The Vershtunkende Toronto Zoo

The sprawling Toronto Zoo clearly never heard about the controversy surrounding the German Augsburg Zoo’s experience of setting up an “African village” in the summer of 2005. If they had, perhaps they would’ve been more circumspect before hosting one of their own. 

The Toronto Zoo is like a North American suburb for animals. It’s sprawling and charmless with domesticated inhabitants either at peace with their lot or chomping at the bit to flee its confines. There are many reasons to stay away from zoos according to those who promote the rights of animals. I have a fair reason for going – an outdoor activity for the kid even in the dead of winter. And my good reason is that the right-wing Toronto mayor is eager to slash its subsidies along with pretty much everything else the city supports beside private property and policing it. (I was about to call Rob Ford moronic or idiotic or cerebrally challenged, but in deriding his capacity for thoughtfulness, we mask his politics, his ideology, normalize it as the stuff of white male suburbanness. It might be normalized. But it needn’t be normal. Public space is under attack under the weight of his austerity drive. And the push-back should be more determined and considered than fixating on his stupidity.)

So, we go to the zoo. It was a steaming hot day in this stereotypically frigid place. And in this zoo, this place where animals are displayed for urban dwellers and other humans who don’t encounter nature much anymore, in this zoo, in its Africa section, we happened upon an African marketplace. Between the slumbering rhinos and the ferocious meatball eating cheetah was a stall selling African curios and fabrics. I have been bothered in the past by the little hut that is usually there denoting a ubiquitous African living space, at one with nature. The kid and I have giggled that the zoo people have clearly never been to say, Windhoek (where even Angelina and Brad have been) because then they’d have to have other types of African buildings too, like houses, and apartment blocks, churches and shacks. But maybe those are associated with a modernity that doesn’t belong on the continent of huts and naturalness. Of course the zoo is a place of commerce and money-making. There are shops near the entrance that sell over-priced stuffed toy animals and other mementoes from the day at the zoo to over-indulged kiddies from over-wrought caregivers. But these are spaces clearly demarcated from the great outdoors by their air-conditioned environs and their location at the zoo’s entrance/exit. There is also no cultural spectacle attached to the consumptive imperative of the Zoo shop. Not so much with the African curios. Curious indeed.

The Toronto Zoo, apparently ‘back’ by virtue of ‘popular demand’, saw fit to host an ‘African Arts and Culture Festival’ from June 30 to September 3 2012. On its website, the zoo promises that “[t]raditional and contemporary artists will transform the African Savannah landscape of the Zoo into an interactive Market Place for our visitors to learn and engage in the African experience.” Considering the context and some of the signage, the lessons learned by visitors would be to associate Africa and Africans with wild and untamed nature, with cultural production deeply rooted in their feral habitat. The Augsburg Zoo’s African Festival was met with outrage; Toronto’s with apparent enthusiasm. No doubt this is also a contextual response. German history has come to demand increased appreciation of the ways in which stereotyping can participate in producing justifications for grotesque human acts (although guest workers and their descendants may not believe that). Toronto, on the other hand, regards itself as a multicultural fantasy-land.

While the idea of multiculturalism can force us to think of opportunities for change and dynamism as we figure out new ways of being conscious and living together, it all too often permits us to lazily inhabit the realms of stasis. What I mean by this is that ‘culture’ often stands in for the more antiquated, discredited and odious pre-occupation with biology. Culture is understood to be as genetically determinant as race once was. It operates in a similar way to racism; although of course theoretically we can immerse ourselves in ‘different’ cultures and adopt them. This is still limited though by the cultural heritage that runs through our veins, like blood: the schnorrer Jew by virtue of culture, of generations of miserliness, not of genetic codes; or the philandering black man by virtue of tradition that has become nature rather than omnipotently ordained proclivity. It is not racist per se. But we could consider it to be neo-racist.

In case it’s not offensive enough to display the products of hard labour aside the scent of elephant shit, the Toronto zoo in its wisdom had a collection of Southern African art on display too. The display was beautiful, shaded by willows, whose weeping was perhaps for the association of this artwork with a vershtunkende zoo.* Not far from there is a permanent display of Inuit and First Nations art. Seems the place for indigenous talent, like its African counterpart, is in the zoo. And there we thought the final word on noble savagery could be given to Joseph Conrad.

Recently, the Toronto Zoo imported penguins from Cape Town. There was a bit of a brouhaha when they arrived as two of the male penguins shacked up… but heteronormativity and the pre-occupation with breeding in penguin-land has subsequently been re-established. This summer, two white lions from Timbavati joined the other creatures from the African Savanna in Toronto. The African elephants have been all over the news these past few months as a battle ensues as to where best they should retire (stay in Toronto or head to California). And into this growing family of African animals, come the humans, their crafts and their music. Call me sensitive, but given the history of denigration of the African continent and the people who live there, a zoo seems a particularly inappropriate space for the promotion of African arts and culture.

On a separate but equally offensive note, the kid and I also went to see the exciting “Giants of Gondwana” exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Neither of us knew though just how old Africans are. We were gratefully enlightened by the ROM store that had its dinosaur wares on sale decorated by African masks and carvings. Gondwana, the supercontinent of the South, was home to some of pre-history’s largest creatures like Tyrannosaurus Rex. They were wiped out during the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event some 65 and a half million years ago. According to the museum store display, transporting African crafts back millions of years is an acceptable articulation of Africans outside of time, outside of history.

