Thought to Exist in the Wild

GRANTED, I have a thing for rhinos. But few readers could see the sleeping rhinoceros on page thirty-one of Thought to Exist in the Wild without pausing to ponder the ethics of zoos. The rhino is not being hurt. He’s not visibly suffering. He’s not doing anything, really, except what you or I would do if we were waiting interminably in a drab room at, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles: napping. But he looks drastically out of place. He looks like a rhino would look if he were at the DMV, expired license speared on his horn.

The picture encapsulates what’s best about this collaboration between photographer Karen Tweedy-Holmes and essayist Derrick Jensen. Zoo proponents rarely claim that animals want to be locked up. However, they argue, zoos are invaluable to conservation and education, so, for the good of all animals, some individuals must endure incarceration. Tweedy-Holmes’s photograph puts the lie to this defense. It’s not that the rhino looks bored, or lonely, or sad, but rather that we learn so little by looking at him. Absent his world, the rhino is no longer a rhino. Yet somehow, Tweedy-Holmes lets a glimmer of rhino peek through. Her photographs have an ability to present her animal subjects not as species exemplars but as individuals, diminished though they are.

Derrick Jensen paints the bigger picture, drawing the connection between zoos and “the tradition of domination and control . . . already killing the planet.” His riff on the absurdity of likening zoos to arks is especially good. “Zoos are about power,” he declares: subtler than Roman circuses, today’s wildlife conservation parks are still about human mastery.

Jensen declares he sees no way of ending the nightmare of zoos without ending the nightmare of civilization. Jensen fans will nod: this willingness to take the fight to the top is the author’s hallmark. But readers unready to jettison civilization — and what exactly civilization means is never completely clear — may feel frustrated. Nevertheless, Jensen and Tweedy-Holmes ask a critical question that mainstream culture seems largely unwilling even to entertain: “How do zoos teach us to perceive nonhuman animals and our relationship to them?”