Animal DeathSUP’s Animal Death has been launched with some insightful words from Thom van Dooren. The book emerged from a great (if morbid) conference and contains some important reflections on the killing and mourning of animals. It includes my essay on the problematisation of “death due to behaviour” by everyone’s favourite zoo reformer, Heini Hediger.

“worse than I could even imagine. … it’s a tragedy for the animal world is what it is. But it could have been a bigger tragedy for the human world. … The most magnificent creature in the entire world, the tiger is. … But if you had 18 Bengal tigers and everyone running around these neighborhoods, you folks wouldn’t want to have seen what would have happened.”

Thusly did a suicidal Ohioan amateur zookeeper recently loose his exotic animals on a public media-primed for panic, as if to fulfil the therological dreams of riot observers, and worse, the predictions of overzealous policemen. A tanned man in khaki leapt before the cameras to hyperbolise the threat. An impressive inventory of such beasts as provoke an “Oh my!” became an impressive kill-list and cameos in deputy’s anecdotes. The message is as clear as ever: leave the menageries to the professionals.

The disputants remark how quickly impotent welfare concern becomes shoot-to-kill tyranny when the beasts’ sovereign owner self-sacrifices and wildness is uncaged. Some propose the ironic reading of a passage from Jungle Jack’s autobiography, but the learned gathering declines so as to slow Hediger’s grave-spin. One notes that a viral monkey escaped. They nod and murmur; they have heard that one before.

Best anecdote ever

November 24, 2011

“People who play jokes are also very stupid and on April Fool’s Day—which fortunately only comes once a year—men and women who happen to have the name of an animal—e.g. Miss Bird, Mr Bear, Fish, Lion etc. are asked to ring a certain telephone number, which is the number of the zoo. In the smaller zoos this may mean that the whole day’s work is wasted in the office. Over 100 calls of this nature were received by Zurich Zoo on 1 April 1964. In a previous year I tried to warn everyone with likely names by an announcement in the press; the net result was that the number of these senseless calls was if anything even larger than ever.”

Heini Hediger, Man and Animal in the Zoo

Metamorphoses of the Zoo: Animal Encounter after Noah, edited by the inestimable Ralph Acampora, has now been published. Among a number of great essays, including Jennifer Wolch’s influential “Zoöpolis,” is my “From Zoo to Zoöpolis: Effectively Enacting Eden.” (A related review on “Unreal Zoos” is at Society and Animals 18:1.) This essay was a challenge to write, not only because it synthesises so much of my neglected work, but also due to Ralph’s insistence (central to the book) that critique be paired with reconstruction. An important, if taxing exercise for us card-carrying Foucauldians and our instinctive suspicion of therapeutic interventions.

In the acknowledgements, Ralph apologises to his son for scandalising his middle namesake, but then characteristically avers in favour of promise. I am another to both despise and love the flood story, and another with a son named after (if not for) that ambivalent patriarch. He knows the letters that make up his name and is apparently capable of ego-googling, because he came running one morning to show me this page, and exclaim about its images of “animals, water, animals, water.” This essay is for him, and generations of biophiliacs to come; may they not be alone on the earth.

I wanted to play spot the difference, but in the absence of the photograph I’m sure I took last month of the pair of kookaburras in the Bronx zoo, I’ll just tell you. And there is a difference, contra certain suggestions that the representational violence of a photograph is as bad as a cage. This kookaburra, who loves to perch in our backyard, especially at dusk, to eye out doomed lizards, before shifting perhaps to the nearby bushland, or the smorgasbord of the soccer oval, and who loves a good racket, he and his mates, who kindly enough share their amusement with the treebound houses, sometimes so cynically as to remind you just how much of a farce this whole caper is … this kookaburra, when he wants to fly off, well, he just goes. He’s already long gone. He isn’t stopped by the borders of this frame. Unlike the exhibitionary apparatus in which those two New York kookas are framed and contained (replica treebranches and all) to provide a million fleeting live snapshots. They are still there. I never got to ask the keepers if they laugh, if they even still give voice to that call so distinctive that the Wiradjuri people (in sly accord with Adam) could only fling the din back at them. Does a caged kookaburra still laugh? Is a kookaburra that doesn’t laugh its own onomatopoeic name still a kookaburra? Of course it is. And yet … it would be a laugh unheard by the ears of country. The muted laugh of an inmate, perhaps only noted in sadness by a few of its equally incongruous counterparts. I don’t know if I would take the trouble.

“In those days, Marianne, people kept wild beasts such as lions and tigers in cages and looked at them for information. Who would have thought they would take to our climate so kindly, when the fire came and let them out?” (Heroes and Villians, p. 9)

Thusly does Carter’s Professor of History counter Wells’s wooden-headed Prof in the great zoöeschatological disputation.

Who would have thought, indeed.

Perhaps enough will survive to take kindly to our posthuman remains. It seems the apocalypse must come before the rewilding.

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