* “vershtunkende” is a Yiddish adjective loosely translated as ‘darned’, ‘exasperating’, ‘maliciously idiotic’. It is not a nice word to use for either a person or thing.


10 thoughts on “The Vershtunkende Toronto Zoo

  1. Great piece. I ask myself: are ‘Africanists’ based in the West doing enough to work towards the extinction of these kind of idiotic displays or is it that mass tourism has taken over and academics’ complaints and instructions have become irrelevant ?

  2. Too bad so many zoos are not following the German model you described, to avoid this sick mesh of racism with your African culture. And T Rex decorated with regional items and art made 65½ million years later? Wow, lets get the kids out of the house this summer for some bad education. Thanks for writing this.

    • I reread your post and see The Germans would not accept a shoddy zoo as Toronto’s, sorry.
      I haven’t been to a zoo since my kids were little. There are too many issues with animal treatment which I can’t be certain of. I can’t act all high and mighty though because it was an outing for kids and fun to see aquatic creatures and mammals. This Toronto zoo — to mish mash periods of time, region and culture in the zoo is such a diservice and misrepresentation.

  3. Great piece. I wonder whether the reason why people are generally blind to the implications of pairing African and Inuit cultures with zoos is because it has to do with animals? People tend to lower their critical faculties when they stand before either tamed or displayed animals thus everything placed within their immediate environment (including African art) as in the Toronto zoo is accepted as inoffensively “natural”. But the real tragedy has to be seen with the entire concept zoos in general. I wonder what the penguins from Cape Town would have to say about being taken away from their natural habit and brought to Toronto for people to gawk at if they could share with us a word or two. Now, wouldn’t that be interesting?

  4. thanks for the comments. @zunguzungu i think there’s a project demanding research on north american zoos, race and Africa… and Ato, while i agree that there is something pretty obscene about the idea of zoos and the display of caged animals, the dehumanizing effects of putting people and their artwork and ware on display in that space boggles the mind and can be separated out. file7under7never is right in talking about the kids too. zoos are marketed for family outings, for children to learn about ‘nature’ and ‘conservation’ – the scholarship suggests that zoos do not in fact achieve this. rather, the acceptance of caged animals is what we learn. and i would argue that what is also naturalized is that alongside caged penguins from cape town come African huts, African art and African people. certainly, we shouldn’t want our kids to learn that we go to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see Picasso and to the Toronto Zoo to see African and Indigenous Art.

    • Probably! But not by me. 🙂 Though I did email the museum’s director when I wrote that post (two years ago), and got an illuminating response.

      This was my email:
      Dr. Joel Parrott,
      I haven’t been to see it yet, but a friend showed me a picture of the “East African Hut” in the Oakland Zoo, and after some scouting around on the internet, I was only able to find the press release description of the exhibit at the zoo’s web site ( I’m curious about the rationale for putting a model of a house that people inhabit in a zoo, and I wonder if you could tell me anything about the decision-making that went into that. I’m genuinely not trying to accuse anyone of anything — really, I’m genuinely curious — but since a zoo is a place where human beings go to look at animals, it strikes me as very strange to put a house where human beings live into a zoo alongside all sorts of recreated animal habitats. Again, I’m not jumping to conclusions here; it’s because I’m genuinely interested in what rationale the zoo would have for doing this that I’m writing to you. Can you enlighten me or direct me to someone who can?
      Best, Aaron Bady

      Almost immediately, Joel Parrott wrote this in response:

      Good morning Aaron.

      The concepts for the entire area came out of a design process between the Oakland Zoo professional staff, Africans living in the local community, and zoo architects that specialize in zoo design and interpretation. The general thinking behind this project was to recreate a sense of the experience of what it means to go to East Africa. I have now been there nine times. What is unmistakable, when I go to Africa, is that it is a total environment, and not just a collection of pieces. A big problem with zoos, is that they tend to show animals, even those in naturalistic exhibits, separate from each other and separate from the rest of the world.

      The intent here was to try to give a sense of unity in the East African experience. First and foremost, the animals should be in natural exhibits, esp. with plants that are from their own ecology, or at least with plants that simulate their environment. If we show the animals from Africa, then we should at least try to also include many of the plants (the botany) of their environment. We are fortunate in Oakland to have a nearly identical climate (mediterranean) to South Africa, so that many of the native African plants can survive here. The animals can also thrive and acclimate well.

      As an extension of this, how should visitor services be depicted? It would be extremely out of context to simply put the animals and plants in a zoo setting. To give a sense of the culture and complete African setting, visitor services were cast in an educational cultural setting. In no way were the humans of Africa to be reflected as part of an animal exhibit manner. Thus, the traditional architectural design of circular buildings, natural materials, etc. were incorporated. We were very careful to be as accurate as possible, in order that the shared cultural experience would give our visitors an insight into the beauty of the outside world; in this case, the world where our African animals live, and people coexist.

      I hope this helps. Thanks for your note.

      Joel Parrott

      • zunguzungu! that is fantastic! the call for contextual habitats combined with the slippage between east Africa and South Africa – is that a decontextualized context? your letter is quite brilliant and the response reinforces the fantasy about the nobility of natural man, of those who are what we once were. by the zoo’s logic, a living space that perhaps should find its way into the zoo should be mine in toronto – my backyard is home to foxes, deers, hares, racoons, beavers, squirrels, even a pretty strange looking opossum… for the north american displays…

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