Backstage at the Zoo, Gorillas Watch TV

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 4 2013 11:54 PM

Gorillas Watching TV

Behind the scenes at the zoo.


Illustration by Nicole Georges.

You could go to the zoo every day for a year and never learn the color of a zebra's penis. Go to Kenya, though, and male zebrahood is hard to miss: They hang like exclamation points. Elsewhere in the Serengeti you'll see the tumescent member of a lion as it bites its mate, or watch bull elephants full of lust, weeping pheromones, and dragging their own gray logs through rocks and thorny brambles.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Yes, you could go to the zoo every day for a year and you'd never even know that animals have cocks; that a zebra's penis grows out black, not pink or white or striped. You'd never know that hyenas get erections. You'd never see the megafauna in their phallus forest. Sure, your average tourist at a city zoo might find some signs of sexuality—a few immodest specimens passing time in desultory, public masturbation—but captive animals aren't bold and flagrant like their native cousins. Zoos don't show much sex.

But then, there are lots of things that zoos don't show. A lion at the zoo never tears an antelope in half; it feeds in private dressing rooms, where the facsimile of Africa that's on display out front gives way to stern and functional design—holding areas with smaller cages, where keepers do their daily work. Outside with you and me, the animals enjoy a range of "behavioral enhancements”: covert cues for them to linger near the viewing glass, like well-aimed warming lights or peanut butter smeared on rocks. (We're made to see them at a slightly upward angle, to help inspire wonder and respect.) In the holding pens out back, the entertainments are less subtle: a broom, perhaps, that stands in for a plant. At the zoo in Buffalo, N.Y., captive gorillas stare at fish tanks when they're not on view, or they watch TV.


The hidden world behind the zoo enclosures is built according to a different set of needs—as in "a battleship or submarine," says an architect in Irus Braverman's Zooland: The Institution of Captivity, "every inch means something." That phrase describes Braverman's approach as well: She's interviewed dozens of zoo professionals—keepers and registrars, lawyers and designers, curators and directors—for an exhaustive survey of their habitat. Her book lays these data in a heavy frame of reference: Foucault and other theorists of surveillance. Zooland traffics in panopticons and power, and more than that in "gaze"—the human gaze, the animal gaze, and more.


I am, of course, captive to my phallocentric gaze and so (never mind the theory) am lost in thoughts of zebra penises and whatever else is kept from view in animal menageries. The United States has more zoos than any other country—we have at least 1,000—and yet most Americans pay little mind to what they're for. Braverman explains that the institution has been remodeled since the 1970s, when the goal of entertainment was superseded (or perhaps augmented) by one of conservation. Even in its enlightened form, though, the zoo remains a place of conflict: Is it meant to educate visitors about the need for habitat protection, or should its mission be to breed endangered animals? And what, exactly, is to be conserved by all this conservation? Zoo people subdivide the concept: There's in situ work, which tries to keep a species vital in the wild, and ex situ programs that aim to breed a healthy, captive population. These, too, can be at odds.

I spent my first months out of college working at a zoo and seeing what I'd never seen in my many visits up till then. A lunchtime walk behind the cages taught me that some animals have secret proper names. A bald eagle with a broken wing had no identity in public, but keepers called her Ernestine. (Her name was written above the back door to her cage.) Why so secret? If children knew that Ernestine was Ernestine, a keeper told me, they might be upset when she was loaned out to another zoo, or released into the wild, or dead of natural causes.

Other animals do get public names, and these have changed along with zoos, to make them sound more politically correct—more conservation-y. (Zooland tells of an old gorilla called Timmy, with children called Ngoma, Tambo, and Pendeka.) These are just "house names," anyway, and less important than each animal's coded entry in a global database. The codes enable zoos to participate in a technocratic breeding scheme, where animals are moved across continents, identified by implanted RF tags, so they can spread their genes according to a central plan. (Braverman refers to this network of control, overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as "zooveillance.")

Author Irus Braverman
Author Irus Braverman

Courtesy of the author.

My zoo job had me in the park's PR department, and I heard lots of stories that were kept in-house. Not evidence of animal abuse—everything about the zoo seemed suitably humane—but anecdotes that might have encroached across the space between the animals and visitors. Someone told me that a zoogoer with mental problems had leapt into an enclosure and jammed a pencil in an emu's back, and the bird had gotten so enraged it broke a keeper's arm. That's unfortunate but not embarrassing, and yet the episode was covered up. It made me realize that for all its noble mission language, its Taxon Advisory Groups and Species Survival Plans, the zoo remains theatrical—a performance based on the careful separation of what we see and what we don't.

Braverman explicates this stagecraft, from set design to production and compliance. She gives a glimpse of zoos, in the same way that zoos give a glimpse of nature: a quick look behind the scenes, at a slightly upward angle, inspiring (at least for me) respect. The lesson here is that all the makeup and machinery needn't be a secret. If captive zebras are unsexed, if gorillas watch TV, if madmen stab at flightless birds and eagles go by secret names, that's all part of the show.


Zooland: The Institution of Captivity by Irus Braverman. Stanford University Press.



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