A Year in the Life

Of America's Oldest Zoo

By John Sedgwick

Morrow. 413 pp. $19.95


The Role of Zoos in

Wildlife Conservation

By Jon R. Luoma

Houghton Mifflin. 209 pp. $17.95

Since the earliest agriculturists glanced up and beheld archers, water-bearers and twins in the firmament, human beings have shown a real flair for anthropomorphism. Today we give names like "Ethel" to hurricanes; call cars, ships and nations "she"; and kick televisions when they malfunction. We have tamed the strange, impartial universe in this way. Copernicus may have usurped Ptolemy in the textbooks, but in our heart of hearts we still place ourselves in the middle of the map.

The human-centeredness has been disastrous for the rivers, forests, air and animals of the earth. "The Peaceable Kingdom" and "A Crowded Ark" address one facet of our relationship with the animals: the human institution of the zoo. To view a zoo coldly -- that is to say, without the sticky fingers of a happy 3-year-old gripping one's own -- is to gain a brutal perspective on our own anthropomorphism.

In the zoo, creatures of every fang and stripe have been collected and caged with the sole criterion that they are not human and are, therefore, curiosities. Displayed as curiosities, they evoke in us sensations of affection, disgust, pity, condescension, mastery. None of these titillating emotions has much to do with the animal species themselves, which we see devoid of their natural context. The behaviors that disgust us -- regurgitation and reingestion of food, for example, obsessive sex play, ingestion of feces, neglect of the young -- are products of captivity.

Our sensations of mastery arise from design elements. If we throw spitballs down into the bear pit, it is because we tower over the hemmed-in animals. Imagine surprising the same grizzlies, while armed with spitballs, in the Western mountains at night. It is incumbent upon the zoological writer to bear in mind that the encounter of zoo-goer and caged beast bears no resemblance to what that same encounter would be like in the wild.

"The Peaceable Kingdom" is, partly for this reason, a disappointing book. Author John Sedgwick makes no attempt to lift himself out of the zoo context, and the result is a skewed and unenlightening portrait of animal life. Sedgwick may be trying to write the kind of book Gerald Durrell wrote, humorous anecdotal prose about the pleasures and novelties of living with a menagerie. But in Durrell's books, the sarcastic eye was cast at the human visitors.

In Sedgwick's book, the animals are the buffoons. And they make such easy targets. "The pack in the tortoise yard bore all the intelligence of the inverted soup bowls they resembled," he writes, and devotes a chapter to the attempts of a 65-year-old Gala'pagos tortoise to copulate. "It must have puzzled Mopey-Dopey to find he had mounted a rock, but in truth his other lady friends weren't much more responsive ... I thought I caught him casting a lascivious eye at the back fence."

And: "The caimans, like most of the crocodilians at the zoo, normally spend their time doing log imitations."

And: "It takes a lot to love a hippo with its Zeppelin body, stubby legs, and bulging snout."

And perhaps most absurdly: "... gorilla penises are almost embarrassingly small."

Embarrassing to whom?

Some of this stuff is funny. It is puerile humor, but certainly it is harmlessly intended. Unfortunately for Sedgwick, his desire to write a light book poking gentle fun at animals is dismally ill-timed. "Extinctions are occurring at a rate unprecedented in the planet's history," writes Jon R. Luoma in "A Crowded Ark." "The result is a drastic loss of biological diversity on the planet, the consequences of which are unknown, with entire evolutionary lines vanishing completely."

"A Crowded Ark" is a tight and well-made book by a writer experienced with environmental issues. It addresses specifically the role of zoos in preserving diversity of life, from the housing of vanishing species to the reintroduction of animals to the wild, to the employment of the most sophisticated fertility techniques and genetic engineering, including artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, embryo transplant, surrogate motherhood and the freezing of embryos.

"Saving habitat is the critical issue," Luoma writes, warning against the false impression that zoos are an acceptable alternative to wild places as a legacy to future generations, or that zoos can save species if the wild is destroyed. Nonetheless, he defends zoos against their detractors: "Some have argued," he writes, "that it is somehow nobler for a species to 'die with dignity' in the wild than live through generations in captivity. But since no one can see fifty, one hundred, or two hundred years into the future, does it not seem stunningly arrogant for a human being to suggest that an entire evolutionary line be allowed to terminate at the hand of humans when there is any reason, however slim, to hope that somehow, someday, that species might thrive again in the wild with the help of humankind?"

The reviewer is a free-lance writer living in Atlanta.