Nature In A Box : representations of zoo animals in Canadian literature

Of late, I have been deluged with messages regarding the shifting of elephants from Toronto Zoo to the PAWS(Performing Animal Welfare Society) sanctuary in California in USA. and have been constantly reminded of the Canadian poet Margaret Atwood’s  statement, “Nature is to zoos what God is to churches.” An intriguing comparison but given the state of most zoos across the world and indeed in Canada, it might be more appropriate to say, “Aesthetics in zoos is similar to what pornography is in art.” There have been so many tomes written on zoos, especially in the West that one is spoilt for choice when considering the topic. If childhood visits to zoos are meant to help people gauge the true beauty and value of nature then these institutions are falling short of their objectives.

Traditionally, in Canada or in any other country, a visit to the zoo is meant to be an exercise in reconnecting with nature for city folks  who have lost all touch with animals and plants. And as with any institution, zoos find a representation in literature in all countries, including Canada. My colleague Rob Laidlaw, director of Zoocheck Canada has written a book for children that questions the ethics and objective of conventional zoos. As an organization based in Toronto that monitors zoos in USA and Canada, they are in a good position to comment. Rob’s book, as a non fiction volume, lays bare the myths surrounding zoos, at least traditional zoos that stock as many animals as possible.

A Canadian writer named Yann Martel won the Booker Prize in 2002 for writing a novel based on a zoo sojourn named ‘The Life of Pi’. The book narrates the adventures of young boy named Pi Patel who makes a journey with zoo animals and is shipwrecked with a tiger. The plot is novel, the characters, both human and animal, are enchanting and I realize that Yann Martel’s experience was based on Trivandrum Zoo in India. Reading the literary works of these three Canadian people as well as the popular science works of David Suzuki make me think that the Canadian perspective on zoos is actually a representation of the broader depiction covering animals in captivity.

The modern zoo is principally a product of colonialism and the world’s first modern zoo was started in London in 1826(the zoo in Vienna started earlier but since Britain had a worldwide empire at the time it is stated that Regent’s Park was the first modern zoo in Europe). The idea of seeing exotic animals in a captive setting appealed to the Western public and even today we are still left with remnants of that old curiosity. One tragic instance of human curiosity gone horribly wrong was the exhibition of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy man in Bronx Zoo in New York in 1901. Ota Benga was displayed along with Great Apes, but the display stopped after some religious leaders objected to the exhibition, citing it as unethical. Many articles have been written on this shameful display of human prejudice and a whole book is devoted to his sad saga, entitled ‘Ota Benga, : The Pygmy In The Zoo’ by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, published by St. Martin’s Press in 1992. He was not alone because accounts of Europeans of the time talk about the exhibition of indigenous  non European tribes from across the world in Europe and North America as objects of curiosity.

Zoo animals represented in literature, such as in the poems of Margaret Atwood  represent a curious dichotomy of mankind’s relationship with nature. Based on observations in Toronto Zoo, Margaret Atwood’s animals represent a large assortment of living animal kinds. As literary critics, Kathryn Van Spanckeren and Jan Garden Castro have stated, her descriptions of zoo animals represent depiction of life on different levels of being and highlight the vulnerability of all mortal things. Her portrayal of zoo animals also highlight the interdependence between man and animals.

Whilst the likes of Atwood and Martel in Canada have examined captive zoo animals in fiction, Laidlaw and Suzuki have done so in non fiction. Truth is stranger than fiction, the saying goes, and like any other literary tradition in the world, Canadian literary tradition on zoo animals extends to both genres. Laidlaw’s book, ‘Wild Animals in Captivity’ concentrates on educating children and youngsters, zoo goers and potential zoo goers. Any Canadian wildlifer would be struck by the ongoing nature of the Toronto Zoo debate over their elephants and the zoo’s unwillingness to let go of their pachyderms is sadly very typical of the bigotry that the zoo community exhibits everywhere.

It is important to note that the Canadian examination of zoos in literature in both fiction and non fictional forms has had an international impact. Both Atwood and Martel are well known in the English speaking world. Laidlaw’s book has been very well received in India and the works of David Suzuki serve as useful reference to any nature lover across the globe.

In a broader context, these Canadian works also find resonance in the works of Farley Mowat, one of Canada’s most widely read natural history authors. All these writers have penned their thoughts on animals and nature as their imagination and observations demanded or suited them.  In doing so, they have led many to think about mankind’s tenuous relationship with the natural world. Canadian hunters make international headlines every year during the annual seal hunt. Would Canadians and the international community be affected more or less by reading these authors whilst witnessing the slaughter? There is no clear cut answer  because one can never say with certitude if there is exclusivity in the writings of Atwood or Martel from a Canadian perspective. But on at least one occasion, the Canadian non fiction literary tradition crossed borders. Canadian natural history literature has helped me to refine my thoughts in India on conservation and directly aided my project on zoos. That would please Atwood, Martel, Laidlaw, Suzuki, Mowat and their Canadian admirers.


Shubhobroto Ghosh conducted the Indian Zoo Inquiry with direct support from Zoocheck Canada. He works in a conservation NGO and is an avid natural history reader.