The Zoo Teaches Children to Hate

In 1902, the racist codger Rudyard Kipling wrote Just So Stories, an anthology of children’s stories like “How the Leopard Got His Spots,” and “How the Camel Got His Hump”.  The “just so” story is a constant concern in evolutionary biology, sociobiology, and all branches of psychology.  Even trained professionals easily and frequently fall into the trap of the easy ad hoc fallacy confirmed on the flimsiest of evidence.  As scientists, we need to always test our assumptions, and to insist that others review our work.  Even among rigorous scientists, however, all this care disappears when those same people take their children on their first venture into the world of natural discovery.  Particularly, I mean a child’s first trip to the zoo.

The trip to the modern zoo is part circus, part safari, part picnic, and all “just so” patriarchal gender-normativity.  Viewed through a feminist lens, a trip to the zoo reveals much more about patriarchy than it does about “human nature.”

Chickens will always peck, ducks will always quack, and—unlike the philosopher’s example—monkeys will never ever write Shakespeare.  If anything can be called “natural”, these differences are undoubtedly a product of nature. But these basic observations mask the importance that the environment plays in animal behavior.  One of the problems about learning anything of value about humans from zoo animals is that the condition of their captivity profoundly affects their behavior.  Zoo keepers, as well as ordinary pet owners, understand that the environment and treatment of an animal profoundly influence how an animal interacts with humans and members of its own species.  We all know of dogs who have been conditioned to be brutal, of cats conditioned to avoid humans, the hamster tormented to insanity by the three-year-old boy.  Many animals imprint on other non-hostile animals in their environment (a fact that has cause havoc among those attempting to breed giant pandas in captivity).  Density and confinement are known to cause stress, anxiety, and sexual violence in many species.

So what lesson should we learn from tigers confined to a supposedly humane 50-by-80-foot “habitat”?  What about the elephants chased between confinements for all the years of their long lives? Or the chimpanzee mothers who have had her offspring stolen from their repeatedly?  Yet the millions who visit the zoo each summer are not there to learn about the behavior of abused animals.  They believe it might teach them and their children something about the human condition.  Properly posed, it may not be a bad lesson; captive abused humans do “behave like animals”.

The zoos themselves traffic in this narrative that there is something important to learn about humans by observing the conduct of animals – at least where the conduct of animals is very selectively observed.  The educational materials provided to children explicitly draw parallels between human and animal social organization.  I visited as zoo several weeks ago with my nieces where a sit-down, ten-minute educational featurette indoctrinated children into the heteronormative family structure by discussing – at nauseating length – the “mommy penguin” and “daddy penguin.”  Not only did this video anthropomorphize penguins into a patriarchal template, it also radically oversimplified penguin sexuality to fit into a comfortable narrative “appropriate” for children.  There was no mention of homosexual penguins incubating and adopting hatchlings.  There was no mention that, even among penguins, monogamy is a lie.  Patriarchy is so prevalent in our society that most people, even other scientists that I discussed this with, think that it is perfectly normal and acceptable to present a lie about penguins to condition children to antiquated and harmful gender stereotypes for humans.

Many of the exhibits draw explicit attention to the stereotypical behavior of “female” vs. “male” of the species.  They never address the exceptions and the diversity that exists in each species.  The lesson is clear.  “This is normal.”  “We say the way animals are.”  “Anything outside the normal is deviant.”

The implied questions are: “Are you normal?”  “Are you deviant.”

It is not just the presentation of the animals that is so troublesome; every aspect of the zoo reinforces the heteronormative assumption starting right at the ticket counter.  “Is this your mommy?” the ticket clerk asks.  In fact, I’m an aunt, I explain, quietly becoming irritated about how she had assumed that “normal” families have a “mommy” and a “daddy”.  She may as well have asked, “where’s your husband?”  Everywhere, signs requiring “adult supervision” show a stick illustration of a small person with both a masculine and a feminine looking figure.

And the parents at the zoo respond to the environment. Watching fathers at the zoo is one of the most cringe-inducing displays of the Dunning-Kruger effect available on this planet.  It does not matter that most “daddies” wouldn’t know how to tell the difference between a penguin and a puffin, he knows just barely more than his four-year-old or anyone else incapable of reading the signage.  This, in his opinion, gives him license to mansplain men’s proper place among the beasts and rationalize his superior place in relation to women by cherry-picking trite observations about captive, abused animals.  I watched a father explain to his four-year-old boy that female lions hunt and raise the cubs, while male lions are stronger and more aggressive, and sometimes they need to fight to protect the pride.  “How do they fight?” the boy asks, and the man showed his teeth as though they were fangs, and spread his fingers as though they were claws.  The boy laughed playfully.  I cringed.  Just like that, female lions – and by extension human women – were cast in the role of domestic service…barely worth consideration.  Strength, aggression, and pugilism is what is prized.

I love biology.  I love studying animals and all living things.  I’ve devoted my life to studying it.  But I am disgusted at the way that popular culture, and zoos particularly, use the concept of “natural” to justify patriarchy, heteronormativity, and to suppress the “deviant”, the queer, and the uncommon.  It is possible to imagine a feminist zoo.  It would treat its animals humanely.  It would emphasize the variations within species instead of emphasizing the differences between them.  It would explain how the environment affects the behavior of the animals.  It would not cast animals into gender stereotypes.  It would highlight the roles of homosexual and gender non-conforming animals.  It would make children from all family backgrounds feel welcome, not aberrant for not having a “mommy” and a “daddy”.  Most importantly, it would have more expert presentations and exhibits accessible to children so that they would not have to rely on the explanations of their bigoted parents.

If such a place ever existed, it would be a step towards undoing the “just so” of patriarchy.

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Amity Lamberton

I am a graduate student in biomedical engineering at a university located in the American Midwest. I hope to defend my Ph.D. in medical devices without shouting over a chorus of misogynist Nazi trolls, so that’s all the identifying information I’m ready to provide. I am a liberal in the mold of Margaret Sanger and the early American Progressives. I am strongly committed to social justice and exposing systems of power and privilege which pervades every aspect of American life.