Allegro Strepitoso, Carel Weight, 1932

by Vincent Barletta

Two summers ago, my family and I decided to spend an afternoon at Lisbon’s Jardim Zoológico. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that our eldest daughter made the decision to go and wouldn’t relent until we took her there. She was six years old at the time, and even then she possessed the seemingly limitless rogatory stamina and precocious mastery of the rhetorical device the Greeks called diacope that have made her a nearly unbeatable eight year-old. She wanted to see the cheetahs, and so for almost a week leading up to the visit, she assaulted us with that word and few others: “cheetahs, cheetahs, Daddy, cheetahs, please, cheetahs, cheetahs, Mommy, cheetahs, take me there, cheetahs, please. . . .” She took regular breaks to sleep, but even so, the effect was something like a thousand swallows crashing one by one into our living room window: mildly disturbing at first but inducing Hitchcockian trauma and shock by the end. So when we finally arrived, wholly defeated, at the zoo’s cheetah exhibit (which was predictably underwhelming to us but a legitimate marvel to our daughters), my wife and I took the opportunity to sit across from it, enjoying a few stolen minutes of adult quiet in the shade of the small trees that flank the okapi paddock.

We talked as we sat there, and we agreed that zoos are strange and depressing places to bring young children. This is no knock against Lisbon’s zoo; its designers at least had the dark comedic sense to place the crocodiles next to McDonald’s, and it seems to do its best with resources that can never match those that support famous zoos in cities like Berlin and Singapore. More dark comedy: an older Portuguese friend of mine, in a moment of passing melancholy, once sighed aloud to me that there were much better specimens (and a greater variety) of African animals in Lisbon’s zoo before 1974. I responded that he should perhaps break in at night and paint the lion exhibit pink, but he didn’t think this was funny. Or practical. These economic and post-imperial realities are certainly hard to ignore at Lisbon’s Jardim Zoológico (making of it a stunning microcosm), but then the zoo also has a cheetah exhibit that, on a beautiful June afternoon two years ago, distracted our daughters just long enough for my wife and I to sit together in the shade for a few minutes, holding hands and talking about the world’s many hypocrisies and horrors. As parents with small children know, this sort of time is a rare gift, and so it’s perhaps understandably difficult for me to criticize the Lisbon zoo in any sustained way.

The problem, in any case, isn’t with Lisbon’s zoo, but with zoos in general. As many activists say, they’re monuments to human greed and self-importance – to our willingness to take millions of hectares of wild animal habitat and convert them into ranches, oil fields, mines, and suburbs. This much is true, but then I’d argue that there’s nothing particularly useful about such a statement, which resembles, at least generically, the complaint that a particular sort of dictatorial regime is repressive. All dictatorial regimes are of course repressive by definition (though perhaps not equally), and similarly, monuments to human greed and self-importance are quite likely the only sort of monument that we can ever build. To build a monument of any other kind would compel us, it seems, not to build a monument at all. A monumental un-monument that passively speaks something far nobler than human action. Indeed, it’s in the absence of monuments – the monumental notes that we don’t play – that we show our greatest genius and highest potential as a species. The naked fact that we normally tear up trees and plants and destroy animal habitat to build our monuments (I like the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos well enough, but it always strikes me that a large grove of trees would have been infinitely more beautiful) strengthens this argument.

So no, I’m no great fan of monuments of any sort. But then what’s particularly galling about zoos isn’t that they index our unquenchable rapacity (once again, such indices are all around us); rather, it’s that they also try desperately hard to present us as somehow magnanimous and caring. They say: “Sure, we’ve nearly wiped these species off the map for no good reason, but we’re essentially good and compassionate; just look at the way we tend to these individual spider monkeys and rhinos.” There’s something inherently insane about our need to look ethical and even self-sacrificing while inflicting such serious global damage, and zoos are an effective symbolic tool in this process: come witness our earnest attempts to save the lowland gorilla and the great care that we give a particular family of gorillas, even as we (as a species) work diligently to wipe them (as a species) off the face of the planet. God, who I assume has no sense of humor about such things, has likely spent the last century wondering if he shouldn’t have given the planet to the lowland gorillas in the first place and simply smothered us in our phylogenetic crib.

All this existential hypocrisy aside, zoos also have a frightening stink to them. The smell of oblivion and ruin (and the piss and shit of inmates) is everywhere in a zoo, especially on warm summer afternoons when, for example, riverine breezes from the Tagus don’t quite make it up to Sete Rios. Strip a zoo of its gift shops and ice cream kiosks, and it’s little more than a soft prison camp for the endangered and defeated, a palliative antechamber to the hellish night of extinction. Death row, but with a gift shop for the kids. As an example, we might consider the handful of Iberian lynxes now on display at the Zoobotánico Jerez. There are now approximately 200 Iberian lynxes alive in the world, and in spite of serious conservation efforts in Andalusia (of which the zoo is an important component), it’s likely that the species will soon disappear altogether. A chilling and unsettling fact, and yet there they are, pacing around in an enclosed space for us to see and photograph, naked and mundane in their defeat, just across Calle Taxdirt (named for a successful Spanish cavalry charge in Northern Morocco) and less than a block away from a prominent school of Gestalt psychotherapy. The zoo advertises the lynx exhibit as a chance to be “face-to-face” with the most endangered feline on the planet, and yet one gets the strong sense that Emmanuel Levinas would shake his head in disbelief at such a statement. Can there be a face-to-face in such conditions? Can there be closeness with such an obviously exotic and sad spectacle, a feline Prometheus enrhythmed to the symbolic economy of human monuments? There’s little time to think about this: by the time our daughters grow to adulthood, there will likely be no Iberian lynxes (or wild polar bears) left in the world. And there very well may be no more cheetahs, either.

