Wild Things
January 20, 2013 11:05 AM   Subscribe

The Bronx Zoo is managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which boasts of running more than 500 projects in sixty-five countries through global field offices whose employees work to advance sustainable development; address issues of global climate change, health and well-being, and natural-resource use; and pursue other noble-sounding objectives that attest to the totality of man’s dominion over the lesser beasts.

Dana does her best to enrich the lives of the giraffes under her care, giving them brush to eat and toys to play with. Too much stimulation throws the giraffes off. The key is to balance chronic understimulation with the introduction of anything potentially enriching that giraffes might find upsetting or odd, which, it turns out, includes almost everything. “You can’t change it up too much, because they get squeamish and they space out,” Dana tells me.

Last week, she adds, when the zebras kicked a blue ball over the fence into the giraffe enclosure, the giraffes refused to come out of the Giraffe House for the rest of the week. Deprive giraffes of necessary stimulation and they develop a distinctive behavioral syndrome that Dana calls “neurotic tongue.” If you go to a zoo and see giraffes licking the walls, it means that they are not well cared for.
posted by latkes (30 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
If you go to a zoo and see giraffes licking the walls, it means that they are not well cared for.

Pretty sure this is the saddest sentence ever.
posted by Fizz at 11:18 AM on January 20, 2013 [9 favorites]

Camelopards are pretty fascinating creatures to watch... but seriously the FPP feels like it is sort of misrepresenting the article linked to.
posted by edgeways at 11:19 AM on January 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Those zebras. Crazy name, crazy guys.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 11:22 AM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

This passage seemed to sum it up for me better:
[The Bronx Zoo] is managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which boasts of running more than 500 projects in sixty-five countries through global field offices whose employees work to advance sustainable development; address issues of global climate change, health and well-being, and natural-resource use; and pursue other noble-sounding objectives that attest to the totality of man’s dominion over the lesser beasts.
I'm not entirely sure what the zoo is acting as a metaphor for in this article, but it's an interesting read.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:33 AM on January 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Feel free to change the pull quote to the one above mods, if mine is too long or mis-leading.
posted by latkes at 11:36 AM on January 20, 2013

(Latkes, this is a great find!)
posted by ChuraChura at 11:46 AM on January 20, 2013

[Edited post to add the "noble-sounding objectives" section above the fold, carry on.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:48 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

If we do not dominate the lesser beasts who will... the ocelot? Then again, the ocelot is the obvious second choice.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:51 AM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

That article is pretty amazing, tons of interesting stuff in there.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:59 AM on January 20, 2013

There's an ocelot at our zoo - fucking thing is practically invisible, to the point where I've suspected it of being an empty enclosure.
posted by Artw at 12:11 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm still making my way through the article, but it seems like a fairly damning use of editorial voice to throw that "and pursue other noble-sounding objectives that attest to the totality of man’s dominion over the lesser beasts" in as a pull-quote. I'm not seeing anything in the WCS' mission that gives this quote credence.

Now, it's entirely possible that in reading this article I'll find remarkably damning statements that attest to the WCS' complete inability to manage a humane zoo, and maybe they're approaching this from a Genesis 1:28 standpoint, but .. yeah. Let me reach my own decisions?
posted by DoubtingThomas at 12:13 PM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

On the wall of Breheny’s small corner office is a painting of a leopard massacring a pheasant. There is also a fish tank stocked with tropical fish. I am left with the impression of a grown-up boy whose mental age is approximately seven.
Yeah, this did not fill me with optimism. Is this supposed to be droll? Cutesy? It just comes across as tone deaf and shitty. While there are a few moments of genuine humor and even some insight in the article, there are at least as many of these narrative turds to step around.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:19 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

The author's descriptions were sometimes quite intriguing; when he said the Bengal florican had the oddly two-dimensional appearance of a wrought-iron ornamental duck, I was compelled to find pictures of the bird.

Cultural Affairs commissioner Kate Levin is a tall handsome woman who looks like death.

I think he could have refrained from saying that Kate Levin looked like death. Maybe just, in general, as a writer, refrain from saying that.
posted by redsparkler at 12:28 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seemed to me that that was his thesis statement? I'm not sure. It wasn't a particularly sympathetic portrayal of most of the aspects of the Bronx Zoo.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:31 PM on January 20, 2013

[Changed the linked text to be a smaller part of that phrase, skipping "noble-sounding" to reduce appearance of editorializing.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:37 PM on January 20, 2013

Near the fire pits, a fat mom is yelling at her kid for wasting food. “You never, never, never waste food! Never!” she instructs, in a scary tone of voice that is guaranteed to echo in the head of her future young diabetic.

