Viewing the World Through the American Zoo

Viewing the World Through the American Zoo Upon visiting the official webpage of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, one is introduced to this North American institutional network through a series of numbers: 230 accredited zoos and aquariums across forty-five states, accommodating approximately 800,000 animals, 6,000 species out of which about 1,000 are endangered, providing 208,000 jobs, and with an annual budget of $218 million for wildlife conservation.1 With over 196 million visits a year American zoos remain one the most popular leisure-oriented destinations. How did zoos become such powerful sites for encounters with wild nature for urban publics? Where did these exotic species on display come from? Who and why gets to work in the zoo? What is the role of these animal collections in wildlife conservation, especially in the face of alarming losses in biodiversity brought by the sixth mass extinction? Daniel E. Bender’s latest book not only answers all of these questions by setting the issues of animal trade, labor conditions in the zoo, as well as its changing mission and development against a vivid historical background, but also complicates well-trodden paths in zoo scholarship. Zoos have been researched from a variety of perspectives, including cultural, literary, philosophical, science and technology studies, and historical ones. 2 However, retelling the stories of these multi-dimensional sites, their inhabitants, workers, and visionaries without repeating official historiographies, ones geared towards “recuperative remembrance” of these highly contested public institutions, still poses a challenge for critical scholars. Bender is aware of these pitfalls and manages to bypass the politics of “closed doors” that many zoo archives practice, by carefully tracing other sources such as personal correspondence between zoo directors, animal collectors, and zookeepers; memoirs, fiction stories, scientific publications, and guides they authored; visitors’ notes, and paraphernalia (374–5). This rich material allows him to unravel the hidden histories of animal business with great depth and precision. Bender skillfully balances both human and animal biographies in his detailed account of the twentieth-century history of collecting, displaying, and caring for wild animals in American zoos.3 Apart from the usually recounted names of influential animal traders like Carl Hagenbeck, or visionary directors like William T. Hornaday, the author follows an array of unorthodox actors contributing to the changing mission of the zoo amidst the turmoil of two world wars, the Great Depression, and decolonization. From nonhuman and human celebrities, adventurers, and trappers, to clerks, zookeepers, and middlemen in the colonies, the book presents many underexplored aspects of wildlife conservation such as workers’ strikes and unionization, rivalry between zoos, circuses, adventure films, and wildlife television shows. The Animal Game offers a fresh insight into how exotic animals made their way to American zoos, homes, and the silver screen, and more importantly, into “how we have learned to look at faraway places, environments, and peoples through the lens of animals on display at zoos and for sale in the animal business” (4). The strongest side of The Animal Game is its finely crafted analysis of the interlocked workings of gender, race, and class made tangible through the eclectic stories that introduce each chapter. In Bender’s account, “zoos were born of elite dreams of natural order; their life was one of disorder because of what the animal trade could offer, what visitors desired, and how animals behaved” (20). This tension between the social order imagined through “tidy taxonomy” and the disorder of animal and human resistance is sustained throughout the book, and allows for exploring various power relations at play in the zoo, on the safari, and on the colonial market (24). Starting with class, Bender contrasts the glamorous life of the fin-de-siècle animal collectors browsing animal markets in Asian and African port cities, sipping cocktails in luxurious lounges, and navigating colonial bureaucracy, with the rough working conditions of the local trappers, hunters, and porters who “labored for fresh meat but were expected, ultimately, to keep animals alive,” all while the imperial rule restricted native hunting (73). This paradox along with the introduction of piecework pay adapted from American factories led to strikes and rebellions. The theme of labor rights comes back in chapters four and six, recounting respectively, the federal programs aimed at modernizing the zoos after the Great Depression (116), and the wave of strikes in the U.S. public sector after the New Deal era, including zookeepers demanding better work conditions (177). According to Bender, “the campaign to save the zoo became a mass social movement,” and more importantly, was modeled on union campaigns (120). This unique account of union activism in American zoos and the successive shift from blue-collar unskilled keepers to professionalized white-collar technicians is narrated along the transforming public mission of the zoo, putting more emphasis on care for endangered species. This shift was partially induced by the way “the union and the zoo jostled to claim the mantle of animal care” (193). The principle of motherly care re-animating zookeeping labor and institutional management is a gendered one. As the military-style zoo guards gave way to keepers encouraged to interact with visitors, more women applied for jobs in this previously male-dominated profession. The codes of masculinity are exemplified in the book by such figures like Frank Buck, the famous animal collector, who directed his career towards showmanship, “turning the animal business into a popular culture industry” (95). However, this manly hero of the jungle brawls, in his signature pith helmet and khaki suit, is contrasted with tender “zoo ladies.” By portraying two female figures, Genevieve Cuprys, the famous animal trader known as “Jungle Jenny,” and Belle Benchley, the first woman zoo director in the United States, Bender shows how “domesticity, love, and family reshaped animal business” (242). The author underscores the successive investment in family-oriented leisure and ideals of domesticity materialized in animal families on display as key for the postwar zoo. The spectacle of white women (often directors’ wives, or female employees) raising orphaned or rejected animal babies in their homes, not only domesticated conservation, but also marked the turn towards breeding captive populations after the introduction of international treaties curbing wildlife trade (240). However, the image of white women cuddling ape babies is teeming with racial tension, as “the family became a dominant metaphor for a new understanding of racial difference among peoples at a time when strict conceptions of racial hierarchy were tainted with Nazism” (247). In chapter five, Bender explores the unsettling likeness of apes to humans that easily slips into racism, especially in popular zoo shows featuring monkeys and chimpanzees performing “civilized” tasks. These performances “encouraged visitors to measure the differences of savagery and civilization separating white, black, and ape,” and according to the author, were another form of blackface and minstrelsy (145, 149). Racial relations are well examined throughout the book, from the white collectors who depended on African and Asian hunters and handlers while portraying them as loyal and docile assistants, to the casting of indigenous populations as exotic specimens or as poachers decimating the shrinking wildlife resources at the twilights of the colonial empires. Along the “shift from colonial business to postcolonial diplomacy,” the zoo reinvented itself as the ambassador of wildlife conservation by transforming endangered species into a new currency (227). Bender convincingly presents the global dimension of the animal trade largely shaped by the rise and fall of colonial empires. The Animal Game is a brilliantly written study that explores many neglected aspects of the modern zoo. This original book will be an engaging read for environmental historians, scholars interested in colonialism, decolonization, and the twentieth-century United States, as well as for wider audiences. Footnotes 1 “Association of Zoos & Aquariums,” accessed November 30, 2017, https://www.aza.org/. 2 Lisa Uddin, Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (Minneapolis, MN, 2015); Randy Malamud, Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (New York, 1998); Ralph R. Acampora, ed., Metamorphoses of the Zoo: Animal Encounter after Noah (New York, 2010); Keekok Lee, Zoos: A Philosophical Tour (New York, 2005); Carrie Friese, Cloning Wild Life: Zoos, Captivity, and the Future of Endangered Animals (New York, 2013); Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA, 1987); Elizabeth Hanson, Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos (Princeton, NJ, 2002); Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (London, 2004); Nigel Rothfels, Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo (Baltimore, MD, 2008). 3 Eric Baratay, Biographies animales. Des vies retrouvées (Paris, 2017). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Diplomatic History Oxford University Press

