Field thoughts (a blog-like page)

What It Means to Deny Climate Change

Susannah Crockford - September 19, 2018

Read Susannah's blog post for Counterpoint here

A Day at the Helsinki Zoo - Part I

Gry Ulstein - December 12, 2017

We are met by a bright yellow, rectangular sign explaining that it would take a human eight minutes to get from the start of the bridge to “Cat Valley,” while it would take a lion just forty-five seconds. I remark jokingly: “But the human is depicted walking and the lion sprinting—that’s hardly fair! I bet I could get to Cat Valley in less time than eight minutes.” But it isn’t tempting to go running in the damp, dark cold of the Finnish late November. Our feet are already soaked with slush, and the constant drizzle of icy water can’t seem to decide whether to be snow or rain. Under the silhouette of the walking human and running lion, another (walking) human is depicted next to a flying tropical bird and a lumbering turtle. Six, one, and thirty minutes are the respective times it would take a human, a bird, and a turtle to move from the zoo entrance to the tropical enclosures. I think of the fable about the turtle and the hare and, as we start crossing the bridge out to the zoo, I wonder whether the turtle would beat a lion and a bird too. Then I remember that fables are always about humans, and the animals that happen to feature in the stories are usually significant only in their already-established cultural symbolism.

The zoo is located on an island just outside mainland Helsinki. The website of the zoo boasts that Helsinki Zoo is one of the world’s oldest, established in 1889. Moreover, the website outlines that the zoo participates in several conservation programs that aim to re-introduce animals into their natural habitats. Around 150 species of animals and close to 1000 plant species can be found at the zoo, of which a handful is listed on the endangered species list.

Two hands would be enough to count the people visiting the zoo this Sunday. Crossing the bridge feels a little like entering a human-free zone, especially just after a human-packed Helsinki city centre. It feels refreshing and we start appreciating how the unfriendly weather kindly grants us exclusive access to the caged spectacle of the animals. There is something weird about this attitude: “Let’s go to the zoo: a space where humans can observe and learn about a huge variety of nonhuman species in limited, enclosed spaces set to mimic (but never properly realise) the animal’s natural habitat—but for God’s sake let’s hope we’ll have them all to ourselves.” As if being alone with the zoo animals somehow increases the feeling of interacting with “real” wildlife.

The excitement felt when entering a zoo is, for many adults, a reliving of the undiluted thrill of a child seeing a “wild” animal up close for the first time. Unlike children, however, we (me and my two colleagues) are also confronted with the inevitable disenchantment that comes with reading and thinking about animal welfare and zoo ethics. There is something petty in the Helsinki Zoo Trip Advisor visitor reviews that express annoyance about how hardly any animals could be observed outside during their visit; versions of the stereotypical consumer attitude “I mean, that’s what we paid for!” Petty, and yet disturbingly relatable.

We are incredibly lucky: during our five hours spent at the zoo we get to see, through the meshwork of the fences: five tigers (two of which play raucously with their food in the mud), two snow leopards, an Amur leopard, a (dozing) wild cat, two red pandas, macaques, a pair of ravens, a pair of king eagles, snowy owls, cat owls, wild boars, moose, muskoxen, reindeer, camels, a lama, a fennec fox, an excited otter (just given a fish), and right at sunset (at 3:30 PM) a curious wolverine that shuffles over to sit down on his haunches and sniff and look at us for a moment, beady-eyed and ridiculously cartoon-like. And then there is the tropical indoor area with macaws, monkeys, snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles, all sorts of beautiful birds, colourful plants, and fascinating, blood-curdling insects and arachnids. Yet, in spite of this wealth of nonhuman critters and plants, we still manage to moan over the fact that the Pallas’s cat is nowhere to be seen, the lynxes and lions are huddled indoors against the cold as well, and the brown bears are hibernating. Even though we tell ourselves it’s a good thing, really, that the animals may choose not to be gawked at, and that there is room for instinctual behaviour such as hibernating, we still have this grudging feeling of disappointment, this expectation of all the park’s animals nicely lined up on display. Why?

