The zoo in Stuttgart


Nearby, the bonobos are housed in another glassed enclosure. They sit on a raised platform, like actors on a stage, and there are rows of seats to watch the performance. Adults sit on the benches; children are up close, next to the glass, trying to grab the apes’s attention.

A girl succeeds in drawing one away from the group. She places her hand on the glass; the bonobo, squatting opposite her on the other side, mirrors the gesture. The girl, excited now and full of giggles, shifts her hand to another spot; the bonobo follows. This imitation game persists until the bonobo is bored; instead of repeating the gesture the ape picks up straws lying on the floor and tosses them at the girl. The girl is hysterical, and she does not know how to respond.

Who is playing with whom?

I am stunned by what I see. These apes resemble humans closely, yet they aren’t us. Something happened millions of years ago, an accident, or a series of them, which led some of our ancestors on a different evolutionary path. Others were left behind.

The pathos here, among these apes trapped in their evolutionary branch with no hope of progress, is unmissable, but I’m not sure how better off we humans really are. Bonobos, in particular, are socially more evolved than humans in some ways: they do not fight with and kill each other, and they have devised ways to deescalate tensions by engaging in sexual acts.

10 thoughts on “The zoo in Stuttgart

  1. Excellent. Recently we took R to his first zoo visit in Houston, which surprisingly, is quite decent. We plan on making this trip every year (till at least he is 10) to see him look at the experience with a different lens as years progress.

    1. Patrix, that is a very good plan. People who’ve written about zoos have been profoundly affected by their visits as children, and those memories continue to shape how they view animals and the environment. As R grows, his responses will reveal how his “lens” (as you put it) is changing. I hope you will write about it too.

  2. Wondrous photos. I think my favourite is the last. And much food for thought. I love these longer photo essays, with space for words to ramble, mood to flip and photos to succeed one another, not just the arc of one thought/image.

    1. Thank you, Jean. I’m glad you understand and like the photo essay format. I understand that it does not lend itself to an easy read (clicking ten times can be frustrating for the typical reader on the web), so I restrict this format to those occasions when I really want the reader to slow down and reflect over these pictures and words. It is an experiment, and I’m still learning.

  3. I have many of the same thoughts about zoos that you do. Some of my earliest memories are about zoos. When I was a child of three we lived across the street from the Washington DC zoo and my father took me for walks there often in the evenings.

    The bit about the bonobos was fascinating. I suppose you have read “Peacemaking among Primates”? It’s a wise and wonderful book.

  4. I have a love/hate relationship with zoos. I love visiting the animals and having the chance to think thoughts about biology and evolution and diversity, such as you’ve expressed here, but I’m troubled by the confinement of the animals and what it implies about human beings. There’s no doubt in my mind that certain endangered species have been helped by zoo consciousness-raising-campaigns in the public – pandas for instance – but it helps if those species are loveable and have human characteristics that make them feel somehow familiar. I guess I don’t see the primates as being trapped in their non-humanness; evolution worked in inexplicable ways, but all creatures had common ancestors, if we go back far enough; someday perhaps the type of humans we are now will look “primative”to a more evolved species. I feel a sense of wonder and awe at biological diversity, and have decided that I cannot explain its “why” anymore than I can explain why I was born into a human body. Thanks for all your thoughts here, for the story of that little girl, and for the wonderful photographs!

    1. Many people seem to have mixed feelings about zoos. Fascination and awe sits next to feelings of doubt about the confinement and its consequences. This probably reflects our evolutionary state, and we’ll need to evolve further to get rid of this ambivalence in our ideas about zoos and animals.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts here, Beth.

  5. Superb essay, and a timely one for me. I recently requested a visit to the local zoo when my friends asked me what I wished for my birthday. It’s a progressive zoo, with many naturalistic habitats. Yet, the sea horses were in a tiny tank, and I felt sad when I saw them. Other habitats were quite grand, and this zoo makes an effort to interest young people in biology and careers in animal science. But you are right, there is a feeling of doubt that lingers. A lady standing in front of the baby tiger exhibit with us said something that troubles me. She said, “can you give them a shot to make them stay this size so I can take one home!” Frightening.

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