I hate the author of this piece more than is reasonable or healthy for me.
posted by Grimgrin at 12:40 PM on January 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

As objective journalism, the piece is bonkers.
But I thought it was also a really compelling read and despite some bizarre asides - an oddly likeable piece too.

(I know a bit about the ghastly eugenicist, pseudo-scientist, evil snob & Bronx zoo co-founder Madison Grant. His family destroyed almost all his personal papers - at his specific request - at his death & probably with good reason. For what it's worth, I'd say the author has definitely done his homework on Grant .)

Thanks so much for the post.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:47 PM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm halfway through and so far, both intrigued and annoyed. I suspect I might ultimately agree with its thesis (...not sure yet...). But it's being communicated via curmudgeonly asides that get increasingly distracting and forced:
- "Joe works nights at the zoo commissary with his friend Quincy Banks, a sweet baby-faced man with brush-cut hair and a solid build who doesn’t mind the long hours the two men spend delivering food to zoo animals. It is safer to be inside the zoo at night than out on the streets, he explains, adding, without rancor, 'Animals eat better than us.'" [This is the least distracting to me.]
- "She enters the room with a tray of crickets, whose loud night chirrups terrified me as a child more than the police sirens of lower-middle-income Brooklyn did before my parents moved us to the greener pastures of northern New Jersey, where the streets were as empty at night as they were during the day."
- "The process by which the unwitting doves raise their progeny might serve as a useful parable for the wimpy urban parents of high-achieving kids who have displaced the native residents of my old Brooklyn neighborhood and driven real estate prices into the stratosphere."
Is the author really going to walk around the zoo taking random swipes at social safety net policy, the emptiness of suburbia, and gentrification? "Oh, crickets -- that reminds me of something else that's wrong with society!"

These things are surely related, deep down. But right now, they only feel relevant if the article's subject is something like: the relationship of wealthy people, less wealthy people, and animals, as expressed via land use and entitlement policy, using as lenses the zoo, the zoo's history, and the author's own history. That's, uh, pretty vast.

On the other hand, I would not have gotten so intrigued if the article had focused solely on the relationship between people and wildlife while ignoring the relationship between environmentalism and privilege. So I am interested to see how the article draws its various threads together.
posted by salvia at 2:15 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's actually a technical term for the kind of asides in this article: wanking.
posted by sneebler at 2:21 PM on January 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hmm. This article is the best illustration yet, for me, that insight is not an additive property of the number of interesting paragraphs.
posted by cromagnon at 2:50 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I get the sense that the author wishes that there were no such things as zoos. However, in the same article I notice his account of the "environmental" scene in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era and United States in the early 20th Century, among other places; where people simply didn't care about wildlife or the environment and cared more about "whatever, how am I going to feed my kids?"

In the absence of zoos, I wonder what the author thinks we should do to protect wildlife from people. Or is that the point, that we shouldn't do anything?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:06 PM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

His topic seems less "how to treat animals" and more "how to think about 'nature.'"
"The idea that the earth has become a functional extension of humankind... is a new beginning of biblical proportion in which the old outmoded human concept of nature has no place. As inhabitants of a new epoch, which geologists have named the Anthropocene, we should properly understand nature as a sequence of enclosures like parks and zoos that provide their inhabitants with graduated levels of protection from toxins, diseases, and other man-made threats. The yearning for contact with a nature that exists outside ourselves, like the desire for love, may be hard-wired into our brains, a fossilized remnant of a prior stage of human evolution that no longer helps us navigate the world in which we live.

...[A]t the Bronx Zoo...giddy amusement-park tricks offer a measure of relief from the knowledge that nature is only another man-made illusion." [My emphasis to help with skimming]
I wonder if author David Samuels will feel relieved in some way by climate change ("nature exists outside of human control after all") or if he thinks that it proves his point ("even the climate is now human-controlled"). I'd guess the latter, since part of the Anthropocene theory is that toxins are now worldwide, and he considers drought to be evidence of human control.

But it also feels like he's echoing some of the concerns heard in The Incarceration of Wildness: Wilderness Areas as Prisons [pdf]:
In this way, designated wilderness areas become prisons, in which the imperium incarcerates unassimilable wildness in order to complete itself, to finalize its reign. This is what is meant when it is said that there is no wilderness anymore in the contemporary world, in the technological imperium. There is, or will be soon, only a network of wilderness reservations in which wildness has been locked up.
If the concerns in that article are partially what bothers him, maybe it will come as a partial relief when weather itself comes to feel quite Other? It will be increasingly obvious that wild nature doesn't exist only inside wilderness preserves but that we live within it.

Either way, I don't agree that "we should properly understand nature as a sequence of enclosures like parks and zoos" because I want to reserve that word for the ecological processes that envelop us. They're not untouched by human influence, but they haven't been for many millenia.

Or maybe Samuels isn't lamenting that we can no longer view nature as wilder and bigger than ourselves; maybe he is critiquing the people/nature dualism as having kicked off the problem to begin with. If so, it's not going to be easy to eradicate dualism. It'd be more realistic to aim for a respectful dualism where our relationship with "nature" is guided by ethics of reciprocity and humble respect instead of "ethics" of colonialism and extraction.

Okay, maybe I should stop speculating and go finish the article now.
posted by salvia at 3:44 PM on January 20, 2013

His topic seems less "how to treat animals" and more "how to think about 'nature.'"

Hmm, I take that back. He seems to be seeking a "model for the future of man’s relationship to other animals in a world without wild nature."
posted by salvia at 3:52 PM on January 20, 2013

I last saw this article in Longform's Best of 2012 round-up, where it's listed in the Best in Science category. I've had no more success getting through this frustrating, caustic article now than I did then--and I stopped at the same place, both times. I would not want to be David Samuels' interview subject: he seems to dislike all people nearly equally.
posted by librarylis at 6:59 PM on January 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am with those who don't like the author. Way too much snark.

By the way, even decently fed captive giraffes lick things. The fact is that no zoo can really give them enough leafy branches. Their instinct to lick has to go somewhere. Puzzle toys and so forth.

Giraffe taste preferences are only begining to be fully understood, and the same goes for their nutritional needs. For example, giraffes like sweet tastes.

I am not against zoos. The better zoos do take decent care of their charges. I think it is wrong to say that you should never be able to see a giraffe, a hippo, a lion, a tiger or tropical birds in person if you can't afford the price of a trip to where these animals live. Some of those countries are politically unstable, and if you want your ten year old to see a giraffe in the wild, you aren't taking him or her to Kenya, Chad, Uganda, etc, because you'd like to have your ten year old live to be an eleven year old.
Insisting that going there is the only way is plain out and elitism.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:55 PM on January 20, 2013

You can take a 10yo kid to Kenya, or Uganda and not only not have them die but actually see a lot of such things without much more preparation than a trip to, say, Cancun. Chad would require some planning, but isn't at all impossible. The real barriers to doing it are the several thousand dollars needed, and getting over the whole Africa = poverty + disease + instadeath thing.
posted by cromagnon at 11:55 PM on January 20, 2013

Insisting that going there is the only way is plain out and elitism.

There are many people, places, and things I will never see unless I find a way to go and see them. It would be more elitist to expect the entire world to be captured, carved up, and delivered to my little town in convenient chunks.

If a crappy exhibit is essential to species preservation, OK, it's probably better than nothing, but otherwise I'm against exhibits that don't offer something substantially better than one or two specimens pacing back and forth in a small observation cage.
posted by pracowity at 12:26 AM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Insisting that going there is the only way is plain out and elitism.

The only way to see Mt. Rushmore is to go there. Pointing that out is just stating a fact; it's not elitism. Do you think we should reduce inconvenience to people who would like to see Mt. Rushmore by creating full-scale models of Mt. Rushmore in every state and country? I don't. Is my attitude necessarily elitist?
posted by salvia at 12:33 AM on January 21, 2013

I appreciate the criticisms of the article in this thread. I also found the piece pretty all over the place, and especially hated the gratuitous fat-phobic paragraph quoted above.

There was enough interesting and compelling in the piece that I was glad I read it and wanted to share it, but agree that it's problematic.
posted by latkes at 11:23 AM on January 21, 2013

I also find the author's mean-spirited remarks about some of the people in the story (saying the one person looks like death, saying the other person has the mentality of a 7-year-old, saying the thing about the mom and her kid) very weird... so weird that I wonder if they are meant to be taken some other way.

The author is certainly reflective about the phenomenon of perceived superiority. So when he makes these weirdly snooty and telling-not-showing remarks, mustn't he recognize that's what he's doing? Are these things in there deliberately, meant to be jarring, to illustrate some point about how tempting it is to bask in one's perceived superiority to other people just like basking in perceived superiority to the "lesser beasts"?
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:05 PM on January 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

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