THE ZOO / EL ZOOLÓGICO (2005-2011)

The Zoo project is an attempt to understand the forces that perpetuate the Zoo as a social and educational institution and to understand the gap which I feel exists between contemporary human beings and their animal counterparts; as well, it aims to identify some of the current philosophical trends in order to provide ideological alternatives to close this dichotomy.

By taking a close look at animal enclosures, (Gil, 2005-2011) and examining them through the theoretical framework of various artists and intellectuals investigating cultural attitudes towards animals, I hope the viewer will gain new insights into the attitudes and values that determine our perceptions and treatment of animals in contemporary western societies. The viewer/reader is also invited to interpret the juxtaposition of texts and images as if it were an installation project, and draw his or her own conclusions about this work.
I am grateful to Lisa Johnson for her generous support during the completion of this project in Mexico City.

Animals at the Source Human Imagination

White ox good is my mother
And we the people of my sister,
The people of Nyariau Bul …
Friend, great oz of the spreading horns, Which ever bellows amid the herd,
Ox of the son of Bul Maloa.

—Berger, 1980

Animals as Human Metaphors

The Iliad is one of the earliest text available to us, and in it the use of metaphor still reveals the proximity of man and animal, the proximity from which metaphor itself arose. Homer describes the death of a soldier on the battlefield and then the death of a horse. Both deaths are equally transparent to Homer’s eyes, there is no more refraction in one case than the other.

Meanwhile, Idomeneus struck Erymas on the mouth with his relentless bronze. The metal point of the spear passed right through the lower part of his skull, under the brain and smashed the white bones. His teeth were shattered; both through his nostrils and his gaping mouth. Then the black cloud of Death descended on him. That was a man.

—Berger, 1980

Animals as the Opposite End of the Dualistic Thought

The decisive theoretical break came with Descartes. Descartes internalized, within man, the dualism implicit in the human relation to animals. In dividing absolutely body from soul, he bequeathed the body to the laws of physics and mechanics, and since animals were soulless, the animal was reduced to the model of a machine.

—Berger, 1980

Animals as End-Products of the Industrial Machinery

Eventually, Descartes model was surpassed. In the fist stages of the industrial revolution, animals were used as machines. Also where children. Later, in the so-called post-industrial societies, they are treated as raw material. Animals required for food are processed like manufactured commodities.

—Berger, 1980

Animals and the Loneliness of the Human Being

Public zoos came into existence at the beginning of the period which was to see the disappearance of animals from daily life. The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters. Modern zoos are an epitaph to a relationship which was as old as man.


In most societies of the past, people knew that everything is connected to everything else. This understanding leads to the recognition that everything we do has consequences and therefore carries responsibilities. But toady we have lost that insight. We stumble into the future gazing at nature as if we are outside of it, separated by our intellect, which seems to enable us to escape both the constraints of the natural world and our basic biology. Instead of a single interconnected whole, we live within a shattered world of disconnected fragments.

—Knudtson & Suzuki, 2006

Animals as reflections of the urban man

For those of us on the other side of the bars the case is less clear. We are there because the animals look funny, or conceivably because they look noble, but there may be a darker side to the satisfaction we find in the zoo. It may be that we are relieved to find that even the animals, with their much-publicized supposed virtues—sharp of tooth, swift of foot, courageous in protecting their young, good eyes, etc.—that even the animals can be reduced to a state of whimpering psychic paralysis if they are forced to

live in circumstances similar to those of the typical modern urban dweller. After all that has been said in the past fifty years concerning man’s deep-rooted inadequacies, it is bracing to go to the zoo and observe that the orangutang, magnificent though he may be in the jungle, is no better than the rest of us when forced to live in a modern city.

—Sharowski, J. & Winogrand, G., 1969; Ed. 2004

The Exotic Animal as a Symbol of Colonial Domination

When they were founded—the London Zoo in 1828, the Jardin des Plantes in 1793, the Berlin Zoo in 1844, they brought considerable prestige to the national capitals. […] The capturing of the animals was a symbolic representation of the conquest of all distant and exotic lands. “Explorers” proved their patriotism by sending home a tiger or an elephant. The gift of an exotic animal to the metropolitan zoo became a token in subservient diplomatic relations.

—Berger, 1980

The Soulless versus the Soulful Animal

I could tell you, for instance, what I think of Saint Thomas’s argument that, because man alone is made in the image of God and partakes in the being of God, how we treat animals is of no importance except insofar as being cruel to animals may accustom us to being cruel to men. (Summa, 1976, pp. 56-59). I could ask what Saint Thomas takes to be the being of God, to which he will reply that the being of God is reason. Likewise Plato, likewise Descartes, in their different ways. The universe is built upon reason. God is a God of reason. The fact that through the application of reason we can come to understand the rules by which the universe works proves that reason and the universe are of the same being. And the fact that animals, lacking reason, cannot understand the universe but have simply to follow its rules blindly, proves that unlike man, they are part of it but not part of its being: that man is godlike and animals thinglike.

—Coetzee, 1999

Animals and the Loneliness of the Human Being

The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.

Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization. That look between the animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished. Looking at each animal, the unaccompanied zoo visitor is alone. As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at least been isolated.

