BOOK REVIEW: American Zoo by David Grazian

This book was a DNF for me. I skimmed to what parts I thought might hold interest for me.

But just like the people who do go to zoos take a (what I call) shallow interest in the experience (the come, they see, they go on to the next exploitation), so too does Gazian state his observations of the human reasons zoos exist. This book more so answers “why do Americans still do that?” (ie put animals in zoos). But only for a modern context. It does not answer the question “why do Americans do that” in any historically sociological way.

There is no real exploration as to if it is good or bad that we “do that.” He states horrors inflicted upon zoo animals like someone observing birds flying in the sky. Well, isn’t that interesting? Because they aren’t horrors to him.

He talks about the fact that male pandas are given Viagra and forced to watch porn, never exploring if this is a moral thing to do to pandas. He even goes so far as to call them (either all pandas or zoo pandas specifically) sexually ‘incompetent’ – as if they can’t even do the one thing they are “good” for, for us humans (make more of themselves). This presupposes that pandas are our things and that they need us to help make them more competent — as if that’s their only problem and as if they hadn’t been thriving all on their own without our help until man started killing them off and destroying their habitats. Hell, are we even sure that we didn’t create the panda from nothing?  Grazian even talks about zookeeper’s masturbation aids with just a passing, subtle comment: that’s “exactly what it sounds like.” But what does it sound like? Because to some, that sounds like rape, not something funny.

Colonialism is never explored, as far as I could tell, which are the roots of all zoos. He ends on the note that zoos have their faults, but they aren’t morally bankrupt, ignoring the fact that their AZA accreditation is not the real beef some animal rights activists have with zoos. I’m sure there were good slave owners in America too that didn’t beat their slaves and didn’t sell slaves’ children off… It is the concept of slavery that is the topic. Just like the concept of zoos should be the topic. Not what zoos think or try to do in this modern age.

At the end he mentions a book called The Zookeeper’s Wife which is a story about how a zookeeper’s wife kept Jews safe in WWII in their zoo. The sad thing is that Grazian can’t see the irony in that. The very thing/concept that created hate for Jews was the self-same hate that sticks animals in cages: an attempt to “Other” and “conquer” and “control.” Where is the sociological exploration in that?

Zoos can try and kid themselves that they are protecting animals, just like the Zookeeper’s wife can repurpose an evil concept to save Jews. But there wouldn’t be a need to repurpose anything if “the evil concept” hadn’t messed things up to begin with. That’s what animal rights activists are targeting. The concept itself.

But I guess I shouldn’t have expected that deep of an exploration, what with the subtitle of this book being “A Sociological Safari.” Safari? Because what humans do to animals is just as interesting as going on a safari? Safaris show you animals in their natural habitat. And it doesn’t seem “natural” what we’ve done to animals.

Or, if it is natural for humans to do this, I don’t think I like being human.

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