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Q&A: Irus Braverman, author of Zooland: The Institution of Captivity

Q&A: Irus Braverman, author of Zooland: The Institution of Captivity

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A new book explores the evolution of zoos, debates between pro- and anti-zoo advocates and the 'performance' of zoos.

Irus Braverman didn't grow up visiting zoos. Braverman's first zoo experience wasn't until adulthood, when her daughter dragged her to the Buffalo Zoo. An associate professor of law at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, Braverman found herself flooded with questions. But mainly, she wondered, how does this work?

In her new book, Zooland: The Institution of Captivity, Braverman explores the evolution of zoos, debates between pro- and anti-zoo advocates and the 'performance' of zoos. Below are excerpts from our recent interview.

How did you come to write a book about zoos?

It didn't just come to me as an idea for a book. It was a lengthy process. I grew up in Jerusalem. Where I grew up, the zoo wasn't as much of a strong institution as it is today in the United States. I don't have any memories from my childhood of zoos. For me, when my older daughter was old enough to drag me to the Buffalo Zoo, it was my first encounter with a zoo. I came to it [with thoughts like], "What is this?" and "Why are so many people standing in line?" and "Why are we looking at the animals?" The emotions were pretty strong. It's fascinating to see these animals, but there are feelings of "Why are we staring at them?" Everything I've seen people debate was powerful for me that first time with my daughter.

At the same time as an academic, my research projects had to do with the intersections between laws and urban design. My previous book was about the politics of nature in Israel and Palestine. I come to the zoo and everything is clearly manifested: the importance of nature, the relationship between nature and the city, how different laws shape this place. I was interested in bureaucracy and in what was going on behind the scenes of the zoo. My focus wasn't animals. I was never into animal rights. It was mostly, "How is this performance possible? What has to happen behind the scenes to make this institution in the middle of the city possible?"

That's how it started. I was teaching a seminar on law and nature. The zoo director took us for a tour. I was asking her questions and we decided to have another interview. It started with the Buffalo Zoo. I started interviewing her staff. It was like a snowball. It grew in ways that were unforeseeable. It became this huge project that encompassed almost 80 interviewees from across North America and other countries. It included directors, curators, registrars, designers. But it wasn't just people from zoos. [I interviewed] animal welfare activists, scientists from other organizations. That took three or four years to have a sense I was beginning to understand what was going on behind the scenes.

You came to the subject of zoos as an outsider. How did that give you a unique perspective?

The outsider has the benefit of seeing things with fresh eyes. It's almost like a child's eyes. You're in awe and asking why. Being an outsider was a great advantage on that front. I wasn't familiar with what type of laws make this possible. I didn't realize how emotional this issue is. I think if I'd have known how big of a war it is between pro-zoo and anti-zoo people, I might have shied away from this. One of the reasons I went into it was because I was tired of wars. I was writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for so long. At the zoo, I was going into a different war. As an outsider, I was able to say, "I'm not taking a side here." I'm not an animal-rights activist. But on the other hand, I had my reservations and a lot of criticism. Some zoo people were wary and didn't respond. Who am I coming from the outside and asking these questions? I didn't have the benefit of someone saying, "She's grown up at the zoo. You can trust her." I had to build that trust from scratch.

You mentioned zoo lovers and zoo haters. Why do we have such strong opinions about zoos?

It's interesting how deep the relationship to animals is. It's unique in American culture. This is a generalized statement, of course. Animals, especially dogs and cats, are part of the family. The relationship toward the wild is important in American culture: the wilderness and the frontier. First it was to conquer the frontier. Then it shifted into language of conservation and preservation. These relationships, to animals and to the wild, shape the relationship of Americans to the zoo. It's a hybrid. [The zoo is] in the city, so animals are hosted by us. But they're also wild animals. They're these creatures that are almost magical. They have this power over us. My students go through American children's books to see what an important role animals have. Children are raised with animals as their heroes. The treatment of animals becomes important to people.

