park Zoo faces objections to the guides used in its Masai Journey exhibit. Because, well, they're actual Masai. It's a little hard to understand the complaints, however, since the four men from Kenya and Tanzania have been hired not to act out tribal stereotypes dressed in primitive garb, but to explain Masai life and culture to visitors, while dressed in Western street clothes.

Part of the objection seems to be that it's wrong and degrading to learn about human cultures at a zoo. But of course, humans are animals as much as the captive critters. And zoos teach us much about human culture -- in the way the animals on display are selected, treated, described, and housed. The best zoos I've visited include signs that describe the habitat of animals and often how they interact with other animals and people. No matter how good the sign is, however, such information is much more alive when delivered by a person with experience, like these Masai guides. I'm actually heartened by this development, and hope to see more such educational programs. [read the Seattle Times story]

Another zoo story is far more disturbing. Apparently during the 2007 Festival of Pan-African Music (Fespam) in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, organizers decided it would be appropriate to house a group of pygmies from the rain forest not in hotels with the rest of the guests, but in the Brazzaville Zoo. Even had the visitors asked for such accommodations (which they apparently had not), I doubt they would have requested their tent be pitched in a public place where they would become camera-fodder for zoo visitors. Oh, and the festival's theme was "Emancipation Music and Liberation Movements in Africa and the Diaspora." So much for emancipation and liberation. [read the World Music Central story]

Zoos tread a fine line between exploitation and education on the best of days. Bringing humans into the equation is equally fraught with peril. Seattle shows how to do it right; Brazzaville needs to rethink its concept of hospitality.

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