New Worlds: Let’s Go to the Zoo!

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Toward the end of last week’s essay on pets, I talked about people keeping highly dangerous animals around (often with tragic results). The more intelligent version of this involves keeping the animal in a more controlled fashion — which is to say, in a zoo.

The older term for this, still sometimes used today, is “menagerie.” To the extent that it’s meaningful to differentiate between the two concepts, a menagerie is just a collection of animals put on exhibit — sometimes in traveling form, e.g. as part of a circus — while a modern zoological garden is designed with an eye toward concerns like the health of the inhabitants, scientific study, education, and so forth. But it’s not a hard-and-fast distinction.

Menageries are an ancient and worldwide thing, found basically anywhere you have a stratified enough society that one or more people at the top of the heap can afford to pour resources into acquiring and taking care of interesting animals. You find them not just in Europe but in the Near East, in China, in Mexico. They tended to prioritize certain kinds of creatures: dangerous ones (showing off your power in keeping them caged), beautiful or bizarre-looking ones (deploying their aesthetic qualities), and exotic ones (making a statement about your state’s far-reaching connections).

Many of the animals stocking such a menagerie came as gifts. Subordinate nobles and other potentates might capture a beast on a hunting expedition or a military campaign, then present it to their ruler as a way of currying favor. Foreign powers making diplomatic overtures might send along critters from their own lands, just like they sent jewels or fine fabric or other coveted resources. Nor has that gone away in the modern day: quite a bit has been written about China’s “panda diplomacy,” offering giant pandas to zoos around the world as a part of larger political deals. And of course, a leader can always offer a bounty, paying or promoting anyone who brings them a particular type of animal they desire.

Sometimes the menagerie is only for the enjoyment of that leader and their royal or imperial household — one of the many perks of being on top. As with any exclusive pleasure, though, there’s a counter-vailing temptation to reward subordinates with the right of entry. With our easy access to zoos, videos, and photographs of creatures of all kinds, it’s easy to think of this as a mere trifle . . . but in a world where traveling even a hundred miles from home might be an epic journey, where the only depictions you see of exotic animals are lumpy, ill-formed sculptures and paintings made on the basis of a fourth-hand description, the mere sight of something like a lion or a giraffe is the kind of wonder you might remember for the rest of your life. Certainly you can dine out on it for months to come, regaling all your friends with the experience you got to have and they didn’t.

On the other hand, sometimes the profit in having a menagerie was much more literal. The royal English menagerie was created in the thirteenth century and housed in the Tower of London — which is why Historic Royal Palaces recently installed wire sculptures of various creatures around the site — but later on it was opened it to the public. According to one source I haven’t been able to confirm, admission in the sixteenth century was three half-pence . . . or a dog or a cat. Not to add to the collection, but to feed it: the appetites of the captive animals was prodigious.

If keeping the Tower’s menagerie fed was a challenge, I can only guess at the effort that went into maintaining the animals in Rome. There, many of these fierce creatures were acquired not for passive display, but for the purpose of fighting in the arenas — against people or each other, depending on what spectacle had been ordered. That sort of entertainment (which is unthinkably bloody and cruel to most of us today) will get its own essay someday; for now, just keep in mind that even animals in a normal menagerie might be alternately treated and tormented. Nowadays we have signs warning you not to feed the animals in a zoo, lest they sicken and die, and we certainly don’t encourage people to poke at the residents with sticks in order to prod them into action, which used to be common practice.

The shift from “menagerie” to “zoo” began, at least in the West, with the Enlightenment. That awoke a great spirit of inquiry, such that gathering up exotic creatures became not just a show of power, but also a way of furthering our collective knowledge. It didn’t immediately improve the conditions of said animals — if anything, people became even more likely to pay for the chance to come poke the animals with sticks — but it meant we began paying more systematized attention to their diets, their habitats, their behavior, and more. It also meant that the focus broadened from just the dangerous, the beautiful, the ugly, and the rare to all kinds of creatures: local ones, humble ones, every variety of beetle and fish. Because of its focus on preservation, study, and education, a modern zoo includes many animals that would have been considered far too boring for an ancient menagerie.

When we look from the past to the future, we can already see the role of this institution shift again, to something more like an ark. The loss of species diversity means that many animals may survive only in captivity, their breeding carefully managed to keep them as genetically healthy as possible. In a situation like a space colony, a zoo might be a precisely-budgeted luxury, wasting resources in a seemingly unproductive fashion in exchange for the psychological benefit of allowing the residents to interact with a tiny slice of nature. We’ve already moved away from keeping animals in cages toward attempting to re-create their habitats as best we can; technology (or magic) could help with that, by letting us get in much closer while still keeping both visitor and resident safe from harm.

Of course, technology does break down. And that’s how you wind up with Jurassic Park.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Let’s Go to the Zoo! — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Worlds: Let's Go to the Zoo! - Swan Tower

  2. Harun al-Rashid gave Charlemagne an elephant.

    You will now never forget that those two rulers overlapped.