How caged animals became a tool of statecraft.


Earlier this month, the government of Zimbabwe announced that it was planning to give North Korea an ark’s worth of animals — two of every creature found in the southern African country’s Hwange National Park — for its longstanding Asian ally’s zoo. Conservationists in Africa and elsewhere, not unreasonably, fear the worst.

As with most things in the Hermit Kingdom, only a few sketchy facts are known about the Korea Central Zoo in Pyongyang; its elephants purportedly are descended from a “hero” pachyderm given to the Kim regime by Ho Chi Minh — even zoo attractions in North Korea come with an Western-imperialist-fighting lineage — and one British visitor in the 1970s encountered a parrot that cawed “Long live the Great Leader!” in English. Suffice it to say that Pyongyang is probably no Mount Ararat.

But though President Robert Mugabe gifting a pair of baby elephants to Kim Jong Il may seem like a particularly ghastly move, zoos and geopolitics have long been closely linked — with results that range from the bizarre to the downright appalling.


Jumbo the elephant, scourge of transatlantic relations

In 1861, Arab traders captured a 2-year-old African elephant calf on the plains of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, and sold him to a European animal collector. The elephant’s name was Jumbo — the adjective, as applied to jets and buckets of popcorn in the English usage, originates with him — and he would become not only perhaps the most famous zoo attraction in history, but also a sore spot in British-American relations.

In 1880, when the showman P.T. Barnum was looking for a marquee animal for his Barnum & Bailey Circus, his thoughts turned to Jumbo, who was at the time the prized possession of the London Zoo. It took him the better part of two years, but Barnum convinced the Zoological Society of London to part with the animal for $10,000. An uproar immediately ensued in London. The fracas was about more than a beloved sightseeing attraction — it was about British national identity. Since antiquity, imperial rulers had gathered exotic animals from distant corners of their empires and kept them as tokens of their far-reaching power; similarly, the evolution of the modern zoo in Victorian England had happened in tandem with the growth of the British Empire. The London Zoo, which had replaced the private royal menageries of the past, was a potent symbol of British might — visitors were admiring not only a captivating array of wildlife but also a physical manifestation of the crown’s reach, to colonial lands that counted among their subjects everything from the rhinoceroses of Rhodesia to the tigers of Bengal.

The ability of an American upstart entrepreneur to wrest loose one of Britain’s most prized African treasures was considered a “disgrace to English lovers of animals,” in the words of one letter to the editor of a London newspaper collected in historian Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age. Jumbo “was a popular figure, as well as an imperial symbol,” Ritvo says. “The zoo’s selling of him was ballyhooed in the press of a kind of treason — a betrayal of the public, and a lèse majesté.”

Bits of doggerel verse written in Jumbo’s voice abounded in London; in one of them the elephant declares, “I love the brave old British flag, of it my boys I’ll always brag/And you must clearly understand, I do not care for Yankee land.” It was Canada, however, that proved Jumbo’s undoing: Three years after moving across the pond, the 24-year-old animal was killed in a train accident in Ontario. When Jumbo did return to London for a visit, it was in taxidermic form.

Library of Congress

Post-colonial Africa and the new Noah’s ark

The American zoos of the early and mid-20th century may not have been explicitly imperial in the manner of their Victorian predecessors, but they were not much less dependent on the colonial enterprise. Their most popular attractions were caught in the wild, mostly in Africa, and the traders from whom they bought the animals enjoyed cozy relationships with the colonial administrators.

This became a problem in the 1950s and ’60s, when Europe’s great colonial powers, battered and exhausted by World War II, began relinquishing their imperial holdings in Africa and Asia. The wave of independence that swept over the continents terrified zoo officials in the United States. Zoos required hundreds of new animals a year — now their suppliers were out of power, and the future of the game refuges from which the animals were taken was in doubt.

“[G]ame protection has collapsed with the end of colonialism,” warned John Perry, director of the fundraising group Friends of the National Zoo, in the Saturday Evening Post in 1962. The concern, of course, was hardly disinterested. “[Zoo] officials urged protection of the African wilds not as an ecosystem of interconnected species but as a warehouse of future zoo residents,” writes Jeffrey Hyson, a zoo historian and professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Zoos began establishing “survival centers” on vast acreages in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, coastal North Carolina, and elsewhere, and stocking them with African fauna. Zoo officials were portrayed, by the media and in their own writing, as 20th-century Noahs, saving the world’s great animals from a continent doomed to ruin under the rule of its native residents.

The self-styled Noahs were condescending and paternalistic, not to mention hypocritical — zoo and natural history museum curators had been exacting a considerable toll on the world’s wildlife for years. But history has proved them at least partially right: Many species have fared badly over Africa’s half-century of self-rule. Civil war, deforestation, and poaching have all but obliterated the gorilla population of the Congo Basin, for instance, and the U.N. Environment Program predicts the great ape may be extinct within 10 to 15 years.

The zoos’ survival centers were also the first serious stab at the captive breeding efforts that now supply virtually all the animals on display in American zoos, and have enabled the reintroduction of species such as the California condor and the Asian wild horse. “In America now, far from being consumers of wildlife, we’re going the other way,” says Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.


Chewing through the bamboo curtain

Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972 produced several important results: U.S. adoption of the “one China” policy, one of the most relentlessly invoked clichés in American politics, and the gift from China to the National Zoo of two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. The pandas’ arrival in Washington in April of that year — the zookeepers who traveled with them were the first sanctioned mainland Chinese visitors to the United States since the 1949 revolution — marked the beginning of communist China’s so-called panda diplomacy: the distribution of the country’s rare and much-beloved animals to foreign zoos as diplomatic gifts.

It was a masterful PR ploy. Chinese rulers had been handing out pandas to their international friends well before Mao took Beijing — Madame Chiang Kai-shek bestowed a pair on the Bronx Zoo in 1941 — but by the early 1970s the last of them in the United States were long dead. “Nobody had seen a panda in a hell of a long time,” says Chas Freeman, a future ambassador to Saudi Arabia who served as the interpreter on Nixon’s China trip. In exchange, the Chinese received an Alaskan musk ox named Milton, which they may or may not have eventually shot. In any case, Freeman says, “I think many people considered that not entirely a fair trade on our part.”

By the 1980s, panda diplomacy had evolved into a sort of “rent-a-panda” business, in which zoos in the United States and elsewhere leased the beloved bears from the Chinese government for limited periods of time. In 2006, Beijing tried to apply the panda balm to its half-century-old standoff with Taiwan, offering to ship a couple of the bears across the strait as a goodwill gesture. It was a shrewd move intended to undercut Taiwan’s pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian — taken together, the pandas’ names meant “reunion” — but Chen’s government found a loophole in the deal: Taiwan wasn’t a party to the international endangered species treaty under which China’s panda exchanges were conducted, and therefore it legally couldn’t take the animals.

The decision was reversed by Chen’s successor, a member of the Chinese-nationalist Kuomintang party, and the pandas are now ensconced at the Taipei Zoo. But the issue remains a sensitive one. The English-language Taipei Times created a minor scandal on the island in 2009 when it published an April Fools’ Day parody story claiming that the two pandas were actually Wenzhou brown bears that had been dyed black and white.

China, meanwhile, has been busy handing out slightly less impressive animals. Beijing has given Hong Kong five rare Chinese sturgeons in honor of the 2008 Olympics — one for each Olympic ring — and Afghanistan a shipment of lions, wolves, and other animals to replenish Kabul’s war-battered zoo. Among them was a pig — the only one in Afghanistan, where the un-halal animal is otherwise illegal. (During last year’s swine flu outbreak, the zoo quarantined the pig out of sight of zoo visitors; there weren’t any direct flights between Mexico and Kabul, but hey, better safe than sorry.)

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

Dogs (and bears, and lions, and giraffes) of war

When the first coalition troops arrived in Baghdad on April 3, 2003, the city’s zoo had upwards of 650 animals. Eight days later, only 35 were left. Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen fighters had shooed the zookeepers away in the early days of the war and set up anti-aircraft guns around the zoo; after the fighters fled, animals were stolen and in some cases eaten by looters, or died for lack of food and water. When Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist, arrived in Baghdad to save what was left of the zoo two weeks after the invasion, he found the surviving animals — including a rare Siberian tiger that had been a personal pet of Uday Hussein — at death’s door.

“All the Americans would’ve had to do is drop off 50 men, with a few vets and a truckload of food, and they wouldn’t have lost any of the animals,” Anthony says. “You’re dealing with First World countries” — the United States and Britain — “with comprehensive animal rights laws. It was ridiculous that neither of these countries had any contingency plan for the biggest zoo in the Middle East.” Like the U.S. troops’ inability to stop the looting of Iraq’s National Museum, the failure fed the narrative of American unpreparedness for the inevitable challenges of occupation, and disregard for Iraq’s cultural and civic treasures.

Although the destruction of the Baghdad Zoo was uniquely tragic in its scale, zoos have always fared disastrously in wars. Animals are often killed in anticipation of an invasion, out of concern for public safety — big cats and bears escaping their battle-damaged enclosures tend to complicate the defense of a city. Even if they’re spared extermination, beasts lucky enough to survive the shelling and gun battles begin dying within a day or two from lack of water, then from lack of food. Hardier creatures soon face another threat: people. With stores closed and food scarce, human survivors start regarding the zoo as an exotically stocked butcher’s shop. “Anything that doesn’t have claws or teeth big enough to protect itself is killed,” Anthony says. Few animals in the national zoos of Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan survived the countries’ respective invasions.

A few big predators have memorably beaten the odds, at least for a while. A female bear in the Sarajevo zoo managed to live for 200 days of the Serbian troops’ siege of the city in 1992 before succumbing to starvation; Bosnian militiamen cared for her until the autumn, when the last leaves fell off the zoo’s trees and exposed them to Serb sniper fire. (Less poetically, the bear had also run out of other bears to eat — she had already devoured the other three in her enclosure.) Marjan, the most celebrated lion in the Kabul Zoo (pictured above), managed to weather a quarter-century of upheaval in Afghanistan, though not without injury. When mujahideen fighters sacked the zoo and ate many of its animals in the civil conflict of the mid-1990s, a guerrilla made the mistake of climbing into Marjan’s enclosure. The lion grabbed him by the neck and killed him. Seeking revenge, the man’s brother returned to the zoo to attack the animal with a hand grenade, blinding him and knocking out his teeth. But Marjan survived his wounds, finally dying of natural causes in January 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban. He had lived to the ripe old age of 26 — long enough to have watched two civil wars and two invasions from his cage.


Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

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