The spread of empires in the nineteenth century brought more than new territories and populations under Western sway. Animals were also swept up in the net of imperialism, as jungles and veldts became colonial ranches and plantations. A booming trade in animals turned many strange and dangerous species into prized commodities. Tigers from India, pythons from Malaya, and gorillas from the Congo found their way—sometimes by shady means—to the zoos of major U.S. cities, where they created a sensation.
Zoos were among the most popular attractions in the United States for much of the twentieth century. Stoking the public’s fascination, savvy zookeepers, animal traders, and zoo directors regaled visitors with stories of the fierce behavior of these creatures in their native habitats, as well as daring tales of their capture. Yet as tropical animals became increasingly familiar to the American public, they became ever more rare in the wild. Tracing the history of U.S. zoos and the global trade and trafficking in animals that supplied them, Daniel Bender examines how Americans learned to view faraway places and peoples through the lens of the exotic creatures on display.
Over time, as the zoo’s mission shifted from offering entertainment to providing a refuge for endangered species, conservation parks replaced pens and cages. The Animal Game recounts Americans’ ongoing, often conflicted relationship with zoos, decried as anachronistic prisons by animal rights activists even as they remain popular centers of education and preservation.
What emerges is a story of adaptation and survival that exposes the modern zoo as ‘a third nature’…Those who are ethically opposed to zoos will find plenty here to strengthen their case. But with zoos’ power of reinvention, it seems likely that this ‘third nature’ will be with us for some time.
A fascinating history lesson on zoos in the USA, from their beginnings at the end of the nineteenth century through to the 1970s…Each chapter of The Animal Game is riveting and meticulously evidenced…The reason why Bender’s book shines is not only his philosophical musings, but his intricate weaving of the histories of ordinary and extraordinary people and animals that have played a documented part in the narratives of U.S. zoos.
[The Animal Game] makes some significant contributions to the field by changing the nature of the discussion about animal traders in Africa in the 1920s and 1930s, and by enriching our understanding of labor relations in the zoo, particularly in the 1970s. Both are important additions to zoo history.
Bender provides a high-level history of urban zoos in the 20th-century U.S. Sourced from the libraries and archives of several zoos, this book and its supplemental digital content shine a light on zoo history that was previously kept private.
A fascinating transnational labor, social, and cultural history of the American zoo. Bender brilliantly shows us how workers around the world participated in the creation of a popular American institution, including merchants in Singapore who sold caged animals to dealers, East African workers who captured wild animals under horrific conditions, and the wives of self-styled ‘zoo men,’ who raised countless orphaned ‘zoo babies’ after World War II. Well-written and impressively researched, The Animal Game is a groundbreaking book.
This book could not be more timely. American zoos are contested spaces today, caught between heated debates about conservation and confinement. In seemingly effortless prose backed by impeccable research, Bender shows us how today’s zoos came to be. After reading this book, you’ll never go to the zoo in the same way again.
This moving account of the animals that have come to populate zoos ranges from hidden histories of empire, celebrity, and taxidermy to consideration of the ways that institutions associated with prisons, slums, and asylums might affect their inhabitants. Mixing labor history across species lines with keen cultural analysis, this is a story of enclosure that opens out in remarkable ways.
In The Animal Game, Daniel Bender offers a fresh perspective on the twentieth-century history of American zoos. His informative and engaging account includes vivid portraits of human and nonhuman actors, as it details the business, the politics, and the ethics of the acquisition and display of living animals.
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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