Human-Animal Interactions in Bristol Zoo


A review of The Natures of the Beasts: An Animal History of Bristol Zoo Gardens since 1835, by Andrew Flack.

The Natures of the Beasts is a study of changing human-animal interactions in Bristol Zoo from the institution’s foundation in 1835 to the present day. Drawing on a wide range of previously neglected source material, and posing original and theoretically-informed new questions, Andrew Flack explores how the Zoo’s residents have been perceived and treated since its creation, charting shifting attitudes towards non-human animals. The thesis adopts a thematic rather than a chronological structure, highlighting some of the most contested elements of human-animal interaction and complicating the simplistic narrative of “improvement” that underlies more popular histories of Bristol and other zoos. Key subjects for exploration include how animals were valued, how they were exhibited, how they were imagined, how they shaped or resisted the nature of their captivity and how they were commoditized and commemorated after death. A wider theme that undergirds much of the thesis concerns the ambiguous status of zoo animals as both objects of human manipulation and historical subjects in their own right. Did visitors and keepers view elephants, lions and gorillas as interchangeable representative of their species or individuals with distinct personalities? To what extent did animals exert agency over how they were perceived?

Andrew Flack’s thesis is a valuable contribution to the history of zoos specifically and to the field of Animal Studies more broadly. The majority of existing studies of zoological gardens in Britain have focused on the London Zoo, paying little attention to the provincial institutions that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in cities such as Dublin, Edinburgh and Liverpool (see, for example, “Exotic Captives” in Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp.205-242; “The Elite and the Invention of Zoos” and “Imperial Glory” in Eric Baratay and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), pp.73-130; Robert Jones, “‘The Sight of Creatures Strange to our Clime’: London Zoo and the consumption of the exotic”, Journal of Victorian Culture 2:1 (1997), pp.1-26; Takashi Ito, London Zoo and the Victorians, 1828-1859 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2014). By concentrating on Bristol, one of the longest surviving provincial zoos, Flack broadens our understanding of British zoo culture and illuminates previously unexplored human-animal interactions outside the capital. By adopting such a long time-span for the study, moreover, while keeping the geographical focus relatively narrow, Flack is able to offer a clear narrative of change (and continuity) over time, tracing the Bristol Zoo’s evolution from the Victorian era to the twenty-first century and exploring how its content and reception were shaped by shifting cultural contexts, from the imperial triumphalism of the nineteenth century to the emergence of environmentalism and the animal rights movement in the 1970s.

The thesis avoids the more anecdotal and “Whiggish” approach of popular zoo histories, (e.g. J. Barrington-Johnson, The Zoo: The Story of London Zoo (London: Robert Hale, 2005); Tim Brown, Alan Ashby and Christoph Schwitzer, An Illustrated History of Bristol Zoo Gardens (Todmorden: Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society, 2011)). By concentrating on responses to and treatment of actual living breathing animals, Flack also brings an important historical dimension to more recent, philosophically-oriented analyses of zoos, which often concentrate more on their role as semiotic spaces than as sites of lived experiences and interactions (e.g. Bob Mullan and Garry Marvin, Zoo Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Randy Malamud, Reading Zoos: Representing Animals and Captivity (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1998); Kay Anderson, “Culture and Nature at the Adelaide Zoo: At the Frontiers of ‘Human’ Geography”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, 20:3 (1995), pp.275-294).

Chapter 1 introduces the key issues that are addressed in the thesis and situates the research within its wider historiographical context. Flack positions his work within a growing literature on the cultural significance of zoos, which considers both their symbolic significance as sites for domestic imperial display and the ethical issues posed by keeping animals in captivity. He also places the thesis within the broader interdisciplinary context of Animal Studies – a relatively new field which puts animals at its center and focuses on issues of animal agency, animality and ethics. The chapter outlines the history of Bristol Zoo and recounts the experiences of the Zoo’s eleven elephants to highlight how attitudes towards animals and methods of acquisition and display have changed over the past century and a half.

Chapter 2, “Animals Valued”, considers the value attached to animals in the Bristol Zoo and how this changed over time. In the nineteenth century, animals were valued primarily according to their rarity, their popularity and their utility. Specimens were obtained through a growing trade in wild creatures, which reflected Britain’s (and specifically Bristol’s) growing commercial and imperial power. As steam-powered shipping and the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) increased the supply of exotic beasts arriving in Europe, their relative value fell; “A two-horned Rhinoceros, for which [London Zoo] paid £1250 [in 1872]” could be bought for £100 twelve years later, “plenty of them coming from Malacca and Singapore to different parts of Europe” (The Standard, 2 August 1884). The capture and transportation of exotic animals were extremely wasteful processes, resulting in the deaths of many individuals, but contemporaries viewed exotic beasts as an “easily renewable commodity” (p.53) that would never run out. Animals bred in the Bristol Zoo itself also constituted a form of currency that could be exchanged with, or sold to, other similar institutions, though deformed, sick or otherwise imperfect beasts were often slaughtered.

In the mid-twentieth century, the way in which animals were valued began to change. From the late-1970s, more value began to be ascribed to biodiversity, species conservation and ecosystems than to individual animals. With the rise of environmental movements, animal liberation and decolonization in this period, the old methods of obtaining animals became less acceptable and zoos were forced to reinvent themselves as sanctuaries for wildlife rather than sites of imperial display. Genes now became more important than individual animals, as inter-zoo captive breeding programs came into existence. Balancing conservation initiatives with more traditional revenue raising requirements, however, remained a challenge. As Andrew Flack demonstrates, the criteria used to value animals thus reflected broader cultural shifts and changing ways of viewing the natural world.

