The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 22, 2002

Menageries: Princely and public
Surjit Hans

Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West
by Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, tr. Oliver Welsh. Reaktion, London. Pages 400. £ 28

Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the WestTHE book was originally published in French in 1998. The English edition has been published with financial help from the French Ministry of Culture.

The architecture of zoos, their integration into the process of urban development, the sociology of their founders and personnel and their scientific or artistic relevance are significant themes of the book. The zoo is a constantly renewed and transformed product of the views and attitudes it helps to shape.

The first thing about the zoo is its unmatched popularity. Zoological gardens receive more visitors than museums, theatres or sports stadiums. It is a place of forced meeting between animal and man, between nature and culture, where the second appropriates the first.

The story of this microcosm is linked to vast, parallel histories of colonisation, ethnocentrism and the discovery of the Other.

In Egypt in the fifth and fourth millennia BC, sacred beasts were kept in or near temples and grazed in their enclosures. In India, princes tamed and housed elephants, lions, tigers and panthers for war and hunting. The emperors of Rome Harnessed big cats to their chariots to emphasise their power, glorious divinity and ascendancy over the cruellest in nature.


The rhinoceros brought by the Compagnie Des Indies in 1770 cost Louis XV 5,388 livres (pounds).

The first tiger to tour the Italian peninsula stopped at Turin in 1478. In the eighteenth century a rhino named Clara provoked the sale of rhinoceros prints, engravings and pamphlets, and caused ‘a la rhino’ ribbons, harnesses, bonnets, wigs and even hairstyles to be invented. The wild can also be a fantasy in concrete.

Opposition to princely menageries surfaced in France during the Enlightenment. It led to their disappearance during the Revolution and to the creation, under the aegis of the naturalists at Jardin des Plantes (Garden of Plants) in Paris, of a new type of establishment intended to serve the entire nation rather than the select few. The model was repeated all over Europe. There was dis-emphasis on ferocious species that exemplified devastating cruelty, supporting the belief that nature sanctioned the rule of force, illustrated and legitimised tyranny."

The importance of zoological gardens in fashionable society explains their foundation in parks in wealthy areas (Regent’s Park in London, the Villa Borghese at Rome). They sometimes even directly provoked the transformation of surrounding land into residential sectors for the aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Zoological gardens were thus vectors of property development. Having become a tool of town planning, zoos were considered to be "the most distinctive mark of culture a city has to offer".

Between 1866 and 1886 Carl Hagenbeck exported around 700 leopards, 1,000 lions, 400 tigers, 1,000 bears, 800 hyenas, 300 elephants, 70 rhinoceroses from India, Java and Sumatra; 300 camels, 150 giraffes, 600 antelopes, tens of thousands of monkeys, thousands of crocodiles, boas and pythons, and more than a hundred thousand birds from Africa. Around 1900, England, Germany, Belgium and Portugal made initial efforts to protect the species threatened with extinction, reserves were created where hunting was banned and hunting permits were introduced.

African wildlife was generally classified as "colonial commodity", ethnological objects as "life-sized fragments of the Empire". Like the rhino fashion a century before, the sale of an elephant to the American Barnum Circus was felt by the newspapers in UK to be a treasonable act because he came from India.

The 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris was the high point of the zoo as a colonial showcase for three almost symbolic reasons. First, it was organised by an emblematic figure, the conqueror of Morocco. Second, the idea of a temporary zoo at the exhibition to reveal the splendours of the colonies’ wildlife. Third, the organisation of the temporary zoo was entrusted not to vets of the menagerie but to a journalist and sometime lion-tamer.

The distinction between the zoo, which conforms in its use of barriers as a radical break between man and animal, and circus, which fosters confusion by humanising the latter, did not truly come into play until the mid-1990s.

The keeping of animals in captivity provoked no condemnation on the centuries because it seemed natural in society founded on inequality. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Towards Animals, both in the UK and France, does not advocate the re-integration of the zoo population in suitable forests.

The spread of car ownership has led to the growth of safari parks and "imitation freedom" of animals.

Re-introduction of two European bisons (buffalo), of eight condors (American vulture) out of 39 bred in captivity, and Arabian oryx (deer) is an attempt on the part of zoos at the preservation of endangered species.

The ideal for the future is Empty cage by Giles Aillaud, an illustration on the title cover of the book.

The hope is that libraries would come forward to buy this rather expensive book — the envy of historians, artists and critics.