Oakland Zoo WTF, part 2
When I wrote this quick post, I thought I would quickly manage to get out to the Oakland Zoo to see the exhibit in question for myself. I didn’t; it’s tough to bike out there, and lacking a car, I still haven’t managed to do the kind of hard hitting investigative journalism that you pay for every time you renew your subscription to my blog. Also, let’s be honest, it was going to cut into my banjo playing and drinking time. And as an Appalachian, my culture teaches the importance of these activities to the exclusion of all else.
However, I did manage to write an email to the museum’s director, and got a remarkably prompt reply, which I’ve pasted below my original query. First, I wrote this:
Dr. Joel Parrott,
I haven’t been to see it yet, but a friend showed me a picture of the “East African Hut” in the Oakland Zoo, and after some scouting around on the internet, I was only able to find the press release description of
the exhibit at the zoo’s web site (http://www.oaklandzoo.org/news/press-releases/east-african-hut/). I’m curious about the rationale for putting a model of a house that people inhabit in a zoo, and I wonder if you could tell me anything about the decision-making that went into that. I’m genuinely not trying to accuse anyone of anything — really, I’m genuinely curious — but since a zoo is a place where human beings go to look at animals, it strikes me as very strange to put a house where human beings live into a zoo alongside all sorts of recreated animal habitats. Again, I’m not jumping to conclusions here; it’s because I’m genuinely interested in what rationale the zoo would have for doing this that I’m writing to you. Can you enlighten me or direct me to someone who can?
Best, Aaron Bady
Almost immediately, Joel Parrott wrote this in response:
Good morning Aaron.
The concepts for the entire area came out of a design process between the Oakland Zoo professional staff, Africans living in the local community, and zoo architects that specialize in zoo design and interpretation. The general thinking behind this project was to recreate a sense of the experience of what it means to go to East Africa. I have now been there nine times. What is unmistakable, when I go to Africa, is that it is a total environment, and not just a collection of pieces. A big problem with zoos, is that they tend to show animals, even those in naturalistic exhibits, separate from each other and separate from the rest of the world.
The intent here was to try to give a sense of unity in the East African experience. First and foremost, the animals should be in natural exhibits, esp. with plants that are from their own ecology, or at least with plants that simulate their environment. If we show the animals from Africa, then we should at least try to also include many of the plants (the botany) of their environment. We are fortunate in Oakland to have a nearly identical climate (mediterranean) to South Africa, so that many of the native African plants can survive here. The animals can also thrive and acclimate well.
As an extension of this, how should visitor services be depicted? It would be extremely out of context to simply put the animals and plants in a zoo setting. To give a sense of the culture and complete African setting, visitor services were cast in an educational cultural setting. In no way were the humans of Africa to be reflected as part of an animal exhibit manner. Thus, the traditional architectural design of circular buildings, natural materials, etc. were incorporated. We were very careful to be as accurate as possible, in order that the shared cultural experience would give our visitors an insight into the beauty of the outside world; in this case, the world where our African animals live, and people coexist.
I hope this helps. Thanks for your note.
To add to what Director Parrott wrote, I would say that many, many zoos are building great cultural exhibits like this. They are trying to make you (the visitor) feel like you have traveled overseas to the animals’ native land, that you are on a psuedo-African safari. Personally I love these types of exhibits! At the Memphis Zoo (in Tennessee), they have an exhibit (CHINA!) for their giant pandas and other Chinese native animals. Surrounding the animals are wonderful Chinese-motif buildings, a Beijing bell, and other authentic Chinese decorations. Zoos in Miami and Jacksonville do a similar culturally-themed exhibit area for their South American animals. It’s sort of like Disney World’s Epcot Center — with the addition of animals.
Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America’s Best Zoos
This is a truly terrible idea. For the grizzly bears do you have an exhibit featuring “traditional” american log cabins and gold panning equipment? or can only “native american” culture suffice for context? why not just put McDonalds and logging trucks as context for species from every continent? that would probably make more sense.
in this case, the world where our African animals live, and people coexist.
as unlike, uhhhh, the modern West and America where animals and people do _not_ coexist, asks the grad student who has mockingbirds duking it out right by her window. Maybe they should mock up my living room in the Bird House?
Or maybe we could bring in all the tame squirrels and seagulls inside the Oakland art museum, run herds of pigs through the Louvre.
You think I’m kidding …
herds of pigs would definitely improve the guggenheim
I just went to the Bronx Zoo yesterday and this sort of thing is indeed par for the course, though perhaps not as extreme–instead of merely going to gawk at tigers and giraffes, the Zoo frames that section as a journey/safari into the heart of the African wilderness. There are huts like the one at the Oakland zoo, except they sell soft-serve ice cream out of them. They also have an “Asian” section. As you enter it, they have an ad for the monorail ride that features a bunch of people in coolie hats being led on a tour by a colonial looking chap with a monocle and pith helmet. WTF, Bronx Zoo?
Also, the Polar Bear exhibit has a sign informing you that “Eskimos believe polar bears have supernatural abilities.”
this is apparently why ive never been there. that and it would cost $75 dollars to go wiht my husband and child.
Man, it’s killing me to hold my tongue until I’ve seen the thing. But I’m going to hold myself to that. zactly, Sys. And thanks for that Phil; apparently there’s a similar house in the Oakland zoo selling ice cream.
I’m not an Eskimo, but I do believe that polar bears have supernatural abilities. FWIW.
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