Looking at People Looking at Animals

Curator's Note

Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about NSA surveillance confirm that we live in an age of panopticonic fantasy. We want to see everything, and we expect that everything will be visible to satiate this omnivisual desire. Whether for national security or just our own personal amusement, we amass voluminous portfolios and databases of things to look at. Vision is power, and the seen-things are thus controlled in our sightlines.

Animal webcams are one recent manifestation of this hypervoyeurism. In a zoo or an aquarium, the animals are there to be looked at, to be the everpresent seen-things that confirm the viewer’s power. 

Webcams are the gimmick du jour at zoos and aquariums. They enhance, or amplify, the human audience’s ability to stare – instead of cutting off the view at closing time, they allow people to watch 24/7. Washington DC’s National Zoo has more than a dozen webcams, each facilitating the surveillance of a specific captive animal: ogle an octopus or orangutan; leer at a lion; peek at a panda.

Though it’s been many years since the Georgia Aquarium, my local animal prison, opened, I’d never been there until this summer. I rarely go to zoos and aquariums because I hate them: I am ashamed by the arrogance of my species when we take animals from where they belong and resituate them in venues that are convenient places for us to see hordes of them in a couple of hours. I am stunned by the logical disconnect in the message that face-to-face “relations” with animals fosters appreciation of the sanctity and delicacy of our ecosystem. (Really? Regardless of the animals’ suffering in their inadequate tanks and cages?  And their separation from these habitats that we’re supposed to be appreciating? We remove animals from the ocean to show how important the ocean is?)

At first, it was painful beyond words to see these animals decontextualized, disenfranchised from nature. After that, it was boring. I didn’t want to look at the animals – this was my principled resistance to the panopticon – so I looked at the people instead. The human animals gaped, they gawked; they looked as bored and as constrained as the marine animals, in this weird, placeless place that drags us all down to the level of its captive inmates.    


Your post is timely, given that the documentary Blackfish is gathering momentum, prompting audiences to question why they turn to captive animals for entertainment. When I saw the film, I found myself silently ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the first few minutes of footage, in which orcas performed amazing stunts with their human trainers... until I realized that I was falling into the very habits the film criticized. My local indie theater organized a post-screening Q&A with Samantha Berg, one of the former SeaWorld trainers featured in Blackfish. She suggested that multimedia could continue to play a role in satiating humans' desire to experience marine life. However, Berg said, it could be achieved remotely with live-streamed whale vocalizations captured in the wild. How do you respond to webcams and live broadcasts of domesticated animals, such as Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl?

I wonder why people are watching puppies instead of playing with them. Maybe the two activities aren't mutually exclusive, but maybe they are. Most (not necessarily all) animal shows I see on tv remind me of variations on the theme of David Letterman's 'Stupid Pet Tricks': We (smart, human) tv watchers, sitting on our butts with our remote controls, see ourselves as infinitely more intelligent than these "STUPID" animals who are fodder for our amusements: jesters, clowns. I think that the "lookers" -- whether at the zoo or aquarium or on tv -- are prone to see themselves as empowered . . . if only because they can decide when to stop looking, and then flip the channel or walk to the next cage. The animals perform only so long as they amuse us, and then . . . off with their heads (figuratively, and sometimes literally). So, no, not a big fan of Puppy Bowl. . . . sorry. - RM

Lauren - I have yet to see Blackfish, but intend to see it soon. I'm curious what the audience response was like. Were people receptive to the idea of boycotting Sea World et al.? Were there some folks who resented the documentarians "spoiling our fun"? Randy's post also coincides with the recent announcement that the Georgia Aquarium would not be able to bring in any more beluga whales.

It appeared to be a self-selecting audience of people who knew what they were going to learn and regarded this education as necessary. One viewer stood up at the Q&A to endorse boycotting SeaWorld, Marineland, etc. Another audience member, pursuing further activism, wondered which issues took priority (Samatha Berg encouraged people to speak up against captive breeding in particular). Like any documentary, Blackfish likely presents a biased perspective on the subject that ought to be scrutinized, but no one spoke up to denounce its claims.