Another reason we have strong feelings about it is the conservation movement. Zoos have changed a lot. Once, they were places where animals were captured and chained. Now, they're there to promote and conserve animals. Zoo lovers focus on conservation as a way to care for these animals. "How would my child know what a gorilla was if my child couldn't see it? So why would my child want to save a gorilla in the wild if they don't know what it is?" That's what zoo lovers say. Zoo haters take the same perspective of romanticizing nature and say, "This is not the way to teach my child how to love animals. They can't see how they run and hunt. They can't experience them in the wild." Zoo haters will say, "Those are almost plastic animals. They're the undermining of what animals in the wild are. What kind of monkeys are those that don't know how to peel a banana?" There are strong emotions on both sides.

Why did zoos shift their mission from entertainment to conservation?

It's a combination of factors. From the perspective of zoo professionals, zoos have undergone dramatic changes since the 1970s and 1980s. One aspect is the move from entertainment to conservation. There are other interconnected elements that have changed. For example, the larger shift within the public toward conservation was led and inspired by legal changes. All these laws come into force that prohibit anyone from taking animals from the wild without special permits. Zoos cannot take their animals from the wild. They needed to come up with a different way of obtaining those animals. At the same time the laws changed, the education of zoo professionals changed. A lot of them are coming with a strong education in conservation and they believe this should be the central mission of zoos.

Zoos had to find ways to create animals without taking them from the wild. How do you do that? You have to manage them. I was shocked at the sophisticated level of management that had to take place for this enterprise to survive. The zoos in North America, I'm talking about the 225 accredited zoos, for the purpose of managing these wild animals, they act as one body. They have committees and volunteers from each zoo that run the population of all the zoos. There's this closed system. All the gorillas are managed as if they are one community. They are one Zooland, which is why I chose that title for the book. They decide together which gorilla will mate with which gorilla. They decide which one will transfer and how many new gorillas they want to have. Which gorillas are the most important to us for genetic reasons? They have to calculate in complex computer programs the genetics of each animal and get them together. If zoos don't comply, they risk not getting accredited. It's such a sophisticated form of management.

Zoos aren't regulated by many federal and state laws, but they're governed by their own standards. What are some of those standards?

A lot of the laws that could pertain to zoos don't. Zoos have managed, through intense lobbying, to convince legislators they're more equipped to manage their institutions. They had to do a lot of self-regulating, industry regulations. Some claim that's not good enough, but zoos have detailed standards. They're not binding. They'll be kicked out of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums perhaps, but they could still continue to function as zoos. They just won't be accredited and won't be part of this Zooland. The industry standards pertain to the small portion of zoos that are accredited in North America. It's about 10 percent. It's only those elite zoos that want to abide by them in order to function like this.

The standards include everything from the temperature of the gorilla enclosure, how a transfer container needs to be built, how big the moat should be, how big the enclosure should be, what happens when an animal needs to be trained. There are hundreds of pages of guidelines for keepers to follow when they're taking care of a sick animal. They include recipes for how to make mush for them. A lot of those guidelines and standards are updated on a regular basis. They're more flexible, but some aren't as rigid as people would want.

What's the future of zoos?

The zoos don't stand independently. They're deeply connected to notions of wilderness. Global warming and the destruction of natural habitats are affecting the role of zoos. Zoo professionals want to see zoos taking more of a part in leading the conservation movement. This would be the natural evolution. Zoos are becoming the reservoir for animals in the wild at the same time nature is changing. In a way, natural reserves are becoming more managed for the sake of survival. The sophisticated programs zoos have developed to manage small populations in zoos are becoming more relevant as populations are getting smaller in the wild. Zoo professionals are in communication with people in the field about how to manage rhinos that are becoming extinct. Zoos and conservationists have to work together for the sake of sustaining some of the populations we once knew in nature. Maybe in several generations our children will not know lions and gorillas and rhinos. Prominent leaders in the zoo world are trying to see how they can move zoos to take a larger part in this movement of survival of both animals and habitats.

Photo, top: Irus Braverman

Photo, bottom: An elephant eating breakfast at the Safari Zoo in Ramat Gan, Israel / By Irus Braverman

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure