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Mark Earls takes a trip to the zoo


Going to the zoo, zoo, zoo…

For much of my life, a trip to the Zoo has been a pleasant diversion, a reassuringly familiar tramp, around the caged curiosities with ice creams, small children and that lingering perfume of the banana at the bottom of the bag. Indeed, I lived for a number of years just across the canal from London Zoo (the home of the Royal Zoological Society) so learned to appreciate the place all the more, not least for all its strange nighttime noises.

For most of us – as for the regal owners of medieval bestiaries and their Victorian menagerie-keeping decedents – the zoo tells us about ourselves by showing us the Other, the exotic and the bestial. Zoos have been a place to reassure us about how civilized and different we are from the specimens displayed for our pleasure and diversion. As such, zoos have provided an argument for humanity’s special status – or at least for the special status of some of us: as recently as early last century falsely named “primitive” people were displayed like chimps and monkeys. Zoos have helped us create an understanding of ourselves by putting physical distance – sometimes no more than arm’s length – between ourselves and the animal kingdom.

More recently, establishments like ZSL have completely rethought their purpose – they are now centres for the marketing of conservation science projects. And very good they are, too: gone are the sad beasts pacing around a small dark cell. Instead animals are kept in open ground and appropriate simulations of natural habitats. Social creatures are kept with others of their kind in approximations of natural groups; those less so are forced to share only as much as necessary. Whole eco systems are even represented where possible, as for example in the rainforest exhibit.

I think a trip to the zoo today can still tell us a lot about the amazing creatures we are; but specifically how we are part of and not separate from the creatures we see. Unlike the Victorians, we find it easier to accept that – at some level, at least – we are animals, too. We are part of a wider eco-system (even though, more than most of our peers, we have the ability to shape our environment directly and deliberately by, for example, building a zoo!)

It is through careful and attentive observation, uncluttered by what Bill Bailey once called ‘anthropomorphizing the ducks with our love”, that this is best appreciated. For example, the psychologist Nick Humphrey famously described how his lengthy study of Dian Fossey’s Mountain Gorillas made him realize how little they – or we – use the extraordinary cognitive abilities we have. That is, what cognitive misers we are.

This is because we spend most of our time with each other. Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling summed it up by suggesting we spend most of our lives responding to other people’s responses to the responses of those responding to the people who were there in the first place. Just like the undeniably cute meerkats, we are an extraordinarily social creature using each other’s brains and bodies to make sense of our world.

And this is as clear outside the enclosure as inside. Just watch the excitement spread through the human crowds – as say, a lioness reaches for a haunch of beef – and then try telling yourself that we are the kind of individual calculating machines that economists insist we are or the selfish self-actualisers that Ayn Rand or Abraham Maslow proposed.

Of course, each of us can become isolated from others – like the sad mangy beasts of the old zoos – but this is not our natural state. Indeed throughout human cultures, we use enforced isolation and independence as a punishment, often with lethal effect. So while it’s clear that penguins need cool, watery (and ideally intermittently fishy) surroundings to thrive, our ideal enclosure might be wet or dry, cold or soupily warm, green or gravelly, yet the most important thing it MUST contain is other humans. What the zoo teaches us today is this: we humans are a we-species, not an “I” one.

Mark Earls is the author of HERD: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature. and will be leading our next 'A Trip To the Zoo' on Saturday 15th September 2012. For more details, click here.

Follow @herdmeister on twitter.

Posted by Mark Earls on 4 July 2012

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