Book Review: Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo

In Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo: Stories from the Animal Archive author Daniel Vandersommers explores the evolution of the National Zoo as well as the far more limited evolution of society’s empathy for the animals within its walls.

The National Zoo opened in 1891, thanks in large part to the advocacy of William Temple Hornaday, whose life as a hunter had taught him that the American bison were at risk of going extinct. He urged his employer, the Smithsonian, to purchase a few bison in order to help save the species. And that’s just what they did, keeping six bison on the back lawn of the Smithsonian Castle, as seen below.

Soon after, people began dropping off animals, some wild, some domestic, and Hornady worked to get funding to build a zoo, under the auspices of conservation, education and science.

The National Zoo was not the first zoo in the US (Philadelphia came about nearly two decades prior). By 1901 the author notes that there were 56 zoos across the country. While this book is about one zoo, it could in many ways be about any zoo. As Vandersommers writes, “The zoo always produced opposing experiences, as well as sublimated ones.” Indeed it is very difficult to read the many stories of animal captivity, escape and premature death at the hands of inept handlers, not to mention the many horrible ways that visitors treated animals. I used to think that the occasional stupid visitor story was more a product of our selfie-driven world; but there were stupid visitors doing stupid things to animals long before portable cameras.

It’s not surprising that animals wanted out of zoos. Within the Zoo’s first year we witness the first escapee — a brown bear. The bear was soon killed and the news made headlines, which, as the author notes, actually fed into the aura of the zoo itself. Vandersommers writes, ” …by running away, zoo animals gave the public that dose of ‘the wild’ that it craved, as well as, upon capture, the relief of control that it was programmed to want. Runaway animals accomplished all of this as they sought to escape the zoo.”

It feels as though any animal who could escape from a zoo eventually did. Escapees from the National Zoo and other zoos included prairie dogs, lemurs, panthers, snakes, beavers and one particularly sad ostrich who escaped the Lincoln Park Zoo only to jump to death from a nearby bridge.

Which leads us to animal suicide. “There are many accounts of captive animals committing suicide in the historical record.” Vandersommers writes. “We should, of course, recognize the impossibility of ever truly knowing the experience of an ostrich. Yet we should also accept that trying to understand the ostrich experience by seeing that experience through our own might also be the first step in recognizing that ostriches and humans share a biology and being and are not aliens to each other.”

Throughout the book Vandersommers does an excellent job of never letting us lose sight of the animals’ perspectives. And while these perspectives are acutely painful, they are part of what makes this such an important book.

Science is often cited as a major reason for why zoos are worth having around. We as a society learn a great deal about animals through their captivity and have used animals to learn about issues of great importance to us, like how birds fly and how diseases spread. But could science have been accomplished without so much suffering and tragedy along the way? Vandersommers writes: “Zoo stories used science to legitimate the zoo. And they played an important role in structuring the experience of zoo goers, allowing them to feel as though they were taking part in a refined ‘civic zoology.'”

Thus a trip to the zoo can be justified by for school field trips, despite the harm it might do to the children who witness animal suffering. Where science occupies the front seat empathy is forced into the back seat.

If there was one positive outcome of zoos over the years it is in how they have given rise to animal activists, such as myself. One need only watch a wild cat pacing in a too-small enclosure to know there is suffering, that a grave injustice is at hand. And I was heartened to read about the efforts of activists more than a hundred years ago who fought to free elephants from chains (they were chained 24/7) and to give all animals more room.

In 1920, Miss M. Gunderson sent the zoo director a letter that was a powerful as it was sad to read, because the letter is just as relevant today.

In closing, Gunderson predicted that the “shameful garden of cruelty and wrong will not longer exist… because the more enlightened children of the coming day” will not support “twentieth century barbarisms.”

Sadly, we slipped into the next century without significant progress on behalf of animals. Yet there is hope that the rise of animal sanctuaries and continued pressure from activists will one day force zoos to reinvent themselves, without animals. And I hope this book will stir more souls to fight on behalf of those animals who will never see a day of freedom.

Entangled Encounters at the National Zoo: Stories from the Animal Archive
Daniel Vandersommers
University Press of Kansas

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