At first sight, we think of the zoo as a representation or a copy of, mostly, the wild animal world. But, actually, it is not a copy of anything real and the most we can say is that it is only a representation of itself. This is because the zoo only shows us animals which are not in their natural environment and which cannot function, behave, or live as if they were in their original habitats. In other words, we cannot see the real animal world as it is in their natural environment. Thus, the zoo can better be characterized as a hyperreal world.
Hyperreality is a concept that has been developed in the second half of the past century. French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) uses the idea of the simulation which means feigning to have what one doesn’t have (1994: 3). Thus, simulation doesn’t have a referential being, or a substance. “It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (1). The product of the simulation is called simulacrum, which replaces reality with its representation. As Baudrillard continues, “[i]t is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” (1-2) In other words, the hyperreal in a way simulates another reality and actually is a kind of a copy of something that doesn’t exist. Similarly, Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco describes hyperreality as the absolute fake, which attempts to improve on reality itself (1986).
A common example of a hyperreal world is Disneyland. It is not a copy of anything real; it is a fake world. Comparatively, the zoo does not represent the real animal world, but a fake one.
There are several things that can be noticed about the zoo. First, and the most obvious, the animals are enclosed in pens, cages, pools and other spaces so their movement is limited, and the most important, they cannot run away, swim away, or fly away. But there may be zoos with very large enclosures and the animals can move more, and by this we hope that they feel like in their natural environment. But, then, how big must a zoo enclosure be so that the animals can really feel that they are not enclosed? Maybe as big as their natural environment? Of course, the bigger the enclosure the better for the animals; at least we think so. However, this way, we may not call it a zoo anymore and actually it may really not be a zoo anymore.
Second, the food and water are provided for the animals. On one hand, that’s a good thing, because they don’t need to worry about it. But bringing them food actually is another thing that makes it different from their lives in the natural environment. Especially for the predators. They don’t need to search, hunt, and kill for their food. They become, so to say, lazy. And they know that the food, sooner or later, will arrive. Thus, a whole way of behavior is changed and it is a change of their whole lives. It seems that these predators turn into scavengers. But even the scavengers themselves don’t need to wander about in search for their food. They also know that the food will arrive sooner or later. So they also become lazy, and just wait for their food. But should we give the predators live animals so that they can hunt them, kill them and devour them in front of the eyes of the spectators? Many would not agree for various reasons, although we know that it is what they would do in their natural environment.
Another problem arises from these two points mentioned. Since the animals are enclosed and fed, the natural eco-system is disturbed. Or, to be more precise, the zoo represents another eco-system, different from the one in the natural environment of the animals. Usually, one enclosure may consist of animals of one kind or similar kinds, so they don’t get in close encounter with other kinds or species of animals. There may be enclosures with animals of different kinds or species, but what is important is that, as mentioned above, they don’t get in touch with their potential predators or preys. So the problem with the size of the enclosure also opens the question whether we should put in it animals of different kinds and species, as well as predators and preys. Because if we want to keep to the concept of the zoo itself—that is, same or similar kinds in one enclosure—we won’t have enough space to make big enough enclosures for every animal. On the other hand, the zoo would be so big that it would even be difficult for the visitors to see the animals or even visit all the places in it.
Next, some zoo animals may not be under the same climate as in their natural environment. Maybe for some animals change of climate may cause health problems or even premature death. But zoos may provide special air-conditioning for polar animals or warm rooms during winter for tropical animals so that they don’t feel the climate is different from their natural environment; or at least, we think so. Being under different climate and especially under air-conditioning or heating is not the same as the animals’ natural environment.
Finally, there are the visitors of the zoo, for whom the zoo exists. Every day the animals are subject to the gaze of countless number of people. We can notice that most of the animals are perfectly aware of the visitors who come to the zoo to watch them. But being a subject to the gaze of the visitors every day changes their whole natural state. Sometimes we can see interaction between visitors and animals, which we usually evaluate as a good thing. But we may also see some animals hiding or turning their backs to the visitors. Does this show that they are not happy about them, or is it just a game they are playing? Or maybe they just turn towards or away from the sun. But if it’s any of the former two, it is a reaction to the visitors’ presence. Or we can see some animals constantly watching the visitors, so they themselves turn into spectators. All in all, being under constant gaze of the visitors is something that is typical for a zoo but not for animals living in their natural habitats.
The lives of the zoo animals are thus changed. Their behaviors are different. When we watch them we don’t see the real animals. The zoo world is a simulation, a fake world that attempts to represent itself as real, but, actually, considering the points mentioned above, it is hyperreal.
Baudrillard, Jean. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Eco, Umberto. (1986). Travels in Hyperreality. Translated by William Weaver. Orlando FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc.