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.



3 thoughts on “Nature In A Box : representations of zoo animals in Canadian literature

  1. is to ethical to send the elephants to a sanctuary that has tuberculosis infected elephants? Or animals exposed to TB in their pasts (disease we know is never cured)Is it right to avert the public from this knowledge using propaganda and fighting for an ideology that is anti zoo in lieu of the truth? What risk is greater? Leaving these three healthy TB free animals in their home and build them a better exhibit? Or send these animals to a sanctuary known to house animals from the circus industry and which have all save for one been exposed to TB in their previous lives? Lets not forget Pat Derby herself has stated very publically that moving an elephant from one climate and space to another dramatically different climate and space could have severe adverse affects on the animals and she claims experts support her statement. Why then is she moving three elephants from Toronto Canada and their home at the Toronto Zoo to her animal collection in California? And that is what it is, a collection to replace the one she lost due to bankruptcy and her righteous decision to euthanize many of this former collection to “protect” them from people who were not as wonderful as her. So wonderful that she had to poach game and livestock from her neighbours to feed that previous collection. So the risk of staying here is in your mind greater than the risk of sending them to a place known to harbour an infectious disease that can be a potentially deadly and horrible death for elephants? Ridiculous. No you didnt state this but your work with zoocheck canada means you must believe in their stance, guilty by association. When one of our girls dies from TB I look forward to your comments at that time.

  2. The response from the previous commenter is rife with unfounded allegations and inaccuracies. So for those of you who are not familiar with the Toronto Zoo elephant issue, here’s the real story. It was the Toronto Zoo Board of Management itself that terminated the zoo’s elephant program back in May 2011. They did so because the zoo could not afford to refurbish its existing enclosure, a project they pegged at a cost of somewhere between $16 – 42 million. In October 2011, the City of Toronto, which legally owns the elephants, decided to send them to the world-class PAWS sanctuary facility in California, citing its expansive paddocks, pasture and enhanced conditions as being best for the elephants. That decision was later affirmed by the Toronto Zoo Board of Management at its November 2011 meeting. Remarkably the previous commenter fails to mention, or is unaware of, the challenges and considerable risks faced by the elephants if they were to stay in Toronto. She doesn’t mention that out of the 13 elephants that have been at the Toronto Zoo, 10 died before reaching old age, including a recent stretch in which four elephants died in four years. She doesn’t mention the undersized, bland enclosure, lack of pasture, the medical problems the three surviving elephants experience, their stereotypic behaviours or their confinement indoors during cold weather. I have to wonder how much she actually knows about the issue. Her comments about disease are equally ill informed. There has never been evidence of a communicable disease problem at PAWS. In fact, their record of receiving and returning to health seriously debilitated elephants from circuses and zoos is exemplary. As to PAWS actively trying to obtain the Toronto Zoo elephants, that’s nonsense as well. PAWS offered a permanent home to the Toronto Zoo elephants. They were not involved in the decision to terminate the zoo’s elephant program and they did not decide where the elephants would go. The other comments about PAWS are so absurd they don’t even warrant a response. I have no objection to people voicing their opinion on any issue, but one would hope they would at least have a good understanding of an issue so they could present provide an informed, factual argument.

  3. Rob has provided most of the answers to the criticisms made but there is one important point I wish to clarify. The allegation that I am guilty by association because of my work with Zoocheck Canada is dubious, to say the least. I worked voluntarily for Zoocheck Canada and had my expenses reimbursed, but was not involved in a full time salaried capacity. This is categorically stated on page 7 of the Indian Zoo Inquiry which can be accessed online here :
    Perhaps the critic says more about herself in the letter than she does about me when she states,”When one of our girls dies from TB I look forward to your comments at that time.” Only someone with a direct stake in Toronto Zoo or the zoo industry would use this kind of language. It is preposterous to suggest that people who wish to see the animals sent away from Toronto Zoo want to see them in a place where there is a risk of Tuberculosis. I would welcome a reasoned debate on the issues surrounding elephants in captivity, particularly zoos, but finger pointing without a valid reason does not help the elephants.

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