- The Animal Game: Searching for Wildness at the American Zoo by Daniel E. Bender
Daniel Bender's The Animal Game: Searching for Wildness at the American Zoo offers an absorbing, deeply researched, and often disturbing social history of U.S. zoos from their founding in the late 1800s through their reorientation as conservation institutions in the l960s and 1970s. The fullest and most insightful study of the origins and development of American zoos yet written, The Animal Game offers essential reading for historians of many stripes. For zoos, as Bender shows, offer rich and surprising perspectives on many of the biggest stories in the American past, from immigration, imperialism, and labor struggle to popular entertainment, white flight, and species extinction.
The notorious secrecy of the institutions that stand at the center of The Animal Game make Bender's achievement all the more surprising. "It is a rare zoo," as Bender notes, "that opens its archives to researchers or the public" (12). Bender, though, penetrates the wall of silence zoos have long attempted to hide behind. Fired by a lifelong love of zoos and fortified by investigative skills honed in his previous work on anti-sweatshop campaigns, labor movements, imperialism, and discourses of savagery and civilization in the late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century U.S., the author deftly integrates archival materials from the handful of American zoos that have allowed historians to access their records (particularly those in Philadelphia, the Bronx, St. Louis, and Washington, DC) with evidence drawn from newspapers, the popular writings of animal traders like Frank Buck and self-proclaimed "zoo men" such as Marlin Perkins, trade publications, films, and other sources. In the process, he crafts a book that manages to integrate the disparate experiences of an array of peoples and animals—not just in the U.S., but also in the African and Asian forests and savannas that supplied American zoos with the living spectacles on which their peculiar enterprise depended.
Bender's attentiveness to character and context makes The Animal Game unusually enjoyable to read for a work of such analytical and narrative intricacy. Unlike many of the non-historians in the burgeoning field of animal studies, Bender eschews theoretical abstraction, generalization, and jargon-larded obfuscation in favor of empiricism, particularism, and clarity. The Animal Game's main interventions and primary claims unfurl in a succession of chapters organized according to varying principles of periodization, place, and subject matter. [End Page 945] The result is a swirling narrative that challenges readers to think across time, space, and topic; material on the 1930s, for instance, is spread across three chapters, while the wild animal trade figures centrally in chapters 2 and 3 then recedes into the background, only to re-emerge as a central theme in chapter 7.
Readers willing to accept from the outset that the history of American zoos cannot—and perhaps should not—be reduced to a taut and unitary story will find that The Animal Game amply rewards the effort needed to follow Bender's twists and turns. A short list of Bender's major contributions begins with his focus on the animal trade, which he persuasively casts as a crucial interface between American zoo visitors and the people, animals, and institutions of Africa and Asia (Why Bender insists on overlooking the peoples, animal kinds, and environments of the polar regions, South America, Australia, and Oceania is never entirely clear; in his hands, the American zoo is flush with giraffes and elephants, lions and tigers, gorillas and orangutans—yet oddly bereft of polar bears and penguins, jaguars and guanacos, kangaroos and koalas). Bender's restricted geographic sweep nonetheless enables him to examine zoos as key sites for educating—and generally mis-educating—American visitors about empire and imperialism. As decolonization movements took hold in Malaysia, Kenya, and other former colonies following World War II, zoos continued to cast the nature and culture of forest and veldt in colonial terms. Africans and, to a lesser extent, Asians, remained racial "others"—primitives whose proclivity...