Date of Submission
Environmental and Urban Studies; Experimental Humanities
Project Advisor 1
Project Advisor 2
When I was a child going to the zoo seemed almost mystical. With memories featuring giant underwater passageways, sea lion shows, and a vague sense of awe and astonishment these times-though brief-remain locked in my memory almost lost. It’s been many years since I had visited a zoo, mostly because I forgot they existed if I’m honest. Living in NYC these spaces seemed so distant to my everyday life, to me zoos were spaces I went on vacation or maybe a class trip but were not really part of my world beyond those few instances. For many, zoos are spaces where they look back on fondly as adults and look forward to one day bringing their own families to see the spectacle of captive animals. Zoos and aquariums represent a sense of childlike wonder with the unknown, the grand, and the almost impossible; they are spaces that exist completely separate from their urbanized surroundings. Now, as an adult, I haven’t been to a zoo in years nor really thought about them all that much unless to feel a brief sense of pity for the animals held within their walls and yet when deciding what to pursue for my thesis, nearly 15 years since I had visited a zoo, I found myself inexplicably drawn to the topic of animal captivity. I pose questions related to conservation, cultural values, human/nonhuman animal relations, and much more in order to explore the nuances of these spaces and attempt to unravel how we as a society can live with zoos and zoo animals instead of forcing them to live for us.
This paper explores the relationship between humans and nonhuman animals exemplified through a historical and social analysis of the ‘modern zoo’. My research plan is multi-disciplinary and experimental drawing on a vast array of scholars, thinkers, and artists I pull on differing interpretations of zoo spaces, animal captivity, and human-nonhuman animal relationships in order to gain a broad understanding of how these relationships have been formed, why they have been formed, and in what ways can/should they be altered. In total, I conducted 3 interviews with various individuals connected to zoo spaces, watched six hours of zoo camera footage, conducted a historical literature review, had one site visit at the Queens Zoo and three at the Bronx Zoo, and conducted months of historical research and interpretation in relation to nonhuman exhibition and attitudes. While I am drawing on various traditional modes of research I am additionally using an indigenous studies framework to guide my theoretical approach as well as my proposal. Drawing on these various research tactics I present an experimental model to pull individual animal welfare and the building of bonds between human(animals) and nonhuman(animals) to the forefront of zoo agendas. My central questions are as follows, ‘What can zoos tell us about the changing relationship between human-animals and nonhuman animals in the modern world? How can we move forward towards a new pathway of zookeeping that allows us to be in conversation with the individualized animals? And, how can we localize zoo spaces to be more about communal responsibility?’ Using a combination of historical research, spatial analysis, ethnographic research, and the use of experimental artists I ask these questions of myself and others in order to develop deeper relationships and understandings of the world around me.
My first chapter, Colonial Subjects, discusses the origins of zoos and menageries during the colonial period, focusing on how ‘exotic’ exoticized animals were displayed alongside ‘exotic’ exoticized peoples in order to showcase the reach, domination, and subjection of foreign lands by colonial powers. This chapter also discusses the different branches of animal showcasing and collections within the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Colonial Period to give a brief background to how animal exhibition has evolved throughout the ages.