Viewing the World Through the American Zoo

Diplomatic History , Volume 42 (4) – Sep 1, 2018

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Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
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0145-2096
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10.1093/dh/dhy023
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Abstract

Upon visiting the official webpage of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, one is introduced to this North American institutional network through a series of numbers: 230 accredited zoos and aquariums across forty-five states, accommodating approximately 800,000 animals, 6,000 species out of which about 1,000 are endangered, providing 208,000 jobs, and with an annual budget of $218 million for wildlife conservation.1 With over 196 million visits a year American zoos remain one the most popular leisure-oriented destinations. How did zoos become such powerful sites for encounters with wild nature for urban publics? Where did these exotic species on display come from? Who and why gets to work in the zoo? What is the role of these animal collections in wildlife conservation, especially in the face of alarming losses in biodiversity brought by the sixth mass extinction? Daniel E. Bender’s latest book not only answers all of these questions by setting the issues of animal trade, labor conditions in the zoo, as well as its changing mission and development against a vivid historical background, but also complicates well-trodden paths in zoo scholarship. Zoos have been researched from a variety of perspectives, including cultural, literary, philosophical, science and technology studies, and historical ones. 2 However, retelling the stories of these multi-dimensional sites, their inhabitants, workers, and visionaries without repeating official historiographies, ones geared towards “recuperative remembrance” of these highly contested public institutions, still poses a challenge for critical scholars. Bender is aware of these pitfalls and manages to bypass the politics of “closed doors” that many zoo archives practice, by carefully tracing other sources such as personal correspondence between zoo directors, animal collectors, and zookeepers; memoirs, fiction stories, scientific publications, and guides they authored; visitors’ notes, and paraphernalia (374–5). This rich material allows him to unravel the hidden histories of animal business with great depth and precision. Bender skillfully balances both human and animal biographies in his detailed account of the twentieth-century history of collecting, displaying, and caring for wild animals in American zoos.3 Apart from the usually recounted names of influential animal traders like Carl Hagenbeck, or visionary directors like William T. Hornaday, the author follows an array of unorthodox actors contributing to the changing mission of the zoo amidst the turmoil of two world wars, the Great Depression, and decolonization. From nonhuman and human celebrities, adventurers, and trappers, to clerks, zookeepers, and middlemen in the colonies, the book presents many underexplored aspects of wildlife conservation such as workers’ strikes and unionization, rivalry between zoos, circuses, adventure films, and wildlife television shows. The Animal Game offers a fresh insight into how exotic animals made their way to American zoos, homes, and the silver screen, and more importantly, into “how we have learned to look at faraway places, environments, and peoples through the lens of animals on display at zoos and for sale in the animal business” (4). The strongest side of The Animal Game is its finely crafted analysis of the interlocked workings of gender, race, and class made tangible through the eclectic stories that introduce each chapter. In Bender’s account, “zoos were born of elite dreams of natural order; their life was one of disorder because of what the animal trade could offer, what visitors desired, and how animals behaved” (20). This tension between the social order imagined through “tidy taxonomy” and the disorder of animal and human resistance is sustained throughout the book, and allows for exploring various power relations at play in the zoo, on the safari, and on the colonial market (24). Starting with class, Bender contrasts the glamorous life of the fin-de-siècle animal collectors browsing animal markets in Asian and African port cities, sipping cocktails in luxurious lounges, and navigating colonial bureaucracy, with the rough working conditions of the local trappers, hunters, and porters who “labored for fresh meat but were expected, ultimately, to keep animals alive,” all while the imperial rule restricted native hunting (73). This paradox along with the introduction of piecework pay adapted from American factories led to strikes and rebellions. The theme of labor rights comes back in chapters four and six, recounting respectively, the