There is a deeper sense of unsettlement that wells up from the disappointment as I observe the animals in their enclosures; a sense that they have in fact been placed there for me, and not for their own sake. That their wellbeing is less important than their entertainment value. Of course, this is not entirely true either. A lot of existing zoos are more interested in (or so it says on their websites anyway) conservation, research, and education than pure entertainment, and the rules and regulations for hygiene, health, and enclosure enrichment have become a lot more elaborate across the board. Many zoos also donate a lot of what they gain on visitors’ fees to various organisations and sanctuaries that actively protect, conserve, and rehabilitate (endangered) animals around the world. But what does the motivation behind zoos matter for the creature in the cage?

The crux of what I find so problematic about the zoo as an institution is that little attention is typically paid to animals as individuals and not just as educational representatives for their species, or representatives of an effort to preserve a species on the brink of extinction. (This is in addition to obvious issues with the human gaze and its colonial politics of looking, which my colleague Shannon discusses in more detail in her zoo reflection below.) I don’t mean “individuals” in a romantic, Disney sort of way (people will go there without needing a prompt), but rather the history and prospects of each animal present(ed) in the zoo. Were they born in captivity; how were they rescued; where exactly did they come from; why were they brought specifically to Helsinki Zoo; can they ever be rehabilitated?—and so forth. How many zoo animals are ever able to be (re)introduced into their “natural” environments after they have been exposed to the presence of humans on a daily basis? And why should my (or anyone’s) engagement with animal welfare, ecology, and species extinction depend upon observing endangered nonhuman beings through a mesh fence anyway?

I have used the word “mesh” twice already, and quite differently to how Timothy Morton—somewhat a philosopher laureate of the NARMESH project—uses the term in his work. I’ve used it to describe a border construction made to separate humans from nonhumans, yet allow as much room for observation and interaction as possible. Morton uses the mesh as a metaphor, describing it as “the interconnectedness of all living and non-living things” (The Ecological Thought 28), and as “vast yet intimate: there is no here nor there, so everything is brought into our awareness. The more we analyse the more ambiguous things become,” Morton writes (40). In a talk, Morton explains that The Ecological Thought attempts to show how the “necessary ambiguity” in ecology as a concept is tied to the necessary ambiguity in ecological beings themselves. Just as we can’t tell where the concept of ecology starts or stops, he says, we can’t tell where an ecological being starts or stops either (“I Believe in Coral”). Morton comes to the conclusion, therefore, that “(e)nvironmental awareness might have something intrinsically uncanny about it, as if we were seeing something we shouldn’t be seeing, as if we realized we were caught in something” (58, italics added).

Maybe the feeling of uneasiness in the encounter with the zoo residents is rooted in the uncanniness of experiencing the mesh, or rather of almost experiencing it: the sense that something crucial of that meshy interconnectedness is missing and the simultaneous sense of finding too much actual mesh in one spot. The motionless multitude of mesh in the zoo is artificial—uncannily so because of the sheer number of animals from several continents and climates squeezed together on a couple of square kilometres. The zoo will never achieve more than an echo of the wildlife it presents, and the ambiguity that Morton ties to ecology and ecological beings is lacking. The caged animals rather have something finite about them, a finitude that is probably linked to the limits set by the border around their enclosures. Perhaps one could say that zoos do allow the human spectator to perceive a performance of Morton’s mesh of uncanny ecological thought, but always through the filter of a physical fence (meshy though it may be) that separates and imposes a species hierarchy on the human-nonhuman relationship. Compared to the way that some narratives can perform the mesh, the performance of the zoo is limited by its inescapable border-built hierarchies. A day at the zoo fails to represent ecological thought because the uncanniness of the zoo’s animals stems from their confined, finite performance of ecology rather than their unrestrained, intimate enmeshment as ecological beings.

As we leave the zoo, I stop to look at the human versus animal speed signs again. I didn’t measure the time it took us to walk to Cat Valley, but I bet it was more than eight minutes—we got so distracted by the other animals on the way there.

A Day at the Helsinki Zoo - Part II

Shannon Lambert - December 12, 2017

An airport, 26.11.17. People with dazed looks, people with visibly strained faces, and people who just look plain (plane?) tired. Variations of each passed us by as we sat waiting for our flight back to Brussels. During the day we had visited a zoo—an experience which made it rather tempting to draw parallels between our people-watching and the “watching” we’d done earlier. Of course, an important difference in this comparison is that we were all going somewhere and, very likely, the animals weren’t.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) working definition of a zoo is “a business that maintains a stationary collection of exotic animals for the primary purpose of public exhibition” (my emphasis). Issues of mobility as well as the productivity and politics of “looking” are both central to discussions surrounding the contested site of “the Zoo.” Zoo” is a broad term which doesn’t do justice to its varied and complex realities. I am therefore cautious (and conscious) of the generalizing nature of this piece. While I am by no means an expert on “zoo ethics,” our visit presents an opportunity to explore “the mesh” in a specific and tangible way. My thoughts follow a more philosophical route guided in particular by two moments which have marked themselves in my memory.

