Search This Blog

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Palaces of Pachyderms

Like virtually all the great German zoos, the Berlin Zoo was almost completely destroyed by the bombing raids of World War II.  The zoo that stands in its place bears little resemblance to the one that stood their originally.  Among the many grandiose structures lost to the war was the Elephant House.  Built to resemble a massive Hindu temple, magnificently carved and lavishly decorated, it managed to do the seemingly impossible - it dwarfed the elephants that dwelt there.

A zoo or aquarium display is a wonderful opportunity to teach visitors about the role that a species plays in a culture.  In some cases, however, the culture becomes the exhibit.  Through much of the history of menageries and zoos, it was customary for captive wildlife to be displayed in buildings that were evocative of the lands from which they came from - Chinese pagodas for East Asian species, tribal huts for African ones, mosques for Middle Eastern species.  

The reasoning behind this system of display was two-fold.  For one thing, today zoos try to design their enclosures to mimic the nature habitat of their occupants.  Back then there was very little knowledge about how these animals lived in the wild, which left collection planners with little to go on.  Secondly, the early era of the modern zoo coincided with the age of imperialism.  Building habitats that invoked the foreign "East," the mysterious, colonized worlds of Africa and Asia, played into the Orientalist fantasies of the time.

In hindsight, it should have been obvious that these exhibits have the potential to be rather offensive.  Imagine how Muslim zoogoers would feel watching a camel defecate in a cheaply replicated mosque?  Or how African-American visitors would feel watching a troop of baboons running around a stimulated  stereotype of an African village?  With that in mind, it's just as well that we are leaving such exhibitions behind.

There are some exceptions, of course.  Perhaps the most common examples are temple ruins - at least half of the jaguar exhibits I've ever seen have featured the cats sprawling across the ruins of a Mayan temple.  About a third of the tiger exhibits I've seen likewise feature Asian temple ruins.  Perhaps because the cultures and religions they depict are no longer active and there is less risk of giving offense.  I've also seen a few examples of animals displayed in buildings taken from Euro-American culture; fur trapper cabins seem to be especially popular for northern animals such as wolverines and grey wolves.  That being said, "fur trapper" is an occupation, not a culture or religion.  Try displaying animals in say, a replica of the Sistine Chapel, and see how well that goes over.

Cultural sensitivity is important, but that's not the only good reason to move away from this style of zoo exhibit.  Asian elephants may live in a wide variety of habitats, but Hindu temples are not one of them.  There is no water feature in a Hindu temple, no trees, no dirt - beautiful architecture and murals, but nothing natural for an elephant.  Such a habitat is no habitat - just a pretty box to display one of nature's gems in. 

No comments:

Post a Comment