We’re excited to bring back to Our Hen House Daniel Redwood, who is giving us his thoughts on The Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Speculation by Martin Rowe.
Book Review: The Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Speculation by Martin Rowe
Review by Daniel Redwood
Martin Rowe’s The Polar Bear in the Zoo: A Speculation (Lantern, 2013) – currently available only as an e-book, but coming this fall in print as a paperback – is a deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between human and non-human animals, as understood primarily through three evocative and haunting photographs by Jo-Anne McArthur. Rowe’s keen eye and even keener mind help us see in these photographs much that is in plain sight, yet manages to elude our glance. As the author puts it, “The work is at once a cri de coeur and a snapshot, a squint through the viewfinder, a glimpse of what is seen and a speculation of what remains unseen between the blinks and snaps of the shutter.”
Underpinning Rowe’s narrative throughout this extended essay is profound empathy for the animals depicted in the photographs. He is an erudite critic who moves effortlessly back and forth through centuries of art history, literature, philosophy, and anthropology, yet he never loses track of his fundamental grounding point – that the animals in these works of art are not just the object of our attention but the subject of their own lives, which matter as much to them as ours to us. Because a deep understanding of this perspective is essential to all that follows, Rowe begins the book with the story of his own journey from meat eater to vegan, a transformation based on concern for the animals rather than his own physical health. “If I could detect an emotion behind my choice, it was the routineness of the violence to which the animals were subject, the everyday psychological and physical deprivations embedded within the elaborate degradations of a mechanized system of metal restraints, wire-mesh cages, and stereotaxic devices of the laboratories and factory farms.” His perspective on the contemporary animal rights movement is well worth reading; Rowe is the founder and president of Lantern Books, the foremost publisher of vegan and animal rights literature. He knows the field as well as anyone.
While his personal story is moving and illuminating, Rowe’s exploration of McArthur’s photography is the heart of the book. But before he reaches his extended discussion of the photograph that is the book’s culmination and the basis of its title, he sets the scene for his discussion by examining the work of other photographers who have made animals in captivity their subjects, particularly the works of Frank Noelker and Barry Steven Greff. What we see when we gaze upon the animals, or upon their photographs, is as much about the limits humans place upon them as about the animals themselves. And it is not just the animals who are limited, as Rowe emphasizes by quoting Greff, “The dichotomy of this containment in a zoo (hidden within my images) of both being on display and behind bars, alive but enclosed, is a metaphor for our own human condition.”
While, as Rowe points out, many photographers fail to adequately portray this dichotomy, this is at the core of McArthur’s photography. However, for her, the animals are no metaphor, but are always themselves. “McArthur doesn’t want to disguise the confinement of the wild or domesticated animals she shoots. In fact, she draws attention to it.” Comparing her work to that of others, Rowe describes her photographs from the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C., which are not reproduced in the book, by noting that “she chooses not only to shoot in black and white, but in the case of the giraffe, focuses the camera on the feet and the concrete beneath them, severing the animal at the neck. These decisions suck any illusion-generating and prettifying cosmeticization from the confinement and stress how quartered (in both senses of the word) these creatures are.”
Indeed, McArthur’s dogged dedication to revealing the suffering that animals endure under human domination is legendary. It has led her not only to zoos but to bullfights, laboratories, slaughterhouses, fur farms, and more. Her work as a photographer on a mission to uncover animal abuse in the food, fur, entertainment, and medical research industries is the subject of the long-awaited documentary film, The Ghosts in Our Machine, which has debuted to rave reviews in Canada and will soon open in the United States. Appearing with the film’s director, Liz Marshall, at the 2013 Animal Rights National Conference in Washington, D.C., McArthur was asked how she can handle the horrors she witnesses and documents. She replied, “I have PTSD.” Yet she continues.
Two of McArthur’s photographs in Rowe’s book left an indelible impression on me, for different reasons. There’s one of a hawk’s head, taken in an anatomy and dissection class at a Canadian university. Suffice to say that it speaks for itself; if you see it, you are unlikely to forget it.
The other is Polar Bear in Captivity at the Toronto Zoo, 2005, the photograph of a bear named Kunik that is basis for the book’s title. And what a photograph! The large white being, darkened only at the eyes and nose, primordial and inscrutable, is seen through a section of wall-sized glass, swimming toward us. On our side of the glass are several young boys, whose reactions Rowe tries to divine from their expressions or physical positioning.
My appreciation of this single, deeply moving photograph was aided immeasurably by Rowe’s extended and extraordinarily wide-ranging commentary. This commentary, which is the culmination of the book, is far more than a description of a visual experience. Instead, his contemplation of this photograph is a springboard into a discussion of how to think about and talk about animals. It includes references to the work of various philosophers, particularly those of the Continental school, including Jacques Derrida, whose famous work at the end of his life regarding animals has, perhaps, been inadequately attended to by animal activists. Rowe doesn’t stop there, however; he also delves into an examination of extensive, and sometimes even obscure, religious and theological references, and manages as well to dip into fiction, poetry, and even contemporary films that illuminate his thoughts about our relationships with animals. These references are rooted in Rowe’s deeply personal thought processes and are grounded by the inevitable fact that they must always return to this one image, capturing this one brief instant in the life of this one animal.
Without Rowe’s commentary, I would likely have gazed at the photograph briefly and moved on. With it, I have pondered its meaning for weeks, particularly Rowe’s recognition that “the animal behind the glass looks at us as much as we look at him” and his reframing of Aristotle’s twin questions, “What are animals?” and “What are animals for?” into questions he imagines the animals may be asking: “What are humans?” and “What are humans for?” These questions demand meaningful answers that can only be answered through our deeds, not with words alone.
Daniel Redwood is a vegan singer-songwriter whose new album of animal rights music, Songs for Animals, People and the Earth, can be heard and downloaded at www.danielredwoodsongs.com. He is also a professor at Cleveland Chiropractic College – Kansas City.