Mastery Over Nature and the Exotic Animal Trade

Mastery Over Nature and the Exotic Animal Trade

Humankind has always had a fascination with nature and specifically animals in nature and even more specifically with conquering the animal or gaining mastery over the animal. The exotic animal has been the focus of great aspiration of humankind to attain mastery over. The reasons for this are varied in nature with some individuals obtaining exotic animals for their own pleasure and as examined in this particular informative study there is desire for obtaining exotic animals so that human beings can experience the animals of nature.

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Adelaide Zoo, Adelaide, South Australia

The setting examined in this study is that of the Adelaide Zoo, located Adelaide, South Australia. The work of Kay Anderson entitled “Culture and Nature at the Adelaide Zoo: At the Frontier of Human Geography” reports that in the suburban backyard, people unknowingly “make their more routine interventions in nature by clearing ground and arranging space for ‘gardens’, they simultaneously create ‘habitats’ in which some species of bird and animal life thrive while other lose out.” (Anderson, 1995)

The suburb is reported by Anderson to have become an ecosystem of its own. However, just as people create habitats for animals, Anderson states that they also “often tend to misrecognize as ‘natural’ the settings that have been deliberately set aside for human recreation and contemplation.” (Anderson, 1995) Included according to Anderson are “the parks and reserves where an ill-defined and unspecified ‘nature’ has been converted into cultural experience and spiritual commodity. It is the metropolitan space of the western world’s zoo-logical gardens, however, that people encounter a nature that has been most complexly and culturally contrived by, and for, humans.” (Anderson, 1995) Anderson reports that the zoological gardens are such that are “…an illusion is created from scratch and re-presented back to human audiences in a cultural performance and achievement…” (Anderson, 1995) Nature is stated by Anderson to be while remote and distant from the human cultural society is “in some sense at least, socially constructed.” (Anderson, 1995)

II. The Zoo Environment

The zoo is inclusive of a wide range of species of the natural world and most of these are generally not seen by people in nature. In addition, the display of these animals is stated to “cater to cultural demand and public expectations about animals and the world regions for which exhibits are made to emblematically stand.” (Anderson, 1995) This is because zoos attract paying visitors for example the United States is reported to have 154 zoos and aquariums as of 1993 which were accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums and it is reported that more than 100 million individuals visited these parks. (Anderson, 1995, paraphrased)

The work of Tarpy (1993) states that this is more individuals that the combined population attending all football and basketball games in the major league. The following illustration shows the ‘Plan of the Zoological Gardens’ from 1898.

Figure 1

Plan of the Zoological Gardens (1898)

III. Human Response to Animals in Zoos

Anderson states that some zoos realize higher levels of success than do other zoos and specifically as related to attraction of visitors. The response of human beings to the animals in zoos is reported to be “wide-ranging and profoundly ambiguous.” (1995) In fact, according to surveys the reactions of human beings to zoos “typically combine excitement, fear, awe, sadness and nostalgia, with unease about the captivity of animals.” (Adams et al. 1991; Townsend 1988 in Anderson, 1995).

Anderson reports that the zoo “…ultimately tell[s] us stories about boundary-making activities on the part of humans.” (1995) the metropolitan zoo in the western world is according to Anderson “spaces where humans engage in cultural self-definition against a variably constructed and opposed nature.” (1995) Zoos use animals as the medium in providing the inscription of “sense of distance from the loosely defined realm that has come to be called ‘nature’.” (Anderson, 1995)

IV. Purposes of Animals Prior to Zoos

Anderson reports that before zoos were constructed that animals were kept by humans in captivity for various purposes including for the labor the animals performed and even for purposes of worship. Romans in the third century BC used animals violently in gladiatorial contests and triumphal processes and during the Middle Ages, Anderson reports that “royal sports included bear-baiting and bullfighting.” (1995 citing Zuckerman, 1979) By the late seventeenth century ‘menageries’ became popular.

Menageries were quite simply caged animals kept in private collections as a status symbol for the owners. Louis XIV is known to have had such a collection know as the Versailles menageries in which a botanical garden was arrange with an enclosure for elephants and lions around his house. The collection of Louis XIV was moved in 1804 to Paris and kept in a zoological garden called Jardin des Plantes in what was a public exhibit of the animals. The animals were kept in Paris and were adherent to “scientific formulations about non-human nature that supported practices of animal confinement.” (Anderson, 1995)

It is reported that legitimacy to the concept of the menagerie was given by the scientific community and this spread throughout Europe and by 1847 the Zoological Society of London was formed comprising the royal menageries and Windsor Park and the Tower of London. The zoos in the western world are reported to have “evolved historically out of a much older and more general logic and desire for classification and control of the non-human world” described as the ‘rationalist’ school of thought. However, it is reported that as Christianity and humanism developed that the setting apart of humankind from the animal world was solidified. Dualism and reason were a school of thought that grew to imply “a hierarchy that pitted nature both against and beneath human who was henceforth justified in treating nature as object, as background to — and instrument of — human purposes.” (Anderson, 1995) Anderson states that it is interesting that “the imaginative act that assimilated those, thinking, sentient, intentional and animate creatures called ‘animals’ into the blackbox category of nature.” (1995) Anderson writes that Descartes stated that animals while having the capacity sensation were mechanical beings which were not aware and as well did not possess a conscious nature.

According to Anderson, the zoo in colonial and post-colonial Australia “has been one of the sites through which the confidence and privilege of partial perspective have been encoded and ‘naturalized’.” (1995) The zoo takes the “raw material of nature” and constructs it into “an iconic representation of human capacity for order and control” as the images of the zoo which are constructed are “one that dramatize, even glorify, this capacity for intervention in nonhuman nature.”

Summary and Conclusion

However one perceives the Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide, South Australia, it is certain that the exotic animals which one can view in the zoo are of the nature that one otherwise would not be able to see in nature. Without the benefit of the zoo, children would view merely pictures of the lovely, strange and frightening creatures they are able to view while visiting the zoo. The zoo brings to life many characters in the storybooks of childhood and allows the children to literally place an animal’s face with its name and enables children to exert their imagination and their creativity. The world would be a much poorer place in the lives of children without the benefit of the zoo. One must wonder if the animals at the Adelaide zoo are actually humored that the human animals believe that they are superior to the non-human residents living at the Adelaide zoo.


Adams, G., Fisher, L., Le Blond, D., Mazur, N., McMahon, C., Peckover, T., Schmiechen, J. And Sharrad, N. 1991, The role of the Adelaide Zoo in conservation, Report prepared for the Royal Zoological Study of South Australia, Mawson Graduate Centre for Environmental Studies, The University of Adelaide.

Anderson, K (1994) Culture and Nature at the Adelaide Zoo: At the Frontiers of Human Geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. N.S. 20(3) 275-294. Retrieved from:

Tarpy, C. 1993, ‘New zoos — taking down the bars’, National Geographic, July: 2-38.

Thomas, K. 1983, Man and the natural world: changing attitudes in England 1500-1800, Allen Lane, London.

Townsend, A. 1988, Attitudes, perception and behavior among visitors at the Adelaide Zoo, Unpubl. Honours thesis, Department of Psychology, University of Adelaide.

Zuckerman, L. (ed.) 1979, Great zoos of the world: their origins and significance, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

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