BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The disciplines of law, geography and
anthropology combine in University at Buffalo Law School Associate
Professor Irus Braverman's new book, which presents a thorough
exploration of the world of zoos.
"Zooland: The Institution of Captivity" (Stanford University
Press) describes the insular world of AZA-accredited zoos in North
America, which includes the Buffalo Zoo.
Braverman shows how in the past 50 years, accredited zoos have
come to redefine their mission from primarily one of entertainment
to one of care and stewardship. She also describes how these zoos
work cooperatively to manage their animals.
"This is an intense ethnography," Braverman says of the more
than 70 interviews and the numerous zoo observations that formed
the research for "Zooland."
"It wasn't simple. I was trying to understand and relay the
complexity of this system, to show that no matter how you felt
about zoos, you had to admit that they've developed a highly
complex administrative system based on incredible cooperation. This
system would be the envy of any other organizational system,
Alongside its fascination with administration and management,
"Zooland" is an exploration of our ideas about nature and its
relationship with the city. Says Braverman: "Zoos believe they are
the only window into the world of wild animals and even to the
world of nature for most people, especially for city dwellers. At
the same time, there are plenty of animal rights advocates who
insist that zoos should not exist at all."
That tension, and zoo managers' sensitivity to the nuances of
the language that attaches to their work, proved a challenge,
Braverman says. For example, the word "captivity" provoked some
push-back; zookeepers disliked the word's negative connotations,
preferring to emphasize the care and stewardship they provided
Braverman's analysis, however, highlights the institutional
portion of the title, as it focuses on practices of classification,
naming, registration, regulation and cooperative reproduction at
play in "Zooland." Alongside her sensitivities to cultural
assumptions about nature and human-animal relations, Braverman's
identity as a legal scholar is quite apparent through the book. She
even devotes a chapter to describing the regulatory structure under
which these zoos operate.
"Although zoos are exempt from many state and federal laws, they
nonetheless operate under a tight net of industry standards and
guidelines, which are no less legal than federal laws," Braverman
Along these lines, Braverman shows how AZA-accredited norms
regulate everything from the width of the moats for tiger
enclosures to the number of holes in the container in which a
gorilla is transported from one facility to another. "For certain
animals at least, there are very detailed standards," Braverman
says, "governing everything from how a gorilla, for example, should
be fed and kept, the different kinds of stimulation it should
receive during the day, its medication and how it could be
transferred. Everything is prescribed."
Furthermore, Braverman explores the intersections between human-
and animal-centered laws, showing -- not without humor -- how these
can and indeed do collide, as in the instance of installing fire
alarms in the giraffe house.
Zoos, she explains, are primarily situated in urban
jurisdictions that are governed by distinct laws, such as zoning
and fire regulations, which are rarely enacted with zoos in
She also points out that the zoos' collaborative system of
animal management has resulted in a change in how ownership of
individual animals is perceived and practiced at zoos.
A baby giraffe born at the Buffalo Zoo, for example, might be
shipped to the San Francisco Zoo (taking into account its
socialization needs) if that move would make for better genetic
representation. "In that sense, all of these zoos function as a
single entity," says Braverman. "They transfer animals around
constantly. As a result, accredited zoos have become their own
insulated ecosystem -- which is also the reason I called the book,
For the most part, accredited zoos can no longer take animals
from the wild. Instead, Braverman says, "it's almost like Noah's
Ark" -- they have their founding animals, which were originally
brought into the zoo world from the wild, and they now have to
manage them somehow so that they survive as a viable population
within the Ark.
The Ark metaphor, although not as popular in the zoo world as it
used to be, highlights the limitations under which zoos operate and
their commitment to managing these animals by breeding them
exclusively in captivity, Braverman says.
Braverman opens and closes the book with the story of Timmy, a
silverback gorilla born in 1959 who spent his life in the Memphis,
Cleveland, Bronx and Louisville zoos. Through this illustration of
the life and death of a single animal, Braverman conveys the
delicate interrelations between care and domination under the aegis
of a central collective management system.
In the book's the acknowledgment, Braverman professes: "The
world, as I was soon to find out, is in fact divided into two
opposing camps: zoo lovers and zoo haters. 'And where are you?'
everyone wanted to know. After agonizing about this question I have
finally come to terms with 'sitting on the fence.'"
Braverman will talk about "Zooland" at a book launch event at 5
p.m. Dec. 6 at Talking Leaves Books, 3158 Main St., Buffalo.