I, too, am part of this self-selecting audience, but still: It is VERY hard for me to imagine that anyone who saw Blackfish could ever again go to SeaWorld. Or, really, to any aquarium or zoo: the lies and manipulations discussed in this film are universal practices throughout the animal captivity industry. Brilliant film. - RM

What do we make, then, of the people who do gather up the kids and head to the zoo or the aquarium? True, often they come across as really unthinking and ignorant. I too have seen parents at a number of zoos and aquariums yelling at the captive animals, telling their kids ridiculously untrue, ill-informed things about the animals, and one time at the Oklahoma City Zoo, perching a wobbly toddler to stand on the railing of the Gorilla enclosure until I leaned over and said: "you know, that's probably not safe. If she falls in there she'll hit the electrified wire below and the gorillas will come running over and then who know what will happen..." I wonder if the touristic, consumerist atmosphere cultivated by animal park design and marketing makes adults act like kids? Perhaps it is intended to do just that? On the other hand, in my research on circuses, I read many parental blogs documenting trips to the circus and there was a common narrative there: Mom and Dad aren't really sure they like the idea of seeing animals in a circus, but the kids nag and nag, and beg and beg: "PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, can we go see the elephants and tigers in the circus!?!?" And so the family goes, but during the show the parents and even sometimes the kids discover they are uncomfortable with what they are seeing and they decide that, maybe, we won't go to the circus next year. Seems the zoo and aquarium industry has found ways to squelch that feeling in its customers. And, so people who are comfortable with watching animals who are not free to go, or perceive themselves to be too frazzled and exhausted from raising kids to think about big philosophical things like whether animal captivity is actually in animals' own interest (as the zoos and aquariums insist) -- those people self-select and go. For the zoos and aquariums to prey on exhausted parents and young children in this way -- it is quite a racket, no?

Yes, I think a number of people (kids and grown-ups) who go to the zoo or the circus see disturbing things, and think about them, and act on those thoughts, and then we grow some new animal rights activists -- good outcome. And sometimes the discomforts remain more sublimated (yes, the whole thing is quite a racket: it's been going on for a couple of centuries, and "they" know what they're doing!), and it's not such a teachable moment, except perhaps the parents might learn that sometimes the answer needs to stay 'no' no matter how much their kids beg. "Squelch" is, I think, the perfect way of putting it. I cannot prove this, but I feel intuitively certain that zoos and circuses have a well-oiled public relation apparatus in place that anticipates and/or defuses any possible feeling or expression of resistance to what they do. In the case of Blackfish, SeaWorld's rapid-response team is generally considered to have shot itself in its collective foot with a desperate/hysterical rebuttal to the film (addressed to film critics) just before the release date, which the filmmakers and many other animal rights people were easily able to re-rebut, and which seems mainly to have had the effect of stoking controversy and getting larger audiences in to see the film (which, as I mentioned before, is -- to my mind -- simply inarguable in the case it makes).

Sorry to by jumping in late to this discussion. Your post and comments really resonate with my feelings about zoos and aquariums, Randy. I'm wondering if you can say more (or if others want to weigh in) about how we square our unease with these places--a loathing informed both by gut reaction to and an educated awareness of the practices within them--with the need to study them. I suppose it's a longstanding ethnographic problem: how to produce meaningful knowledge about systems of oppression without simultaneously contributing to them? My way of experiencing the few zoos and aquariums I've visited as an adult has shared something of the "principled resistance" you describe; the most adequate (and tolerable) response often seems to adopt a critically detached vantage point from which to observe what's going on. I know some would advocate an abolitionist stance and refuse to enter these places. What about the other extreme--embracing the experience and allowing oneself to be enthralled by the animals. Is there any value in that? Are there other strategies for negotiating this problem?

Hi Sarah -- great question . . . and one I've spent a long time grappling with. About 15 years ago I wrote a book about zoos (called Reading Zoos) and while I was working on it, everyone assumed I was hanging around zoos and doing ethnography. I had no desire to go to zoos -- just as you say, my gut reaction was that they repulsed me. I had last been to a zoo in 1984: I was in San Diego with my father and I was 22 years old, and he said I should give zoos one last try because the SD Zoo was 'the best in the country.' I went with him, and I felt no different from how I felt in any other zoo, so I thought: ok, I never have to go to a zoo again! I had a line in an early draft of my book proudly proclaiming that I had not gone to the zoo while doing my research for the book, and that this book was instead of going to the zoo. My editor suggested that I remove it -- he felt it made my perspective vulnerable and made me sound somehow supercilious. I agreed to delete the passage, though I've regretted it since. Anyway, fast forward a decade, when I was going to London and trying to get in touch with a photographer whom I had admired for many years, named Britta Jaschinski. (Her first book is called 'Zoo,' and an image from that book was on the cover of my own Reading Zoos; and she has also allowed me to use her images on the covers of my three subsequent books. I think these images are the best things about my books . . . giving the lie to the cliche, don't judge a book by its cover.) Britta agreed to meet me, and said we'd go to the zoo. Of course this was not something that I was (at first) comfortable with, but I acceded because she, to do her great work (involving photographs that show how miscontextualized animals are in the zoo), has to go to zoos. So I decided that wanting to meet her, and to accompany her, outweighed my own revulsion. I've gone to the zoo only twice since then, both times in her company. I know this is a rambling, discursive response to your comment, but this is what your post evoked for me. Please take a look at Britta's work!!!

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