Zoo Animals. Zoos and the fascination of the artificial real

Root Event

Werkleitz Festival 2011 ZOO
Zoo Animals. Zoos and the fascination of the artificial real


The Photographs are hung about in grandmothers’ living rooms or stick to ancient corrugated albums. They have titles like “Excursion to the safari park”, “Berlin 1979” or “Madrid 1982”. In the late seventies and early eighties it was fashionable to buy souvenir photos while at the zoo or to pay for them to be made then and there. They show ostentatiously brave, occasionally scared looking children (particularly afraid infants were allowed to be accompanied by an adult), next to a zoo inhabitant, preferably a young lion, the two posing together before a background referring neither to the natural habitat of the human child nor to that of the animal. The photographer went to great lengths to capture a homely, almost friendly atmosphere between human and beast despite the general discomfort of all involved. Such photos had definitely ceased to exist by the end of the eighties. At a time of deforestation, acid rain and the increasing extinction of whole animal species, zoos most likely wanted to represent themselves as key institutions in a modern, ecologically conscious society rather than as circus-like places of spectacle. Placing baby lions into the laps of smiling school children against fantasy backgrounds as though they were cuddly toys no longer fit the picture. Nevertheless, these photos can occasion fruitful inquiry into the unbroken attraction of such locations from the 19thcentury to the present. What is the nature of the dispositive created by melting together animals, humans and such cliché environments? In what way and by what means are the involved individuals altered? In what way does it influence our idea of nature? What, if anything, remains authentic in such photos where both lion and visitor are posed in a way that is already inauthentic from the point of view of both. Is the lion ‘natural’ in these surrounds; has it not become an ‘artificial animal’, an entity in which nature and culture are insolubly combined and which cannot be grasped outside of its specifically cultural context? Finally, is not the zoo the proper home of such artificial animals – creatures that make reference both to nature as well as to cultural traditions and their spectators constantly changing notions?


Zoos are urban phenomena, and it is no coincidence that the history of the zoo is tightly bound up with the emergence of the modern metropolis. At the outset of modernity, the development of cities involved the removal of domestic animals “from all concrete connections to life and work”. Cattle were replaced by tractors,combine-harvestersand other agricultural machinery, sheep by methods for producing synthetic clothing, the cavalry by tank divisions, pack animals by transport machines, pigeons by telephones, horse drawn carriages by the railway and automobiles(Macho 2005: 16). Slaughter houses and stock breeding were systematically driven out of urban spaces, rivers regulated and thus deprived of their ‘wildness’, countless hygiene regulations were installed. At the same time, initiatives for vegetarianism were launched, nature became the object of romantic yearnings and educational endeavours, domestic animals – both ‘real’ and made of plush – occupied the children’s corners of middle class households. There is an evident “open und unrestricted licence to cast projections” onto contemporary pets that is rooted in the 19thcentury (Macho 2005: 17). More than ever, relationships between humans and animals were played out in the space between the deeply felt closeness to animals and the fear of the transgression of the animal into the human universe.

The coming about of zoos around the early 1830s can be attributed to both sides of this dichotomy. The dozens of zoos that had opened in Europe since the middle of the century, with their specific aesthetics of enclosure, chaining up and locking up, were on the one hand the material manifestation of the dread and disquiet that had been triggered by the blurring of the divide between humans and animals. On the other hand they were the expression of a new sentimental approach to nature, which viewed the animal as a companion, fellow traveller, teacher and mirror image in the middle of the city, i. e. at the centre of a sphere seemingly under the exclusive rule of humans.

Whereas the menageries of earlier centuries had served rulers as a means of representation, zoos had been created by the new bourgeois elites as a powerful demonstration of their claim to societal leadership and an expression of a world view that the zoos were ideally suited to make look natural. The artificial paradises of the 19thand early 20thcenturies – world expositions, parks and gardens, shopping arcades and department stores, dioramas and cinemas – were intended to produce the ideal citizen, “to create artificial humans by creating an artificial world”. This had relevance both to the visitor and to the exhibited animals (Nelle 2005: 15).


