Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cagey thoughts

I'm a huge fan of those filler news stories reported direct from the animal kingdom - unruly child climbs into gorilla pit, lion hugs trainer or alternatively bites tamer's head off, lion and tiger mate to form the liger, and captive baby polar bear rockets to fame. The animal as spectacle draws me in every time.

When I mentioned to a friend who lives in Australia that I was going to the zoo last weekend he said:

`Paris Zoo is it? I imagine elephants stuffed into tiny art deco curly wire cages.'

It's true that the Zoo de Vincennes is quite different from Taronga Zoo in Sydney, which was revamped a while back to make it more "humane" for the animals. In search of zootopia, Taronga's outdated cages were replaced by enclosures, measures were taken to make it difficult for humans to have direct eye contact with the captives, and a great deal of care was taken to ensure the animals' enclosures resemble their natural habitat.

The zoo at Vincennes has an old world feel about it with its heavy reliance on cages and lack of animal-roaming space. The plentiful supply of nains - miniature hippos, miniature horses and miniature giraffes, made me think of ornaments rather than living, breathing, needing animals.

But many of the cages were empty. And in this ghost zoo it seems the solution to the problem of how to make zoos more comfortable for the animals has been dealt with simply by not keeping animals that are perhaps going to be uncomfortable.

As we walked under a sky bloated with grey crowds passed rows and rows of empty cages I felt far from depressed. There had been a sign at the entrance to the zoo listing all the animals we wouldn't be able to see. No big cats, no bears, no elephants stuffed into tiny art deco cages. And I was relieved that they wouldn't be there to pander to my desire to see a spectacle. The more reading I do about zoos, the more wary I become as to the educational value of keeping animals in captivity. In Dale Jamieson's Against Zoos he says:

Edward G. Ludwig's study of the zoo in Buffalo, New York, in the International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems for 1981, revealed a surprising amount of dissatisfaction on the part of young, scientifically inclined zoo employees. Much of this dissatisfaction stemmed from the almost complete indifference of the public to the zoo's educational efforts. Ludwig's study indicated that most animals are viewed only briefly as people move quickly past cages. The typical zoo-goer stops only to watch baby animals or those who are begging, feeding or making sounds. Ludwig reported that the most common expressions used to describe animals are 'cute', 'funny-looking', 'lazy', 'dirty', 'weird' and 'strange.

And I was one of these zoo-gogglers, in a reverie over the lazy seal who couldn't get it together to go for a swim, the funny-looking penguins, the dirty hippo blowing water bubbles. But when I got to the arctic wolves I had to turn away from the spectacle. I turned away from their silent gaze through the bars, the indifferent pigeons eating dirt on the ground not far from their majestic paws, their snow white fur highlighting the absence of snow in a steadily heating Paris. So wrong. An Arctic Wolf in Paris. As we moved away, H said, `the thing I don't like is that we get to go home now, and well, they are still here'. A `bit of a larf' for us, a lifetime for them.

There was a frisson of excitement in the monkey pit when ten or so monkeys lined up on the edge of the moat, staring at the spectators. Seeing that humans share a large proportion of their DNA with chimpanzees, I couldn't help feeling ill at ease, and hopeful, that this may be the beginning of a barricade, that we might be witnessing the stirrings of a revolt.

While i'm sitting writing this in my apartment, my cat scratches at the window and lets out a disgruntled meow. With the arrival of Spring he is no longer satiated by the wind up mouse that doesn't sweat, the plastic red spider that doesn't bite. Even if it means spending the afternoon supervising him I know I've got to let him outside to stalk-pounce-drool-bite, to feel like a cat again.