Exploring the tensions between power, colonization, animal conservation, and the human/nonhuman relationship, I am attempting to trace these relationships and ideologies in order to anchor my paper in historical legacies. The second chapter, Twentieth-Century Transformations, discusses the changes that many zoos underwent in the 20th century in response to growing social pressures which resulted in a platform shift from entertainment to species conservation. Here, I use the tale of Misha, a polar bear held at the Bristol Zoo in the late 20th century to highlight the social attitudes that were directed at zoos and the individual changes made at Bristol in response to these challenges. Focussing on the tensions between the past and the present I examine how these changes took place, what changes were made, and the effect they had on public understanding, acceptance, and interaction with zoo spaces. In conjunction with shifts in social attitudes I discuss the larger legislative changes that were made in the 20th century as well as the organization of national and global institutional governing bodies. On Nature-Making, my third chapter, discusses the themes of nonhuman exhibition focusing on the social interpretation these exhibits lend to within the human imagination. I focus on the ‘natural-artificial’ or the ‘artificial-natural’ and the ways in which exhibition spaces are made to conjure ideas of an animal's ‘exotic’ exoticized origins and apparent mythicized ‘wild’ nature. This chapter seeks to understand how popular ways of exhibiting nonhumans (re)produce conceptions of nature, the wild, and of foreign lands. Additionally, I take into account the architecture and spatial configuration of zoos and the ways in which they contribute to the social and cultural conception of ‘ ‘exotic’ exoticized lands, humans, and nonhuman animals. My fourth chapter, Becoming Kin: A Pathway Forward, examines concepts of kinship between humans(animals) and non-humans(animals). Drawing on scholars such as Donna Haraway, Vine Deloria Jr, John Berger, Thom Von Berger, & Kim Tallbear I define kinship and work through methods to help establish kinship with nonhumans both within zoo spaces and more broadly. This chapter is especially guided by indigenous epistemologies as well as experimental thinkers who foreground my arguments in understanding the nonhuman world, confronting historical realities, and future realities that can be made possible through deliberate and guided change. I then propose various institutional changes and cultural transformations that can occur both short-term and long-term in an effort to reform zoo spaces. Attempting to tackle institutional change to shift cultural ideology concerning nonhumans, I focus primarily on individualized animal care, localized animal captivity, conservation, and a re-thinking of the relationships between human-animals and non-human animals through signage, education programs, and more. This chapter presents a new way of thinking with animals instead of thinking about or for them through a redesign of enclosures, zoo signage, programming and community engagement. In the spirit of being kin, I aim to localize zoos in their regions and focus on engagement with the everyday environment to bridge cultural ties from an inconceivable global environment to that of the knowable local. My final chapter, Towards New Futures, closes out my argument by pushing readers to recognize their response-ability to the world around them.
My proposals for zoo reformation will be presented in three ways, firstly I propose changes that can be effectively made within six months that introduce ideas of kinship, indigenous ontologies, and community outreach strategies as a preamble to larger changes. Then I propose larger changes that would take years to implement into zoo programs and agendas but which I feel would be valuable in terms of cultural shifts and institutional changes. These changes include larger conservation goals, exhibition redesign, multiple community outreach days, educational visits, and collaborations with local artists. Lastly, within the appendix section, there will be mock-ups of signage, invitations, programs, and more that will act as examples of realistic changes that could be done. Suggested changes are imagined futures that pull on a variety of artworks focussed on themes of enclosures, the human/nonhuman binary, colonization, and the breaking of social and cultural boundaries. Some artists who are framing my work include Fred Wilson, Coco Fusco, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Carol Rashawnna Williams among others and I draw on these artists in order to help me re-image these spaces and push against cultural norms in the ways in which they do through their artwork.
Understanding the nuances of zoo spaces and examining their historical and cultural context in order to propose a method towards more caring methods of nonhuman exhibition and conservation is my main purpose throughout this paper. Through it, I hope to better illuminate the relationships present between humans(animals) and nonhumans(animals) in order to improve social and cultural understanding of this ‘other’ otherized world. A world portrayed as entirely separate from our own yet one in which we are so deeply entangled within, connected through, and formed by our relationship with. I aim to break down these relationships and form new pathways towards being ‘kin’ with the world around us based upon indigenous epistemologies. Within binary cultural and historical conceptions of the human(animal)/non-human(animal), the situated ‘us’ versus the unknowable but exoticized ‘other’ lies a space in which human culture can be questioned, examined, and revolutionized to create a relationship between human-nonhuman(animals) that is deeply personal, localized, and built upon mutual respect, reciprocity, and care.
“Human beings are not above nature or above the rest of the world. Human beings are incomplete without the rest of the world. Every species needs to give to every other species in order to make up a universe.”- Vine Deloria Jr., Kinship With the World
Open Access Agreement
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.
Colon, Alexandra, "Kinship and Connection: Exploring Historical Nonhuman Exhibition within Zoos to Form New Relationships" (2023). Senior Projects Spring 2023. 345.
This work is protected by a Creative Commons license. Any use not permitted under that license is prohibited.