I spy…Debunking the zoo myth

In The Times, 8 March 2017

” Our profound love of animals has been twisted into pets, zoos, decorations, and entertainment” – (Shepard, 1995, p. 40 in Stibbe 2005)

Join me for a 2 minute silence in memory of Vince, a white rhino who was shot dead for his horn.

This morning The Times reported poachers shot dead a rare white rhinoceros at a French zoo and sawed off its horn, featured on their front cover. While I was edging towards the counter to purchase the paper, the cashier, referring to the report, said: “Isn’t this awful?”, to which I replied automatically without much panache given the early hour that “I don’t think this is any different to the millions of cows being slaughtered for their meat”. The cashier quickly added: ” but still, poaching and in the zoo?!”.

I went away realizing that there is a mist of trust surrounding zoos, and that zoos are seen to be protecting animals. Vince’s murder is a poignant wake up call that should be used to disrupt zoos’ image as ‘wild’ animal protectors. In fact, the zoo myth is similar to the climate change myth – there are still some people out there who do not believe that humans are slowly boiling themselves to death by destroying the planet.

Last year the Linguini was subscribed to Vegan Life Magazine. At the time, each issue featured a debate section. For example, should vegan wear faux leather (because it may promote inadvertently -leather), should vegans eat figs? (because of the threat to wasps), should vegans wear/use second-hand leather items? One of the debates concerned whether vegans  should support zoos.

This discourse of zoos as protectors and educators is a dominant one, leading to a common sense that zoos are a natural feature, along with theatres and museums, in great cities’ landscapes.  As Arran Stibbe (2014) notes, a critical ecolinguistics analyst begins by grounding their ecological philosophy (ecosophy) that informs their worldview and against which they judge the discourses in the texts they analyse. Naess’s (1996) term ‘ecosophy’ is useful for describing frameworks that ecolinguistic studies use to judge discourses against: “By an ecosophy I mean a philosophy of ecological harmony…openly normative it contains norms, rules, postulates, value priority announcements and hypotheses concerning the state of affairs … The details of an ecosophy will show many variations due to significant differences concerning not only the ‘facts’ of pollution, resources, population, etc. but also value priorities.” (1996:8)

The Linguini’s personal ecosophy drawn on social ecology (e.g., Bookchin 2005), “where the roots of ecological destruction are seen as existing in social hierarchies. According to social ecology, humans will not stop dominating nature and treating it as a resource until we stop dominating each other and treating each other as resources.  Additionally, I subscribe to the notions expressed in Deep Ecology which recognises the intrinsic worth of plants, animals, forests, rivers, i.e., their value beyond direct, short-term use for humans.

How are participants represented in the report?

Like circuses, zoos use animals for entertainment when animals are put on display for people to enjoy. One of the last lines of defense used by zoos and their supporters is that zoos are a locus for educating the public about conservation and ‘wildlife’. Never mind that captive imprisoned zoo animals do not represent the diversity in nature, and as such they do not act as a ‘DNA bank’.

Many captive animals die in zoos prematurely due to poor treatment, adverse living conditions and poor mental health brought about by solitude or lack of space (e.g., rhino bulls fight for territory. In the wild, the fight would  be settled by the loser finding a more remote territory. But in the zoos, there often isn’t enough space and the fight can result in death). Why was Vince’s death reported about? Why are rhinos, elephants, and pandas reported about but not others? Arran Stibbe (2005) argues that animals are “entities whose value lies either in rarity, size, or in their ability to mimic human behaviour.”

Starting with the zoo in the report and zoos in general, they are represented as responsible and ‘aware of the threat from poaching’:

  1. zookeepers carried out regular patrols and that it was stepping up security
  2. A spokeswoman for Save the Rhino International, a conservation charity, said: “This incident shows how security is increasingly important for zoos in Europe.”

Zoos are also represented as a ‘home’ to animals:

British zoos are home to 111 rhinoceroses.

Examples 1 and 2 above contribute to the reinforcement of the notion that zoos are there for animals and their protection, when in fact the opposite is true. This is further exemplified in the following clause from the report:

      ‘Vince had been brought to France from Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem‘ (Netherlands)

Firstly, the passive verb is used to hide the agent – who is responsible. Secondly, the choice of the main verb, brought, is  a euphemism for kidnapped. Far worse it could be argued, the use of brought is a reflection of the dominant discourse and world view that animals are there for human use, transport and dislocation. Clearly, Vince was abducted from his homeland, from his family and freedom:

      ‘Vince, a four-year-old southern white rhinoceros, was found dead in his cage in    Thoiry  Zoo’.

“keepers were instructed to put the rhinoceroses in cages under lock and key every night.”

However, the perpetrators are described negatively as criminals, attackers, and poachers:

‘…the criminals were disturbed…’

Criminality is a relative social concept, similarly to slaughter, as we will see in the next section below:

Some animals have more value than other

“Poachers in Africa killed 1,338 rhinoceroses in 2015, the sixth year that the number increased. “

Every year in the UK approximately 2.6 million cattle, 10 million pigs, 14.5 million sheep and lambs, 80 million fish and 950 million birds are slaughtered for human consumption, according to the Humane Slaughter Association.

‘Thierry Duguet, the zoo’s director, denounced the “extremely shocking” attack as “an act of extreme violence.’

This brings me back to the cashier’s comment in the beginning of this post. The dichotomy in society that some animals’ lives value more than others’ is apparent in the way this story is reported, and the conversation I had with the cashier. We should be shocked by all acts of violence. Every killing is of a sentient being who did not want to be killed.

So, are zoos good?





Stibbe, A. (2014). AN ECOLINGUISTIC APPROACH TO CRITICAL DISCOURSE STUDIES. Critical Discourse Studies, 11(1), pp.117-128.

Stibbe, A. (2005) Counter-discourses and the relationship between humans and other animals. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 18(1), pp.3-17.

The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

6 thoughts on “I spy…Debunking the zoo myth

  1. Here’s a review I wrote of Fota Wildlife Park in Cork, Ireland. I’m very skeptical of most zoos and will never visit “attractions” like Sea World, etc. I think there are a few wildlife parks, like Fota, that are closer to reserves in terms of space and habitat and can be beneficial if operated well, as a non-profit, .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A really interesting perspective. It’s incredible how ‘normalised’ some things are. So much so that we don’t even think to question them. I remember my reaction when someone told me how strange it was that humans drink cow’s milk. The idea that humans should drink cow’s milk was so deeply rooted that it was difficult to conceive of any other possibility. It’s interesting to note people’s reaction when I tell them I drink soya and almond milk: total disgust. Very strange.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The notion of ‘common sense’ is a societal construct for sure and there is no absolute truth or reality in this sense but when it comes to intentionally harming other beings, it’s difficult to see why people accept it. Thank you for stopping by!


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