Animal Magnetism


David P Barash in Aeon (Photo by Lisi Niesner/Reuters):

I like zoos. Really I do. I applaud today’s zoological parks for their increasing emphasis on naturalistic exhibits, their breeding programmes for endangered species, and their efforts to educate the public about wildlife conservation. But the truth is, I mainly like zoos for the same reason that other people do: because I love watching animals.

Animals in captivity might satisfy our desire to cross the existential barrier that separates us from other creatures. Yet the sad reality is that, for the most part, zoo animals have become, as the art critic John Berger put it in 1977, ‘a living monument to their own disappearance’. The greatest pleasure of animal-watching still comes from observing free-living creatures in their natural environment. With enough disposable income, you can go to India, South America or Antarctica on animal-watching trips, ‘bag’ a view of the African ‘Big Five’ (elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo), or take a boat to admire great whales exhaling geysers of salty breath.

The wild animals of the world have long inhabited the depths of the human imagination no less than they have occupied the natural habitats of our shared planet. There isn’t a human society on Earth, however primitive or high-tech, that doesn’t concern itself with animal imagery, whether the critters are domesticated or free-living. Indeed, the human fascination with animals is so ancient and so widespread that it seems to be a cross-cultural human universal.

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