Academic journal article Environment and History

'In Sight, Insane': Animal Agency, Captivity and the Frozen Wilderness in the Late-Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Environment and History

'In Sight, Insane': Animal Agency, Captivity and the Frozen Wilderness in the Late-Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

In 1979 Bristol Zoo acquired a male polar bear named Misha. Although he was one in a long line of popular attractions, he behaved in ways that the public and, to a lesser degree, the zoological society increasingly judged to be disturbing. He endlessly paced back and forth in his enclosure, swaying his head repetitively from side to side. Following media attention from animal rights organisations and the media between 1985 and the early 1990s, Misha's 'psychotic' appearance in a captive environment repeatedly evoked images of the prisons and asylums of the past, where surveillance, spectacle and suffering collided to alter the natures of the 'beasts' within. Apart from this, Misha's unsettling behaviour also contributed to swelling concerns about the state of the natural world and the bear's 'wild' kin in the advancing shadow of ozone depletion and the retreat of the continental ice shelf in the ecologically fragile frozen North. The combination of Misha's evocative behaviour, and the conceptual links it forged with the world's wild creatures and places changed the complexion of Bristol Zoo as a captive and increasingly conservation-minded environment. Furthermore, it not only contributed to transformations within institutions far beyond the walls of this singular captive space but also affected individual mentalities. Thus, this essay's aims are two-fold: primarily, it considers the nature of the historical influence of animal life, centring on Misha as an individual animal of substantial influence. In so doing, it examines shifting and conflicting values with regard to a range of broader animal and environment-related issues in a world increasingly concerned by global warming and an astonishing decline in the Earth's biodiversity.

KEYWORDS

Polar bears, captivity, climate change, agency

In 1987 the Bristol, Clifton and West of England Zoological Society (1) received a heated letter from a member of the public. Responding to the sight of one of three polar bears (Ursus maritimus) housed in the Society's historic urban zoo, it read 'please send that poor polar bear back to freedom in the Arctic, or God will right you with hot coals on your head... What MORONS you are.' (2) A few years later, in the early 1990s, amateur historian and staunch defender of zoos Clinton H. Keeling sent an open letter to Bristol-based animal rights protest group Bristol Zoo Action. The group had been inspired by one of Bristol's bears to begin a campaign for the Zoo's animals to be returned to the sanctum of the world's 'wild' places: 'I have various faults and have made many mistakes in my life, but no-one can accuse me of trumpeting forth on matters on which I know nothing... the same cannot be said of you. You ignorant fool.' (3) During the same period, the Society received a number of letters from visitors recognising what they judged to be effective captive care not only of the polar bear but also of many of the creatures of the world's evermore fragile, and increasingly uninhabitable, environments. (4)

Over a decade earlier, in 1979, the Society had acquired this adult male polar bear, then known as Mishka, from Chipperfield's Circus. He had been a circus bear for nearly a decade and his arrival at Bristol Zoo followed an extensive search for a male to replace the recently deceased 'favourite', Sebastian. (5) Renamed Misha, the bear was put on display in the naturalistic 'ice-floe' exhibit in the south-west corner of the zoo gardens (Figure 1). (6)

Misha was not, however, just any old bear. He behaved in ways that the public and, to a lesser degree, the Society increasingly judged to be disturbing. He endlessly paced back and forth in his enclosure, swaying his head repetitively from side to side. This behaviour was exhibited alongside that of another of the Society's polar bears, Nina (who had arrived at the Zoo in 1959), who clicked her tongue over and over again. Following attention from animal rights organisations and the media between 1985 and the early 1990s, Misha's 'psychotic' appearance in a captive environment repeatedly evoked images of the prisons and asylums of the past, where surveillance, spectacle and suffering collided. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.