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  • Paperback Tigers:Breaking the Zoo
  • Elisha Cohn (bio)

In recent years, numerous highly lauded works for the global mass market in literary fiction have centered on zoo animals’ escape or the destruction of zoos during wartime. When The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s chapter “The Zoo Attack” was published in The New Yorker in 1995, it was central to the birth of Haruki Murakami’s reputation in English. Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi (2001), in which a teenaged boy cohabits in a lifeboat with an abandoned zoo’s last surviving tiger, won the 2002 Man Booker Prize and a Christmas 2012 film adaptation. European zoos received attention in Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (2011), a finalist for the National Book Award, which likewise depicted the decrepitude of animal-centered institutions for human recreation, while Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007) offered a historical take on the Warsaw Zoo during the Second World War. The American bombing of the Baghdad Zoo in 2003, which led to the death or escape of many animals, inspired not only Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon’s graphic novel Pride of Baghdad (2006) but also Rajiv Joseph’s play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a 2010 Pulitzer finalist. Portraying the fragile lives of captive animals in recent crises, these works imagine humans and animals as sharing a milieu. [End Page 568]

This proliferation of zoo-break narratives might appear to make immediate, valuable political interventions by relying on the use of animals as figures—allegories, fables, analogies—for human conditions: zoo animals, though excluded from the polity, are constituted by it; their precariousness stands in for the experiences of human subjects constituted by crumbling state institutions. In the current political landscape, the zoo-break might be understood to allegorize crises of biopolitics, state sovereignty, and late liberalism, which turn on questions of autonomy and self-regulation. However, from this perspective, escaped zoo animals are not really animals at all but natural resources—figurative strategies that are “good to think with” (Lévi-Strauss 89). And as both animal studies and postcolonial studies perspectives would emphasize, animals’ renewed wildness figuratively serves a neoliberal ideal of unfettered human autonomy and a triumph of spirit and imagination over circumstance.

This essay, however, identifies texts that use the zoo’s destruction to explore forms of interspecies relation that are minimally politicized and aesthetic modes that are not allegorical. Rather than propose an alternative account of sovereignty, these texts are interested in how species-relations take shape in a shared milieu—a transhistorical concern, albeit one that feels especially pressing during this contemporary moment when neoliberal subjectivity and modes of relation no longer answer to faltering state institutions. I argue that in depictions of the broken zoo, the institution’s desolation replaces large-scale organization with small intimacies, opening up relationships of interspecies feeling that acknowledge the proximity of animals’ and humans’ experiences without assimilating them.1 Life of Pi suggests that animal lives are closer to us than we know:

If you took the city of Tokyo and turned it upside down and shook it, you’d be amazed at all the animals that would fall out: badgers, wolves, [End Page 569] boa constrictors, Komodo dragons, crocodiles, ostriches, baboons, capybaras, wild boars, leopards, manatees, ruminants in untold numbers. There is no doubt in my mind that feral giraffes and feral hippos have been living in Tokyo for generations without being seen by a soul.


Pi imagines the zoo and the city as open, porous institutions, with less power to contain life’s profusion than we might suppose. This image deemphasizes the fraught status of the neoliberal human subject as figured by animals, while it renders perceptible the inter-meshed lives of many species—observed, exoticized, appropriated, and refigured—living in propinquity without ever being “seen.”

This essay focuses on four works that evoke continuities between humans and nonhumans on the basis of what I would characterize as modest forms of affective and ethical care originating in propinquity and suggesting a deeply inclusive flattening of ontological difference. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Pride of Baghdad use talking animals to...


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pp. 568-600
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