The Animal Image at the Zoo


By: Dawnja Burris /


Out of nature, in modern, urban, technological societies, the animal occurrence is predominantly a controlled, scientifically classified, domesticated taxonomy of species and definition of uses.

Within this context, human association with the animal and the representation and idolatry of it continues to recognize difference and similarity in the quest to define and identify itself and does so in a manner that is artificial by nature, a new natural state.

El Paso Zoo; photo by the author.

El Paso Zoo; photo by the author.


A question that automatically comes up in every issue dealing with representation is that of the distinction between the real and the virtual.

To deliberate the real we usually think about the tangible, the immediately accessible, the physical.

There are qualifications for something to be classified as real, as genuine, authentic. Usually these are claims of truth or to order, rules or values and depending on logic, rationality and reason. Truth requires a distinct object and subject, an ability to distinguish between what is actually present or absent.

El Paso Zoo; photo by the author.


The animal, as imagined, figured and accepted into human consciousness, operates on a simulated basis as a concept and a subject.









El Paso Zoo; photo by the author.


The animal reference along with the ensuing virtual relationship with and incorporation of its decided essence, functions as meaningfully as its tangible analog.









John Berger famously wrote that

“The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals.

Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes by.

They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically.

They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.”

looking at monkey

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle; photo by the author.


El Paso Zoo; photo by the author.

I pay particular attention to the politics of spectatorship and the notion of the zoo as theater in which the animal captives and the human visitors serve simultaneously as both actors and actants.



In these contexts, animals removed from nature for show (or following the newer rhetoric: “for conservation”), provide the human access to the wild animal which is increasingly or totally lost – both the animal and the access.















John Berger:

“However you look at these animals, even if the animal is up against the bars, less than a foot from you, looking outwards in the public direction, you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal; and all the concentration you can muster will never be enough to centralize it. Why is this?”


Berger answers this question by asserting the though “within” limits the zoo animal is free, they expect and require confinement.

Their modern habitats, known as “immersive environments” are illusions of the zoo’s projection of the animal’s “real” environment.

Tokens of the nature such animal would – – or previously could – – experience are inserted to suggest something of the “original”.



“These added tokens serve two distinct purposes: for the spectator they are like theater props:

for the animal they constitute the bare minimum of an environment in which they can physically exist.”

El Paso Zoo; photo by the author.


Association with the actual living animal is often based upon an altogether different representation via folk and pop-culture: that of the cartoon-talking variety, which is much more socialized and personalized than the wild other behind the bars or glass.

We are familiar with these representatives and they introduce us to the dangerous and real animal, which we also care about, because we should, even though we don’t really *know * them.

In both cases, our contact is mediated, distanced.

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle; photo by the author.

leapard cutouts

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle; photo by the author.



Berger, in conclusion:

“That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished.

Looking at each animal, the unaccompanied zoo visitor is alone.

As for the crowds, they belong to a species which has at last been isolated.”








Since representation intrinsically involves distancing beginning with the cognitive process of perceiving, I tend to regard our encounters with the animal in its various representations as mediations.

Memorable creation and reception of the animal image proceeds from an understanding of the animal without an over-predetermination on the part of the perceiver. This statement relies upon a hermeneutics which stresses that prejudgments do exist in the mind during the moments of perception and interpretation.

It is through a combination of pre-set ideas and acceptance of nonjudgmental positioning that the virtual relationship comes into existence.

Utilizing this premise allows for the description and understanding of the dynamics of the virtual relationship with the animal.

The emphasis in this process is on the potential interactions, discoveries and outcomes involved.



Berger, John. Why Look at Animals. Penguin Books. 1977. Print.


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