By sojourning in ‘the wild’ (zoos still represent themselves in this tradition as oases of nature) the populace would ‘slowly but surely become moralized and better educated’, so the tenor of bourgeois journals of the 19th century (Richter 1860: 379). ‘Populace’ referred not so much to the rising bourgeois elites as to the broader mass of the public. These apparently politically neutral places were inculcating the public into the basics of bourgeois values.Recreation and leisure time in general had became pedagogical and moral institutions and the public zoo provided an ideal location.The animal, whose “family life” and docile compliance with the function allotted to it in natural history were being exhibited, served as a moral and political role model. The relevant criteria were always the human way of seeing and human expectations, which the animal was strictly obliged to conform to. Animals were wanted who had already accumulated “all the experiences of a zoo animal” (Siedler 1907: 11f), i. e. animals who had mastered a specific repertoire of behaviours involving the routine alternation of feeding, playing, fighting and mating. Artificial animals were required, masters of cultural mimicry. If they transgressed the limits of the clichés attached to them the result was serious critique.

Sleeping monkeys, hiding jaguars and dozing off bears were punished with contempt by the human contemporaries who had paid to see them. Especially those Zoo inhabitants came across as genuinely scandalous who failed to conform to the type as contained in the literature for the educated public. In 1913 it was observed that “contrary to the theories advanced by Humboldt and Brehm that the lion is monogamous”, the zoo lion is “a highly gallant beast that can almost compete with a sultan as far as the size of his harem goes” (Anonymous: Neues Wiener Tagblatt, 29.4.1913: 2). Although such characteristics contributed to the public’s amusement, the fact that the animal no longer represented its species was more important. The point of reference for the onlookers were the Illustrations „from nature“ in the natural history lexicons, the „close up“ descriptions from one of the bestsellers of the period Brehms Tierleben [Animal Life], and other popular educational books. These sources provided the authoritative definitions of the normal and typical in nature and every divergence was deeply unsettling.

An anonymous text from the late 19thcentury recounts as ironically as it does faithfully the expectations of zoo visitors, the disparity between model and specimen and the resulting perplexities. “Especially educated and overly sagacious visitors to the park” were “positively scandalised” by the conduct of a polar bear in the Berlin Zoo on a hot summer’s day. The animal was in the shade and on land instead of in the pool. “According to their knowledge of natural history, the animal was morally obliged to ceaselessly dive about among the ice floes in its basin” (Anonymous 1894: 86).

Strikingly similar situations can be observed today: who has not apprehended themselves or other zoo goers in perplexity at the sight of animals in enclosures who share nothing in common with the protagonists of TV animal documentaries? The lives of even the most exotic, tiny or shy animals can be followed at close range in all detail on the screen, generating preconceptions from which the same animals in zoos all too regularly digress. If you are used to seeing the birth of a red panda as large as life from cameras affixed to holes in trees, or know alligators only as animals of prey constantly seizing giant gnus, you are bound to wonder what your observations at the enclosure are supposed to correspond to.


Unspectacular animal conduct in zoos is occasionally felt to be an annoyance. However, no one seems to be troubled by walking over bark in the monkey house while seeing the actual inhabitants living on concrete. The natural appears to us inauthentic while pictures produced by our own imaginative cultures seem unproblematic. These contradictions shed light on the successful strategies of zoos, which have retained much the same structure for more than 150 years. With their mixture of the familiar and the unknown, the original and the clichéd, they are neither unadulterated excerpts of nature nor purely artificial contrivances unconnected to the living conditions they represent. Their secret is to produce a specific hybrid zoo-nature, half real and half fake.

That’s why no one is disturbed by the curious Caribbean photo wallpaper against which no less curious congregations have been coming together over the years. They are the background to a drama that operates with images drawn from all over the world, including the imaginative and lived worlds of the visitor, and combined in the zoo into a clichéd microcosm systematically undermining the distinction between nature and culture. It is surely a cause for regret that no more photos of children and zoos are being made. Rarely did souvenirs bear such true witness of the place they are intended to memorialize.


Anonymous. Plaudereien und Skizzen aus dem Zoologischen Garten. Berlin 1896.

Macho, Thomas, 2005. Tiere in der Stadt. Ein flüchtiges Panorama. In: Kos, Wolfgang, and Öhlinger, Walter (Hg.). Tiere in der Großstadt. Exhibition catalogue to the 321. special exhibition at Wien Museum/Hermesvilla: Tiere in der Großstadt. Wien: self published, 15-20.

Nelle, Florian, 2005. Künstliche Paradiese. Vom Barocktheater zum Filmpalast. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann.

Richter, [H. E.], 1860. Der Zoologische Garten zu Berlin. Gartenlaube, 24, 379- 382.

Siedler, Maximilian, 1907. Mitteilungen aus dem Schönbrunner Zoologischen Garten in Wien. Der Zoologische Garten, 48, 11-13, 161-164.

Illustrations: Collection of the author. With thanks to J. C. and F. Gras, A. Lamata.