I just read an article from the November 2007 issue by Derrick Jensen. It's about zoos and why people are compelled to visit them. It's also about conceptions of "nature", and how zoos represent a particular way of thinking about the world around us. This is a really important question to ask--what is nature and where can it be found? Is a city natural or unnatural? What do zoos have to do with "natural" animal habitats and behaviors? Is nature something that can be accessed on a daily basis, or it is a rare experience that requires the money and time to visit zoos--or better yet, the actual exotic locations around the world where NATURE still exists? Can nature be found in highly urban environments like Los Angeles and Detroit? Or is that a ridiculous idea?
How should people learn to explore the natural world around them? Should they rely on SeaWorld and Busch Gardens to provide unfettered, yet costly access to the rarities of nature? No. Jensen says people should just stay home:
IN MY WRITING, I don’t often present tangible solutions to the problems we face. This is because, for the most part, these problems are symptoms of and endemic to deeper psychological and perceptual faults, which means “solving” a problem technically without addressing these underlying faults will simply cause the pathology to present itself in a different way.
That said, I think I see a straightforward solution to the problem of children needing encounters with wild animals and zoos providing only parodies of these encounters. The solution is to let your child explore nature. I’m not talking about getting in the car to hang out with all the other tourists at Yosemite, effectively exchanging your city-based traffic jam for a nature-based one. To drive through nature is not all that different from being surrounded on four sides by movie screens as the visuals of a road rush up to greet you. Throw in the rocking of the car and some pine-scented freshener into the air vents, and the simulation will be more or less complete: you might even think you’re there.
Hiking is not all that much better. You’re still a tourist. No matter how spectacular Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are, they’re still spectacles unless you live there. Unless you call it your home. Unless it says it’s your home.
I’m talking about staying home.
I have thought about this a lot, since I have spent my fair share of time wandering around zoos and thinking about what they mean (to me, or others). Why do we have these spaces? What function do they serve? I do think that there are plenty of positive possibilities with some of the ways in which zoos operate. So I'm not arguing that they should be dismissed entirely--but I do think we should take the time to look deeper into what they really tell us about ourselves, and our ideas of the world around us. Jensen's call to stay home makes a lot of sense. Sometimes people feel like their local wildlife or environment is "boring," and that there is really nothing to see. I mean, zoos have tigers and elephants! Who cares about some weird little crab on the beach or a mule deer? Right?
Absolutely wrong. This is the heart of the problem. A concern for the abstract "nature" that's presented in many zoo displays can create disinterest in local ecological and environmental issues. I grew up in San Diego County, and I'll be the first to admit that the San Diego Zoo looked a lot more exciting and exotic than the local lagoons and deserts--at least when I was a kid. I think when I was younger I also fell victim to the idea that the local landscapes and environments were somehow unnatural, corrupted, or less "natural" than the idealized images of nature presented at places like aquariums and zoos. The irony, of course, is that these kinds of places are completely constructed environments--and there is really nothing wrong with this as long as we don't confuse a zoo display with reality. I think zoos can be both productive and inspirational--as long as they balance their representations of "nature" to include the local environments and ecologies that zoo patrons drive past day by day. Otherwise, the "education" at zoos provides little more than an idealized fiction about the supposed natural world. Zoos have to about something more than just consumerism.
As Jensen argues, zoos (and other nature-based destinations) provide instant access. We can pay money and see everything we want, anytime we want. Kind of like TV or the internet. We can see snakes, bears, lions, elephants, giraffes, and Tasmanian devils within minutes. Outside of these kinds of regulated spaces, well, things take a little longer. Sometimes, this is a good thing. Yes, zoos can be educational and fun. Of course they can. But it might also be important to learn how to take the time to watch and learn about the biological world around us according to a schedule that isn't dictated by the limits of the standard business day.