Images of Caspian tigers (Camões’s tigre hircana) in zoos from near the end of the nineteenth century provide a sobering window to the final days of an animal species. In one photo from the Berlin Zoo, a Caspian tiger stands next to the bars of his cage. The short, bulldog skull and white mane lead the stout body through its captive routine, thousands of miles from the Elburz mountains and the packs of wild boar that once foraged there for acorns: walk to one side of the cage, walk to another, look up, look down, sit, pant a little, scratch, wait to be fed. About fifty years after this photo (shocking in its banality) was taken, there would be no more Caspian tigers on earth. Victims of development, the Soviet army’s standing orders to shoot them on sight (no Cáucaso horrendo, fraco infante, / criado ao peito dalgũa tigre hircana), and their good sense not to procreate behind bars, these tigers fell back into the long, nameless night that preceded them.

Sitting in the shade next to the okapi exhibit, my wife and I took care to keep all of our grown-up talk about extinction and human recklessness far from our two daughters. They’ll know all of this soon enough, and like most parents, we try to take care not to place certain truths on their shoulders before they can safely bear the weight, or at least keep their mouths shut at school. Our eldest knows, for example, that babies come from a mysterious and abstract biological process that scientists refer to as “reproduction,” but so far we’ve left off describing any of its details. It’s a judgment call on our part, but questions of conception and extinction still seem to reside beyond the horizon of even our very strong-willed eldest daughter’s understanding – and, more to the point, we don’t want her friends’ parents to scold us because our daughter told their kids where babies come from (or that the San Francisco Zoo is at its core a chamber of horrors). Parenting is, in the end, an almost universal shame culture.

Back at the zoo two summers ago, our daughters were enjoying their close encounter with a cheetah that had made its way over to them, rubbing its spotted flank up against the plexiglass wall that separated it from them. Nervous giggles of pleasure, hushed silence, and cooing attempts to speak with the animal, to be the first little girl to break through all that fast-twitch carnivorous wildness and come to know the thoughts and fears of the world’s fastest animal. To be the first to scale the glass wall and sit down with the cheetah, to have the cat rest its tiny head (with its tinier, meat-driven brain) on her lap and sleep away the hot afternoon as people came from all over to take photographs of this post-humanist miracle. The newspapers would print an article on the little girl who talks to cheetahs, and the Prime Minister would drop his austerity plans for the day in order to meet her and wonder at her strange powers. Knowing our eldest daughter, she was also likely hatching an elaborate plan to adopt the cheetah and bring it back to California with us. She would make fashionable, sequined dresses for it, feed it pepperoni pizza and fish, and it would accompany her to school. It would sit obediently outside the classroom door while our daughter struggled with long division, and Daniela, the little girl who teases her and takes things from her lunchbox, would henceforth toe the line or be eaten. Hollywood would make a movie about the little girl and her pet cheetah, and our daughter would insist on playing herself, which she would do to rave reviews and many awards. All of this was fully worked out in her head even as she and her younger sister first leaned in toward the cheetah and began to offer it whispered promises and statements of unconditional love. The cheetah continued its daily routine, undisturbed and unmoved by the soft murmuring of little girls.

What struck me then also was the fact that my wife and I were similarly unworried by our daughters’ physical proximity to the cheetah. What came into focus at that moment was that whatever “closeness” might be, its thread is likely snapped by the presence of barriers such as the plexiglass that maintained the cheetah in its (much-reduced) world and our daughters in theirs. I imagined my daughters in some Zambian grassland (the mapa cor-de-rosa thus makes its return to our story), perhaps fifty meters from this same cheetah. Would my wife and I still be sitting down, enjoying the cool shade, unconcerned? Or would we scramble to protect our girls from the threatening, intolerable closeness of a meat-eater capable of closing that distance in less than three seconds? But how can a distance of fifty meters so dramatically remove us from our habitual economy while a distance of mere centimeters allows us to daydream and philosophize in the shade? The obvious answer is the glass barrier, a material manifestation of the guarantee that the Lisbon zoo gives us that we can enjoy a McRoyal Cheese and batatas fritas without being eaten by hungry crocodiles, or that our daughters might whisper in the ear of a cheetah without it being their last act on this earth. A fun and exotic experience, but perhaps the very opposite of closeness.

After a short while, our daughters grew bored of the cheetahs (as they do of nearly every diversion) and suggested that we move on to the lions, cape penguins, and white tigers, in any particular order. In the end, I suppose, it doesn’t matter which animals we decided to see, as all we were really choosing was our own autonomy and freedom to choose, in a kind of infinite loop of leisure, security, and privilege. Soon enough, dogs and cats will be the only non-human, uncaged animals left in the world. When this occurs, we’ll certainly be happy that we had the foresight to build zoos to help us perform the Christ-like miracle of transforming (just enough) our most unthinkable crimes into sweets for our children.

Piece originally published at Arcade | Creative Commons License