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Book Review: “Zooland: The Institution of Captivity” by Irus Braverman

By Visiting Animal — January 04, 2013

Today we welcome back the brilliant Katie Gillespie, who is sharing her thoughts about the book Zooland: The Institution of Captivity (Stanford Law Books, 2012), by Irus Braverman.


0804783586Book Review: Zooland: The Institution of Captivity by Irus Braverman

Review by Katie Gillespie

In the animal rights community, zoos tend to be seen as spaces of exploitation, commodification, and animal oppression linked to a long history of imperialism and capitalism. Proponents of zoos, on the other hand, argue that zoos are integral to conservation efforts, education, and animal care more generally. Irus Braverman, in her book Zooland: The Institution of Captivity, remains ‘on the fence’ about zoos. And from her perch on the zoo fence, she has written a remarkable text exploring the complexities of zoos in a way that carefully and intelligently engages with the way the zoo functions as an institution of captivity.

If, as an animal rights advocate, you are searching for a book that details a comprehensive argument against zoos, this is not it; Braverman does not make an argument against zoos. Nor does she present in very much detail others’ arguments against zoos. Instead, the project of Zooland is to explore in depth how zoos operate and how zoos manage and govern the animals held captive within them. Zooland is a window into the zoo specifically, but it is also linked to a much broader analysis of captivity. Certainly one of the most interesting parts of the book for me was her discussion of what it means to be ‘wild,’ ‘domesticated’ and ‘captive’. This discussion of wildness and captivity is tied up with how ‘nature’ is understood in zoo spaces and Braverman explains in detail the zoo’s efforts to dissolve the boundary between humans and nature through more naturalized exhibits and less visible barriers between the viewers and the viewed. And yet the structure of the zoo itself — the barriers (no matter how invisible) between humans and animals, the sophisticated air filtration systems to ensure that humans do not have to smell the animals, the fundamental fact that the animals are captive and exhibited and humans are free to come and go — reinforce the division between the human and the animal in the zoo.

As a geographer and legal scholar, Braverman pays close attention to the spaces of captivity in the zoo and the legal mechanisms that govern these spaces. Each chapter focuses on a unique method of governance over the animals themselves — governance through classification, sight, naming, registration, regulations and reproduction. The book is framed using Michel Foucault’s concept of pastoral power, which is characterized by the tenuous relationship between care and power. In the case of the zoo, humans are obviously in a relationship of overt power over animals in nearly every facet of their lives, but they also are engaged in a relationship of care with the animals. This tension is at the heart of how zoos function and ultimately at the heart of ethical questions relating to keeping animals captive in zoos.

To give an example of the kinds of issues Braverman explores in the text: she argues that reproduction is the means by which animals are most intensely governed and controlled in zoos. She details how reproduction (and contraception) of animals in zoos has changed over time — from keeping animals separated by sex, to breeding and ‘culling excess’ animals, and finally to using pharmaceutical contraception to prevent reproduction that is unwanted by the zoo facility. I found this discussion of reproductive governance particularly fascinating because of the moral complexities at work in the arguments for various kinds of population control. Of course, these arguments are couched in terms of animal welfare, conservation, and ‘responsible’ population control. Zoo keepers found that keeping animals separated to prevent reproduction was not good welfare practice. This led to letting animals reproduce at will and then killing any babies the zoo did not have room to keep. This ‘breed and cull’ method is still used in parts of Europe, but has been phased out in North America and some other parts of the world in favor of preventative pharmaceutical contraception. Contemporary proponents of the ‘breed and cull’ method argue, however, that pharmaceutical contraception puts undue stress on captive animal communities who may be stressed or frustrated by the inability to reproduce (not to mention the health risks of the largely untested pharmaceuticals used). Supporters of ‘breed and cull’ programs believe that this method more closely mimics what animals would experience in the wild (i.e., uncontrolled reproduction and ‘culling’ by predators).

For animal rights advocates, this debate over methods of reproductive contraception and population control in zoos is, to a large extent, beside the point — keeping animals in zoos in the first place is the problem. However, this example, along with many others in the book, illustrates the kinds of specific problems inherent in zoos as institutions of captivity. And while Zooland does not use these facts about how zoos function as an argument against zoos, readers of Our Hen House could become more effective advocates for animals in zoos through reading this book.

As I gear up to write my largest academic project to date — a dissertation — I have been trying to think carefully about the value of academic work for the animal rights agenda. Certainly, there is a growing body of critical animal studies work that engages directly with ethical questions relating to the use of animals and argues passionately against various forms of animal use. The value of this work for the animal rights community at large is easy to see and many of these academics are themselves animal rights activists. More generally, though, academic work (like Zooland) can offer the animal rights community something often overlooked and undervalued—nuance. Nuance helps us, as animal advocates, thoughtfully engage with proponents of animal use rather than merely dismissing them. I believe wholeheartedly that critical and nuanced understandings of the ways in which animals are commodified and exploited by humans in any industry offers a more effective path forward than a generalized, wholesale claim that zoos are unethical, period. Irus Braverman’s beautifully nuanced Zooland: The Institution of Captivity is an excellent opportunity for readers of Our Hen House to engage with the issue of zoos and captivity in a new way.


Katie Gillespie

Katie Gillespie

Katie Gillespie is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. Her work focuses on animals in the food system — in particular, within the dairy and slaughter industries. Katie currently teaches an undergraduate class, “Animals, Ethics and Food: Deconstructing Dominant Discourses,” which asks students to explore and rethink their relationship to animals in the food system, and she co-organizes the Animal Studies Working Group at the UW. In her free time, Katie writes the blog Serenity in the Storm, which features vegan food, news, and animal studies/advocacy-related topics, and she volunteers at Pigs Peace Sanctuary in Stanwood, WA.

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