This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Where the wild things are

Braverman’s book explores the inner workings of zoos

  • “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.”

    Irus Braverman
    Associate Professor, UB Law School, and author of “Zooland.”

Published: Nov. 29, 2012

The disciplines of law, geography and anthropology combine in UB faculty member 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, an associate professor of law, shows how in the past 50 years, zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums 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.

Braverman will talk about “Zooland” at a book launch event at 5 p.m. Dec. 6 at Talking Leaves Books, 3158 Main St., Buffalo.

“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, really.”

Alongside its fascination with administration and management, “Zooland” is an exploration of our ideas about nature and its relationship with the city.

“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,” says Braverman. “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 animals.

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.” In addition to 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,” she says.

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,” she 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, that rarely are enacted with zoos in mind.

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, ‘Zooland.’”

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.

She 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 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.”