Raven circles. The day we visited the zoo the weather was freezing. It’s only with a touch of melodrama that I say it was the coldest I’d ever been. Even bodily movement—our walking of the zoo loop—wasn’t sufficient to counter the chill. Stopping at an enclosure which held two ravens and two eagles, we discovered that we weren’t alone in our “looping.” Three of the birds were still. Their stoic postures sharply contrasted with the continuous and repetitive movement of one of the resident ravens. She flew in circles, one after another, at once dizzying and disturbing. The sign placed in front of the enclosure explained the migratory routes and distances of the Steller’s sea eagles as well as facts about the Common Raven. The netting sectioned out a piece of sky. Small birds flitted in and out of the wiry rope while the raven circled. Answers to questions like “how did these animals come into captivity?” and, “can they be released?” were as available to us as an answer to Carroll’s “why is a raven like a writing desk?” While the raven’s circling may have been a natural behavior or form of “play,” watching it made me think about “zoochosis.” This term, coined by Bill Travers (1992), is used to describe the expression of repetitive, or stereotypical, behaviors in captive animals. As Geoff Hosey states in the short documentary Zoochosis, ethology still has much to learn about the causal relationship between boredom, frustration and stress and repetitive actions. However, work by Georgia Mason and Ros Clubb offers a starting point. Based on extensive data analysis, they argue that the greater the home range of an animal and the daily distances they move in the wild, the greater likelihood there is that they will present stereotypies in captivity (Report 2002). Animals with large home ranges include: polar bears, elephants, large cats, birds, whales.

(Image from documentary Zoochosis)

For both humans and for animals, “movement is a way of orienting the world and thus particular movements (or lack thereof) have different significance and impact” (Bull 25). As Maxine Sheets-Johnstone states, “aliveness is…a concept grounded in movement” (1999; 135, emphasis in original). Movement, according to Sheets-Johnstone, shapes a self’s subjectivity as well as playing a role in “comprehending the subjectivity of the other”: “it is through movement that we (humans and animals) understand the world” (Bull 32).

I now want to move from the circling raven to my second marked memory: a representation of animal movement—paw swipes. As Jacob Bull writes in the introduction to Moving Animals – Animal Movements (2011),

…to engage with the representations of movement and the methods by which to capture such performances is to engage with the cuts, splices, splashes and lines which scrape, overlay or project animals and their movements onto and into the pages of our more-than-human social world. Such markings are in themselves movements and are fundamental to our understandings of humanimal encounters.

(Bull 32)

From the raven/eagle enclosure we continued walking and found ourselves amongst the cats. For the large percentage of the population proudly self-styled as “cat people,” a description of this collective’s agile, light and almost spectral beauty is unnecessary—it comes with the territory. However, my intention is not to offer a glowing adulation of cats; instead, I am more interested in a moment of “non-seeing.”

Each of the enclosures in this area consisted of wire fences and glass doors towards the (viewer’s) front. It wasn’t always easy to see through the glass, but in one enclosure in particular—that of a single large tiger—the view had been almost completely obscured by muddy paw markings.

While, admittedly, a very specific association, the markings made me think of Anat Pick’s work on animal privacy. In a revisionist reading of John Berger’s famous essay “Why Look at Animals?” (1980), Pick questions the “desire to look” (116). In a world where “technological proxies” give us almost “unlimited access” to the lives of animals (for example, through GPS and radio tracking), Pick (via Lori Gruen) considers the notion of “dignity”:

Nonhuman dignity may only come into question when animals are part of a human social world in which questions of dignity arise. Whether or not an animal herself cares about dignity is not the point.

