From Human Zoos to Animal Zoos: Exploitation Remains the Same

Racism and Speciesism Sprout from the Same Ideological Derivatives

An ideology is a set of beliefs. From economic to political to religious, ideology has proved successful as a means to establishing an accepted hierarchy. Creating a ranking system opens positions for power and authority to govern, rule and dominate. Cue in the ‘isms’.

Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Classism. Heterosexism. Speciesism.

All of these ideologies work in favor of constructing a defined ‘norm’ under which systemic and institutionalized oppression is made possible. In this article, we explore parallel narratives that call for the normalization of such extremes against humans and animals alike.

Human Zoos

It is difficult now to imagine a period of time when fellow humans were kept in zoos—zoos that displayed inhabitants from ‘foreign’ lands, mostly African countries, as objects of entertainment and examination.

This was considered a ‘norm’ four centuries ago, but how did we get there?

                                      Belgium, 1958

It began when the Age of Enlightenment ushered in a new alternative approach to life’s principles and practices; one where rationalism and reasoning replaced extreme religiosity and superstition. Through fabricated deduction, misuse of science and a false sense of entitlement, it gave way to claims of racial superiority.

In this ideological bubble, one race is elevated to supremacism while others are demoted. This vantage point authorizes the seeming ‘superior’ race to practice systematic enslavement and exploitation of peoples.

The ‘scientific’ reasoning for claims of racial superiority came  in three folds:

1- Biological dangers involved in racial interbreeding. It was the belief that ‘mixed’ offsprings were weaker and prone to diseases that prompted statutory prohibitions of intermarriage in the United States.

2- A discovery in Biology concerning genetic development led to the presumption that “intermarriage of ‘far apart’ races could produce what they called genetic ‘disharmonies’.”

3- Finally, the most common reasoning is simply that some groups are cognitively, behaviorally and intellectually inferior.

All of these fictitious claims were propagated and used to support oppressive practices that included an array of despicable measures taken to ensure the domination of the ‘superior’ race.

The human zoo is an establishment that represents the legacy of racism as an ideology. Four centuries ago, European societies thought it acceptable to exhibit what they believed to be ‘exotic human specimens‘ and had them shipped back to Paris, London and Berlin to be displayed as such. Similar to animals in zoos, humans were confined to limited spaces and fed as a means of entertainment.

Animal Zoos

This practice of enslavement and exploitation is not limited to other humans, but extends to other animals as well. If we are to compare ideologies, we will find similar underlying notions that claim a distinct sense of superiority over another group.

Racism is a concept positing that an inherited characteristic, such as skin color, makes some races inferior while others are to be considered superior. Speciesism is the assumption that due to specific attributes, such as intelligence and strength, humans as a species are superior to animals.

Just like racism, this ideology opens the way to discriminatory behavior. While human zoos have long been extinct, animal zoos exist in abundance.  There are literary hundreds of zoos that abduct, enslave and impose restrictions on countless animals for entertainment and profit.

An extremely unfortunate case of a tortured animal is Pizza the polar bear, who is known as the world’s saddest bear. He was kidnapped from his natural habitat and placed in a shopping mall aquarium in southern China.

Isolated from any form of interaction, Pizza the polar bear has been consistently showing signs of mental illness and depression. Animal activists have called for the relocation of Pizza, but that is not enough.

Animals have rights and deserve to live autonomously. Practicing such discriminatory actions against them is indicative of an ideology that adheres to a hierarchical basis. It took years of struggle, numerous brave activists, and a civil war to recognize the unjust legacy racism was bestowing. It mustn’t take that long to learn from our history. We are the only representation our friends in the animal kingdom have; therefore, we must take it upon ourselves to stop supporting zoos and other forms of exploitative facilities, such as circuses, marine parks and attraction sites.

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Joana Aziz is a Syrian Barcelona-based freelance writer. She was the Arts & Culture Editor for Time Out Magazine (Beirut) and has written for Home Magazine, Conatus New, Middle East Eye and Freethought Lebanon.

She has a BA in Communication Arts from the Lebanese American University, an MA in International Studies in Media, Power and Difference from the University of Pompeu Fabra and is currently pursuing her PhD in Communication at the same university.

Aside from having a writing career, her ambitions for the future include teaching, researching, and activism.