I have always been obsessed with zoos. Like many obsessions, I think this one goes back to childhood. I loved family trips to ‘Old’ Belfast Zoo, even though really it was mostly grim concrete and iron hugging a damp hillside. Visits to the zoo were one of the few occasions we ventured off the M2 to enter North Belfast. The Cave Hill slopes were at the edge of my 1980s Protestant map – there be cougars and Catholics. But even as a naïve five-year-old I felt that elephants needed more than a tiny room with bars and a bed of faecal-brown straw.
Like most other Western zoos, the Belfast one has since been reinvented. It is now a ‘tough love’ haven for refugees from the banal violence of planetary capital. These lucky delegates from the quieting ‘natural world’ now live in more subtly landscaped enclosures called things like ‘Spider Monkey Island’. They enjoy regular ‘behavioural enrichment activities’, and their lives matter for more than mere entertainment (mainly keeping life circulating around the international zoo animal trade network).
Still, everyone knows zoos are bad. For
It is a strange and harsh apparatus of love that, in perverse mimicry of the nature it has extinguished, exposes to confusion, suffering and death the very endangered creatures that it breeds. (Chrulew 2011)
But my obsession means I get very excited by a whole film about zoos. Most excellently, this one I recently watched, Bestiaire (2012, dir. Denis Côté) doesn’t even have any voice over. Or indeed dialogue. The film follows the animals of a down-at-heel Quebecois zoo/safari park through a snowy winter, and into a peak summer season when the human hordes arrive.
The film’s opening shots pan from animal to animal (well, from bird to mammal) – ostrich, bison, ungulate, chimpanzee, rhesus monkey, ungulate. We see them pacing, swaying, staring into the camera, eating with fervour. We see hooves, heads, antlers – bits of animal, never enough to begin to anthropomorphize. Or connect. A lone elephant ambles about, looking frankly very depressed. The unexpectedly moving zoo footage is intercut with shots from a taxidermy workshop. I guess this must be some kind of side-line for the zoo, a neat way to extract surplus value not just from living bodies, but from resurrected undead labour. These workshop guys are a far cry from the hipster reinvention of taxidermy: they’re more about repetitive, assembly-line labour than affective-art-statement-intervention.
Bestiaire’s soundtrack is a-rhythmic banging, clanging, snorting; there is also some shearing, a few snippets of words. Outside, aircraft drone overhead, sirens doppler past in the background, and seagulls argue.
Surely the point of zoos is to make the leap through the bars, empathetically speaking (animals do bite), to some zone of mutual recognition? (or at least mutual incomprehension, as Berger put it in Why Look at Animals?). The logic goes that this helps us (re)connect to the world’s other beings and ipso facto, save biodiversity. If so then the zoo in the film is clearly a ‘bad zoo’.
But Bestiaire is much smarter than mere zoo bashery. It seems to be twisting Peter Singer’s words to ask not “can the animal suffer?” but “can they be bored?” The film’s real genius, however, is in extending this question from the animals to the humans.
The camera follows bored keepers as they toss fruit into gaping maws, hose down floors, or sit staring. Underpaid, under-motivated, don’t care. Visitors, too, are as routinized, bored and overfed as the animals; scratching themselves, touching each other, compulsively texting – mostly, ignoring the animals. The most memorable scene for me was the drive thru safari, where zebras grazed the long queue of 4x4s and big cars, chomping fruit from the windows and ground. The seagulls wheeling overhead speak more of a rubbish dump more than a scene of uplifting human-animal encounter. The keepers, animals and visitors are trapped in a listless economy of boredom.
The film seems to be a project of disenchantment. The zoo is behavioural enrichment for Quebecois consumers and a business in terminal decline.
Perhaps instead of being about uplifting connection, the zoo has become an elegy for a deadening world. My partner cried when she saw the snow leopard sitting on a rock in Edinburgh Zoo.
But the problem with this way of thinking about zoos is Freud: because of him we tend to think mourning is about getting back to normal, about coming to terms with losing something ‘out there’. We end up internalizing the other, putting them away ‘in us’. At the other end of the pole, though, not to mourn is bad faith too. Perhaps in Bestiaire – and in zoos – we should be mourning not the future loss of animals but the state of our being together. That is has come to this. That this is the best either of us can do: bound together in boredom.
And yet there are some small glimmers of hope in the film. In one scene, as Spring thaws the Winter snow, deer lollop across a field. In another, a rhino seems to shuffle with sensual pleasure as her keeper soaks her skin with a hose. Life exceeds its production. And the geese seem fairly happy. But they, unlike the teenagers mopping out the stalls, are not so bound in bored body and soul to this machine of concrete and steel-protected love/profit.
And Tina, the Belfast Zoo elephant, is still alive. Now 46, she lives in a ‘sanctuary’ with three other females. One of them is retired from the international zoo network’s libidinal economy; another from the circus entertainment complex, and the third from the Burmese logging industry. Tina – still living on a damp hillside in Belfast.