Of Zoos and Conventions

Of Zoos and Conventionsby Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn

           IT SAYS MUCH for the quality of American political culture in the high summer of 1996 that amid the gathering of the nation's two major political parties and the limning of their overall vision of the future, the act of compassion deemed by millions to have advertised most succinctly our nobler, loving virtues was enacted by the child of an immigrant, and not even a human one at that: Binti Jua, the west African gorilla that lifted a toddler who fell into a cage at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, walked to the gate and laid him down for the keepers to retrieve.

           In San Diego, the Republicans roared out their maledictions on thriftless mothers and their inconvenient children. In Chicago, the Democrats endorse a president who, as he signs the welfare bill, is pitchforking at least a million more children into poverty over the next three years. The numberless Americans who tuned out both gatherings preferred to get their political message from Binti Jua.

           In the old days, political conventions used to be like zoos. Informed commentators would discuss the social anthropology of state delegations, which in turn often would defiantly display themselves in vulgar shows. "It's a zoo down there!" the radio reporters and TV commentators would cry. These days, the old zoo is mostly a thing of the past.

           In real zoos, meanwhile, staging has transmuted from older modes of confinements, whether cages or the moated enclosures that were pioneered in Germany and then this country by Carl Hagenbeck at the turn of the century. The trend now, launched by Jon Coe and Grant Jones, who designed the Woodland Park gorilla exhibit in Seattle in the mid-1980s, is called "landscape immersion," with visitors enveloped in the appropriate habitat of the exhibit. The idea was to limit the peripheral vision of the onlookers, to shield them from distracting perspectives and immerse them in the total gorilla experience.

           Conventionworld, the Republican gatherings earlier this month in San Diego, showed how the impresarios had taken all this to heart. There was no moat between podium and audience. Landscape immersion was so complete that when, for example, Republican African Americans were being "themed," the onlookers were allowed no peripheral vision of the mostly white human landscape surrounding the relatively few people of color in the hall.

           Near at hand, for Republicans eager to escape Conventionworld, were Sea World and the San Diego Zoo. Sea World, owned by the Anheuser-Busch Corp. and host to about 4 million visitors a year--same as the zoo--was a favored venue for convention events seeking to acquire reflected virtue from the kitsch atmosphere of aquatic purity, with dolphins and orca recruited to exhibit the fundamental harmony of creation under corporate auspices.

           Sea World is non-union, with minimum wage levels for the attendants. The zoo is Teamster-organized, though there should be more interspecies union recruitment. We visited the same day Binti Jua brought warmth to every heart. In the polar bear exhibit (total immersion via a big new pool with enhanced underwater views), three of the bears had salmonella and were confined to what the guide brightly referred to as their "bedrooms." This meant compulsory overtime for 18-month-old Chinook, who had been putting in 13-hour days for the duration of the convention.

           Chinook appeared frayed and angry, but the guide insisted the cub was "doing a real good job" exhibiting bearishness to the audience. All the same, Chinook could do with a union rep, the same way poor Dunda the elephant needed one a few years back when it was discovered that she was being savagely beaten for disciplinary infractions. Don't trumpet, organize!

           The onlookers looked at Chinook, and Chinook looked longingly at the antelope in the next exhibit. Unlike the scene taking place that very moment in the Brookfield Zoo, there was no uplifting moral we could take home, unless the sight of a caged creature is edifying. Zoo-goers typically look at exhibits for about 90 seconds, and the two most frequently uttered questions are: "Where is the bathroom?" and "Where is the snack bar?" Many visitors never break stride as they saunter past the exhibits, though they will pause for animals that beg, feed their young, make sounds, or mimic human behavior.

           And that's the line that many humans--embarrassed that a mere gorilla should be cleaning up in the compassion stakes--are taking about Binti Jua. She saved the baby because she was reared by humans and only thus acquired the instinct to cherish a human child.

           So nothing truly ties us to Binti Jua. She's a themed exhibit on which only sentimentalists project their hopes for the human race. Future generations of gorillas nurtured by existing human standards in America will exhibit a different acquired value: When that baby drops to Earth, leave it lie. In Chicago, the Democrats had better visit only the old Field Museum, where the dioramas of stuffed animals never change.

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