Millions of people every year visit zoos, aquariums, and preservations, but why? Is it simply to see something that we don”t normally get to see in our modern but mundane everyday lives, or is it deeper than that? What do we get out of our encounters with “wild” animals?
Jane Desmond suggests, and I agree, that perhaps, in this day and age when the only ocean that most of us encounter on a daily basis is the ocean of cars in the commuter lot or at the mall, we are looking to connect with nature, with the wild, with the animal in ourselves. “The intensity of public discourses of the natural rises and falls at different historical junctures and exists in complex relation to notions of religion, science, and civil society (147).
As the world has become more industrial and less “natural”, as we have become further removed from and less directly dependent upon the land to meet our needs and animals to aid us in our efforts to cultivate it, as nature has become a decreasingly integral part of most of our daily lives and as the novelty of being an industrial and contemporary culture has worn off, we have come to think of civilization and modern society as corrupt, oppressive and fake and of nature and being pure, clean, freeing, and real.
We feel trapped in our own cities, in our homes, in our offices and we long to get away, to go outside, and to get back to nature. For many of us however, the closest we can get to getting back to nature is an afternoon and the local zoo. Nonetheless, after a day of watching monkeys throwing food at one another we still feel, renewed, reconnected, and renaturalized. As Desmond says, ” animal tourism, sell[s] an experience of the natural through exposure to wild animals, whether or not the particular animals have ever lived in or even seen the mythical wilderness the are tied to it in our imaginations.
We must consider however that not all experiences with all animals evoke the same feelings or sense of awe. What is it that draws us to certain animals? Desmond proposes that our fascination with certain animals is a result of our similarities and differences and that this “operates on two related planes, the physical and the social. ” She begins by explaining that our fascination with mammals has to do with biological similarities that allow us to identify with them in ways in which we could not with radically physically different animals.
She says that the facts that mammals are warm blooded, have hair, and give birth to live young “facilitates our identification with theses animals. ” I say that it is far simpler, that the average tourist or zoo goer is far more superficial than that. We tend to place animals in superficial categories, we relate to animals as being cute, or dangerous, or powerful and majestic. I think that we are equally capable and that we in fact do anthropomorphize animals with which we share very few biological similarities.
I would argue for example that sharks, alligators and crocodiles, and snakes tend to draw very large crowds. What is true however is that we think of these kinds of predatory animals as being devious, sneaky, mean even, our reaction to them is usually one of awe rather than affection. I think that the biological similarities that Desmond suggested, warm blood, live young, etc are not important in and of themselves, but that their importance lies in their social implications.
For example, the young of those animals who give birth are born less developed than those that are hatched; as a result extended parental care is required to help assure the survival of the young. Extended parental care is far more taxing and dangerous on the adults than the lay “em and leave “em ways of reptiles and fish, social groups, or family groups working together is the best way to insure that as many of the progeny, as well as the adults survive. What I am suggesting is that mammal’s biology makes their social structure a necessity – as we say, it takes a village to raise a child.
I think that there are many factors that influence whether or not we relate to or identify with certain animals. Desmond says that similar facial and bodily features play an important role in the way in which we emotionally identify with animals. We find it far easier to imagine that an animal that looks like us feels and perceives the world in the same way that we do. Intelligence also plays a role – we often mistakenly assess intelligence based on our recognition of language.
However, is it not possible that many animals simply have language systems far beyond our comprehension? Another crucial element is what I call the cuddle factor – we have found that parrots are far more intelligent than dogs or cats (based on their ability to learn and understand simple words, colors, textures, etc), yet most people endow dogs and cats with emotions and empathic skills, most people find it easier to identify with cats a dogs, most people find cats and dogs more emotionally comforting because they are more physically comforting.
We think our dogs understand us, that when they look at us with their big brown eyes, they know what we are feeling and thinking. We consider their loyalty a sign that they care and even love us but is it not true that what people call a parrots fickle fancies, intense mood swings, emotional outbursts and ease of offence far more human than a dogs unwavering friendship? Another factor that Desmond makes little mention of is size.
We often feel that size and sentience are related. Most people would identify more closely with a bear than a mole, or a lion that a gerbil. Whatever criteria it is that we use when categorizing and looking at animals, we still feeling that seeing, physically being close to animals that we connect to somehow connects us to nature. As Desmond puts it, animal tourism “promises escape into another more natural realm for those who see themselves firmly positioned in modernity.
In our industrial world there is a strong notion that animals know something about life that we don”t, that they have a stronger and deeper connection to the life and to the earth itself, that they even have insight into people that people themselves don”t have. We are far removed from the animal world as we imagine it, but for the bargain price of $19. 45 for an adult and $13. 40 for a child (children under 3 get in for free) we can buy back, at least for an afternoon, our connection with nature, “one of the last bastions of idealized authenticity in the postmodern era. “