Thursday, February 01, 2007

Adjunct Space Programs & Imaginary Zoos...

The problem I have with zoos is similar to the problem I have with space programs. I completely understand that both of these utterly fascinating institutions require a professional scientific environment in order to function. What makes me sad is that this requirement fosters an undercurrent of constriction and convention. The unbridaled sense of wonder and amazement and poetry they provoke in us are considered too pedestrian (or unprofessional) for the day-to-day operation of the institution and are left untapped.

Do you get NASA-TV? Do you watch it? On the one hand it's impressive to hear those insanely focused astronauts report to ground control every remote detail of their technical run-throughs and experiments. Time in space is precious and these people have serious work to do. And sure, every now and then we get the requisite weightless summersault with a big grin for the cameras. But still, what I would give to have the right someone posted quietly at one of those little porthole windows, staring into space and back at our little planet and just exposing their wonder and amazement in a soul-stirring, stream-of-consciousness voice. Say a hybrid between Joseph Campbell, Brian Eno, Muhammed Ali, David Attenborough, Stephen Colbert, and Bjork. Or maybe all of them could huddle around a small window with shots of calvados?

So it's the same with zoos. But different. You walk through a zoo and you feel the science and the care and the catering to kids with goofy signage. But again, there's something important missing. Animals are so mysterious and befuddling to us: What is there consciousness like? What do these other life forms mean to us? Their existence touches mythological realms and the vivid symbology of dreams. Couldn't a zoo do a little bit to play up this aspect while exposing us to animals? Couldn't their interpretation of animal behavior and suitable habitats be less "faux-real" for everyone's benefit? A little less conservation a little more fiction, please?

Since a wild animal in captivity is a thoroughly un-natural occurence, why pretend that it is? Zoo animals have to adapt to the specifics of confinement no matter what they are. Or, if they are born into captivity, they will accept their surroundings as natural to begin with.

I'd like to propose a new zoo, one that allows animals to speak more directly to the human imagination. A zoo in which all the animals are born into the contrived environment, which will have some stark differences from their ancestral homes. Of course they are treated with deep respect and the finest care available. These animals would live in man-made habitats that enhance or play off of the strange mythological characteristics we perceive in them. Artists, set designers, poets, and semioticians would work with animal behaviorists, comparative psychologists, ethologists, neuroethologists and anthrozoologists to create fantastic and compliant environments for an animal or group of animals. I hestitate to give an example.

I know, from one perspective this all seems indefensible, cruel, and laughable. (Welcome to my world!) PETA, I'll be expecting your call. But from another perspective, what I am propsing bears no comparisson to legitimately debatable uses of animals - in the circus or even in elephant polo matches. On the contrary, what I propose is as much for the animals' benefit as our own. I believe that many animals, and especially mammals, WANT to connect with the human psyche by design. Though largely unused in the wild, this atypical link is still as much a part of their instinct as finding water or warmth. It is a function of the larger geo-biological matrix we share.

Let me be clear: I think the greatest traits of any living creature are its adaptability and its "deep identity," by which I mean its existence as a fixed biological point in the universe AND as a point of meaning in our conscious minds. I think a zoo that embraced these ideas would be a huge benefit to animals in captivity and a great gift to all life on earth. Anyone interested? Let's go, time is precious!

Further study (in no particular order):

OOZ & Natalie Jeremijenko
"A Zed and Two Noughts"
Walton Ford
Life of Pi
Animals in Dreams
Dreams of Animals
Animal Astronauts
Space Zoo

("Laika Commanding Sputnik 2" from here)


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