Chapter 3, “Animals Enclosed, Animals Encountered”, examines changes in the way in which exotic animals were exhibited to the public, and considers to what extent these were brought about by changing attitudes towards non-human animals. In the nineteenth century, animals were generally exhibited in bare cages with iron bars. Gradually, however, these were replaced by more immersive exhibits that simulated the natural environment of different species and provided environmental enrichment for their inhabitants. There was a simultaneous shift from arranging different species according to their placement in the Linnaean system to presenting them within more “authentic” habitats and grouping them according to their place of origin. A number of historians have argued that the layout of the zoo was explicitly contrived to highlight man’s mastery over animals. Flack, however, suggests that evolving techniques for animals display were shaped to at least an equal extent by a desire to keep animals alive and in good condition, which necessitated improvements in heating, ventilation and hygiene.

Chapter 3 also emphasizes the degree to which human-animal encounters were interactive. People wanted to see animals in an animated state, so performances with seals and feeding displays were consistently popular. Some animals were exhibited outside of their enclosures to facilitate more intimate contact – in the 1930s, Alfred the gorilla was often presented in this manner, secured only by a chain. Visitors would also sometimes poke, tease or feed the animals in an effort to make them react. Through an analysis of these interactions, Flack reveals the multisensory dimensions of the zoo visit and the tensions that existed (and still exist) between spectator entertainment and animal welfare.

Chapter 4, “Animals Imagined”, explores the different ways in which humans have thought about animals in the Zoo and how they have understood and perceived them. Flack begins by analyzing shifting portrayals of animals in guidebooks which, before the twentieth century, typically judged them in moralistic terms as “good” or “harmful”, but which later focused increasingly on issues such as habitat and reproduction. Flack then goes on to examine visitor and keeper responses to particular animals, which might be viewed as “friends” or communal pets and elevated to the status of mascots and local/national celebrities. The chapter notes that different species received different levels of attention in this regard, with large mammals, especially apes, being easily anthropomorphized, but reptiles and fish seen as curiosities rather than close biological relatives. Rather than one predominant response to the animals in Bristol Zoo, Flack emphasizes the multiplicity of responses possible and the complicated relationships that emerge between human and non-human animals.

Chapter 5, “Animal Actors”, concentrates on the complex issue of animal agency. To what extent could animals influence how they were treated and viewed by the public? Without broaching the controversial question of intentionality, Flack offers interesting examples of animals challenging human control though aberrant behaviors. Zoo inmates might, for example, escape from their cages, like the leopard that roamed onto Durham Down in 1840; they might bite or scratch visitors who poked their hands into enclosures; or they might engage in naturalistic behavior deemed indecorous by visitors, such as spitting or throwing feces. Animals could also interact more positively with humans by begging for food or relating closely to keepers. All of these actions shaped the way in which animals were perceived and treated and suggests a level of reciprocity in human-animal relations. Emblematic of this process is the sad case of Misha the polar bear, whose mournful pacing in the 1980s stimulated massive public condemnation of the Bristol Zoo and forced them, initially, to improve his living conditions, and later to abandon the keeping of certain species altogether. Misha did not consciously seek to provoke a reaction, but his stereotyped behavior had a profound and wide-reaching influence on both zoo policy and public attitudes towards animal captivity.

Finally, Chapter 6, “Animal Afterlives”, examines what happened to Bristol Zoo’s inmates after death, charting their posthumous transition to museum specimens, teaching tools and local celebrities. The chapter deals, first, with the process of death itself, which was often controlled or managed by human keepers through euthanasia, and which was increasingly hidden from the public to preserve the zoo as a space for living animals alone. Flack then considers the role of dead animals (or animal parts) in museums and as commodities, where they underwent a metamorphosis from individual creature to type specimen. He also notes their value aids to veterinary science, autopsies on dead animals allowing vets to understand better how the bodies of their living counterparts functioned and failed. While most animals were forgotten after death, a few more well known ones haunted the popular memory. Some were commemorated with monuments in the gardens and one, the recently deceased elephant, Wendy, was the subject of condolence books and a Facebook page, where the public could record their memories of the animal. Flack argues that dead animals could therefore be both subjects and objects, mirroring the roles they had played in life.

The Natures of the Beasts is an innovative and carefully researched thesis which should make a substantial addition to the history of zoos and to Animal Studies more widely.

Helen Cowie
Department of History
University of York

Primary Sources
BCWEZS Archives. These contain Annual Reports of the Zoological Society, guidebooks to the gardens, minutes of Society meetings, correspondence received by the Society, keepers’ logbooks, promotional materials, stock catalogues, newspaper articles and photographs.
Bristol Reference Library. This holds shipping records documenting animal imports.
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. This contains several stuffed animals originating from the Zoo and records relating to their acquisition.
The BBC Audio-visual Archive. This contains film footage of animals in Bristol Zoo.
Oral histories of Bristol Zoo employees, past and current, obtained through interviews by the author.

Dissertation Information
University of Bristol. 2013. 410pp. Primary Advisor: Peter Coates.

Image: Underwater at Seal and Penguin Coasts’ (c. 2000) BZG Picture Drive.

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