federal programs aimed at modernizing the zoos after the Great Depression (116), and the wave of strikes in the U.S. public sector after the New Deal era, including zookeepers demanding better work conditions (177). According to Bender, “the campaign to save the zoo became a mass social movement,” and more importantly, was modeled on union campaigns (120). This unique account of union activism in American zoos and the successive shift from blue-collar unskilled keepers to professionalized white-collar technicians is narrated along the transforming public mission of the zoo, putting more emphasis on care for endangered species. This shift was partially induced by the way “the union and the zoo jostled to claim the mantle of animal care” (193). The principle of motherly care re-animating zookeeping labor and institutional management is a gendered one. As the military-style zoo guards gave way to keepers encouraged to interact with visitors, more women applied for jobs in this previously male-dominated profession. The codes of masculinity are exemplified in the book by such figures like Frank Buck, the famous animal collector, who directed his career towards showmanship, “turning the animal business into a popular culture industry” (95). However, this manly hero of the jungle brawls, in his signature pith helmet and khaki suit, is contrasted with tender “zoo ladies.” By portraying two female figures, Genevieve Cuprys, the famous animal trader known as “Jungle Jenny,” and Belle Benchley, the first woman zoo director in the United States, Bender shows how “domesticity, love, and family reshaped animal business” (242). The author underscores the successive investment in family-oriented leisure and ideals of domesticity materialized in animal families on display as key for the postwar zoo. The spectacle of white women (often directors’ wives, or female employees) raising orphaned or rejected animal babies in their homes, not only domesticated conservation, but also marked the turn towards breeding captive populations after the introduction of international treaties curbing wildlife trade (240). However, the image of white women cuddling ape babies is teeming with racial tension, as “the family became a dominant metaphor for a new understanding of racial difference among peoples at a time when strict conceptions of racial hierarchy were tainted with Nazism” (247). In chapter five, Bender explores the unsettling likeness of apes to humans that easily slips into racism, especially in popular zoo shows featuring monkeys and chimpanzees performing “civilized” tasks. These performances “encouraged visitors to measure the differences of savagery and civilization separating white, black, and ape,” and according to the author, were another form of blackface and minstrelsy (145, 149). Racial relations are well examined throughout the book, from the white collectors who depended on African and Asian hunters and handlers while portraying them as loyal and docile assistants, to the casting of indigenous populations as exotic specimens or as poachers decimating the shrinking wildlife resources at the twilights of the colonial empires. Along the “shift from colonial business to postcolonial diplomacy,” the zoo reinvented itself as the ambassador of wildlife conservation by transforming endangered species into a new currency (227). Bender convincingly presents the global dimension of the animal trade largely shaped by the rise and fall of colonial empires. The Animal Game is a brilliantly written study that explores many neglected aspects of the modern zoo. This original book will be an engaging read for environmental historians, scholars interested in colonialism, decolonization, and the twentieth-century United States, as well as for wider audiences. Footnotes 1 “Association of Zoos & Aquariums,” accessed November 30, 2017, https://www.aza.org/. 2 Lisa Uddin, Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (Minneapolis, MN, 2015); Randy Malamud, Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (New York, 1998); Ralph R. Acampora, ed., Metamorphoses of the Zoo: Animal Encounter after Noah (New York, 2010); Keekok Lee, Zoos: A Philosophical Tour (New York, 2005); Carrie Friese, Cloning Wild Life: Zoos, Captivity, and the Future of Endangered Animals (New York, 2013); Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge, MA, 1987); Elizabeth Hanson, Animal Attractions: Nature on Display in American Zoos (Princeton, NJ, 2002); Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (London, 2004); Nigel Rothfels, Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo (Baltimore, MD, 2008). 3 Eric Baratay, Biographies animales. Des vies retrouvées (Paris, 2017). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

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Diplomatic HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Sep 1, 2018

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