- Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto by Lisa Uddin
Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto
Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2015.
xi + 288 pages, 84 black-and-white illustrations, 8 color plates (92 black-and-white and color illustrations in Kindle edition).
ISBN: 978-081-667911-9, $98.00 HB
ISBN: 978-081-667912-6, $28.00 PB
Part museum, midway, and animal prison, zoos are decidedly spectacular: environments meant both to heighten and assuage public fears of nonhuman savagery. Today, however, zoos have become such a familiar part of the urban landscape that it is easy forget how bizarre they are. Sympathetically cast as arks in the park, zoos require enormous budgets to house and—more often than the public would care to know—replace their star attractions, large numbers of which die when they are removed from their natural habitats, fed human-contrived diets, and forced to live in spaces designed to entertain human visitors. Moreover, a visit to a zoo is often punctuated by periods of boredom, if not a nagging sense of guilt. Zoos' entertainment value rests almost entirely upon the animals themselves, who are as likely to engage in stereotyped captive behavior (pacing, rocking back and forth, swimming in circles) as to return the gaze of zoo-goers. So why the bother? As historian Nigel Rothfels has argued, zoos have routinely claimed that they perform a vital civic duty, educating the public about the wonders of nature, developing new generations of conservationists, and—in an age of mass extinction—preserving the bounty and variety of the natural world. Indeed, the zoo industry has wedded itself to an "optimistic and progressivist view of animal collections," [End Page 102] connecting the "history of zoos with a more general history of human enlightenment."1
This view has long served to explain the evolution of the zoo itself, from concrete and iron cages to more elaborate, naturalistic habitats designed, we are told, with the well-being of the inmates in mind. In her brilliant, wide-ranging, and at times maddeningly dense counterhistory Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto, Lisa Uddin challenges this thesis and, in particular, the "evolutionary character of official zoo history" that highlights zoo makers' growing awareness of—and sympathy toward—the needs and desires of the animals in their care (5). Instead, she suggests that transformations in the modern zoo have been driven by unambiguously human (and, more often than not, racist) concerns.
The chronological focus of her study is the 1960s and 1970s, when a spirit of renewal pervaded major zoological institutions across the United States. In the decades following World War II, zoo designers sought to create a "new zoo" (3), a configuration of animal displays devoid of the architectural blemishes (small cages, visible barriers, minimalist environments) that were believed to provoke feelings of unease in midcentury zoo-goers. Although Uddin spends much of the book describing zoos' various revitalization projects, she primarily approaches zoo renewal as a discourse: a "prescriptive discussion that set the parameters for what was materially possible in American zooscapes" (8). According to Uddin, this discourse was intimately tied to white Americans' anxieties about race and urban decline. Just as "middle income Americans" fled the inner city and "embraced a particular spatiality that became synonymous with white culture, a geography that was sanitized, routinized, secluded, and beautified by natural-looking flora and fauna," midcentury zoos demonstrated a similar commitment to whiteness, seeking to distance themselves—architecturally and symbolically, if not geographically—from a dilapidated urban core inhabited by people of color and the working poor (13).
To make her arguments, Uddin, an art historian at Whitman College, consults a vast array of sources, from postcards and magazine illustrations to oral histories, institutional correspondence, architectural drawings, and Hollywood films. In chapter 1, for example, she analyzes the photography of Garry Winogrand, the antizoo advocacy of Peter Batten, and the design criticism of British zoologist Desmond Morris—author of the influential 1968 essay "The Shame of the Naked Cage"—to show how midcentury critics utilized racialized notions of shame to promote zoo renewal. At a...