—Berger, 1980

In most societies of the past, people knew that everything is connected to everything else. This understanding leads to the recognition that everything we do has consequences and therefore carries responsibilities. But today we have lost that insight. We stumble into the future gazing at nature as if we were outside of it, separated by our intellect, which seems to enable us to escape both the constraints of the natural world and our own basic biology. Instead of a single interconnected whole, we live within a shattered world of disconnected fragments.

—Knudtson and Suzuki, 2006


Animals as a Source of Entertainment

But as one goes on looking into Grandville’s engravings, one becomes aware that the shock which they convey derives, in fact, from the opposite movement to that which one first assumed, [that the person is portrayed as an animal]. These animals are not being “borrowed” to explain people, nothing is being unmasked; on the contrary. These animals have become prisoners of a human/social situation into which they have been press-ganged. The vulture as landlord is more dreadfully rapacious than he is as a bird. The crocodiles at dinner are greedier at the table than they are in the river.

Here animals are not being used as reminders of origin, or as moral metaphors, they are being used en masse to “people” situations. The movement that ends with the banality of Disney, begun as a disturbing, prophetic dream in the work of Grandville.

—Berger, 1980

Re-examining the Value of Rationalist View of the Natural World

Modern science’s dazzling achievements in rationally dissecting the natural world may also be contributing to a sense of psychological, emotional, and spiritual detachment from the rest of the natural world. We might legitimately ask what sort of ecological values, if any, are likely to follow from such a human-centered view of the natural world.

—Knudson &Suzuki, 2006

By looking upon other life-forms as evolutionary and spiritual equals, or kin, rather than as its, or objects, we might glimpse the long-term consequences of human greed and irresponsibility as well as gain concrete empirical knowledge. We might even stop to wonder what as yet unimaginable qualities of the cosmos are now, and may forever remain, beyond the reach of rigidly rational scientific understanding. For all their precious and undeniable powers, human logic and mathematical proofs do not seem to cast an equally brilliant light on every corner of the cosmos.

—Knudtson and Suzuki, 2006

Considering Long-held Perspectives of First Nations Towards Animals

Since their mythical beginnings, the Chewong people of Malaysia have willingly shared the tropical rainforest ecosystem with myriad other life-forms. Over time, Chewong society has given rise to a singular vision—one at once pragmatic and poetic—of the fundamental similarities and differences between what Westerners would refer to as “human” and “nonhuman” animals.

The Chewong cosmos does not harbor a sense of human supe- riority. In fact, their language apparently does not even possess a term for that all-inclusive category “nonhuman animals”. The Chewong do, on occasion, use foreign words for “animal’ that they borrow from the dominant Malay language. And in their own lan- guage, they recognize certain categories of morphologically similar animals, such as kawaw (birds), kiel (fish), and taloden (snakes).

Nonetheless, within their traditional communities, many Chewong grant each animal in the Malaysian rain forest its own particular name and distinctive identity. The conspicuous absence of an all-embracing term for “nonhuman” creatures suggest that, in the world of the Chewong, human beings are only one species among many different kinds of animate creatures. As a result, the Chewong simply do not divide the world into human versus the rest of nature and supernature.

By refusing to partition the natural world arbitrarily into “hu- man” and “nonhuman” hierarchical components, Chewong soci- ety freed its collective imagination to explore the vast, uncharted terrain of animal consciousness” or “animal thinking,” as some modern biologists call it. They attach great significance to the notion that each species has its own perception of reality—an animal “worldview,” circumscribed by the limitations of its brain and central nervous system, that is very bit as valid and complete as that of humans. They are keenly appreciative of the fact that each kind of animal in the rain forest is equipped with its own singular array of senses on which it must rely to communicate this understanding, the Chewong have created an ingenious succinct, and biologically apt metaphor.

—Knudtson and Suzuki, 2006

Considering Scientific Evidence that Supports First Nation’s Views of the Natural World

The Genome Project was an audacious demonstration of the analytical and manipulative power acquired by molecular biology and was finished sooner and more cheaply than anyone imagined possible. When the project was completed, scientists boldly predicated that new insights into diseases and cures for them would also followed. But by far the most profound insight gained was the realization that within the Genomes of all human beings reside hundreds of genes identical to genes found in fish, birds, insects, plants and microorganisms. We are related to all the rest of life through a common ancestor and shared evolutionary history. The aboriginal idea of our kinship with trees and other animals, as expressed in totems and clan systems, is supported by the most advanced scientific research.

—Knudtson and Suzuki, 2006


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Elskidsen, U. (Ed.). (2006). Useful, Cute and Collected. The Photographed Animal., Essen: Museum Folwang.

Hetzel, P. J./ Grandville, J.J. (1877; ed.1977). Public and Private Life of Animals. London: Paddington Press. Retrieved March 24, 2008 from:

Sharowski, J. & Winogrand, G. (1969, Ed. 2004). The Animals. N.Y.: Museum of Modern Art.

Summa, C.F. (1976), quoted in The Life of Animals. (1999). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. p. 22-23.

Berger, J. (1980). About Looking. N.Y. Vintage International. p.p. 2-28.

Knudtson, P. & Suzuki, D. (1992: ed. 2006). Wisdom of the Elders. Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Books.