(Pick 2014, 234)

In what may be a largely anthropomorphic association, in my mind, the paw marks and privacy became incontrovertibly entangled. Like the closing of curtains in houses and theatres, the tiger’s paw markings obscure our vision, evoking the sense that the “performance” is over. Following Pick, I wonder whether “it may be time to debate not only animal agency but the ‘balance between security and freedom’ (deemed appropriate for humans) for the animals we watch at will” (122). “Looking” is bound up with power relations (see Laura Mulvey, 1995) and, in the context of the zoo, an Enlightenment ideal which presupposes that “to see” is “to know.” I wonder, what role does seeing an animal “in-the-flesh” play in motivating conservational activity? And, how effective is this see-know link in the rather decontextualized setting of the zoo?

The mesh is mobile (Morton 30)—a reality which seems at odds with the stasis of zoos. The historical legacy of zoos as colonial displays of human “control” and “exhibition” of nature haunts today’s institutions. Revisions to zoo practices in which, for example, breeding ceases and commodified spaces of captivity become refuges for rescued animals might help with colonial ghostbusting efforts. In other words, a favoring of mobility over money and space over sightings. Open range zoos, like Monarto Zoo in South Australia, which would “fit every major zoo in Australia and still have space left over” seem to me to begin to shake this legacy. I am more inspired, however, by 1/ projects which take advantage of our increasing technological proficiency such as “virtual zoos” and documentaries (cue Blue Planet binge-watching session) and, 2/ projects which look beyond our tendency to “enclose” in both a philosophical and physical sense, to instead engage with and even celebrate the unruliness and unpredictability of animal dynamism. As Gry has said, animals in zoos offer a “confined, finite performance of ecology” which can never capture the reality of their otherwise “unrestrained, intimate enmeshment as ecological beings.” Chisa Hidaka and Benjamin Harley’s Dolphin Dance Project offers an example of a more “enmeshed” humanimal encounter. Their project aims to create immersive films which “bring you eye to eye with wild and free dolphins as they collaborate with trained humans to create underwater dances in the open ocean.” In the creators’ words, in “engaging with another species as our creative equal, we make work that challenges the assumption that we are superior or separate from the rest of nature.”

When we look through the bars, the fences, or the glass of an enclosure, it is often not the animal as animal that we see. Instead, the animal is a souvenir or trophy of a “wilderness” or “natural world” that no longer exists, or that is—at the very least—rapidly diminishing. In Berger’s succinct phrasing, zoo animals are “living monument[s] to their own disappearance” (24). We might go to zoos to temporarily avert our gaze from ourselves and our lives, but in the glassy reflection of the animal’s gaze, my colleagues and I were reminded of anthropocentrism, human destructiveness, and colonial and imperial drives to conquer and control. The mesh-like barriers of zoo enclosures invite us to consider networks of causation. For example, critically endangered orangutans sit in zoos around the world. The arboreal homes of orangutans, and other forest-dwelling animals, are being rapidly cleared away for palm oil and animal agriculture (a cumulative total of 162 million acres of rainforest cleared—with high percentages in Indonesia for palm oil production)1. Rather than dividing, the zoo fence encourages us to “look through” illusions of separateness and into the reality of “the mesh”—our unavoidable interconnectedness with the world and its creaturely inhabitants. As Morton says, “all life forms are the mesh, and so are all the dead ones, as are their habitats which are also made up of living and nonliving beings…and each being in the mesh interacts with others” (29-30). The question “what do animals do for us?” (zoo context: do they educate us, do they entertain us?) might be replaced with the more “meshy,” “what do animals ask of us?” The latter may very well be a beast that escapes (and helps us escape)—bear with me here—anthropocentric enclosures.

Works cited

  • Berger, John. “Why Look at Animals?” About Looking. London: Writers and Readers, 1980. 1-26.
  • Bull, Jacob. “Introducing movement and animals.” Animal Movements – Moving Animals: Essays on Direction, Velocity and Agency in Humanimal Encounters. Ed. Jacob Bull. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 2011: 23-38.
  • Gruen, Lori. “Dignity, Captivity, and an Ethics of Sight.” The Ethics of Captivity. Ed. Lori Gruen. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014: 231-248.
  • Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Morton, Timothy. “I Believe in Coral,” Zooetics # 3. Kaunas, Lithuania, 19 December 2014, recorded lecture,
  • Pick, Anat. “Why not look at animals.” NECSUS 4.1 (2015): 107-125.
  • Zoochosis: A Short Documentary. Nanna Paskesen, PeskyPaskesen Productions, 2014