If you are a parent, you’ve probably spent a fair amount of time at the zoo at some point in your child’s early years. Have you ever wondered why it is that almost every zoo in the world, no matter where it might be located, has to have exactly the same set of animals on display?

Think about it: whether it’s Bali or the Bronx, you will find lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes.

I have never been to a zoo in Africa, but some googling reveals that the Pretoria zoo also has, you guessed it, lions, tigers, elephants and giraffes.

No zoo worth its name would be caught without these beasts.

It’s as though these four animals represent the sum total of Nature with a capital “N”, which just goes to show how artificial our idea of Nature is.

It’s also noteworthy where these animals come from: elsewhere, far away, typically where the natives are of a swarthier cast. What that means, of course, is that we get to cluck at those people for their anti-conservationist ways, while avoiding some uncomfortable questions ourselves.

So why are native fauna given the short shrift at institutions supposedly dedicated to conservation and “edutainment”?

The simple answer is that exhibits on native fauna don’t bring in the local visitors. Why would anyone travel distances and pay money to see a racoon that they could encounter in their backyard? How much more glamorous are the pandas from China!

Of course, racoons are as much a part of the natural world as the African and Asian beasts, except those familiar with them don’t get to fantasize about them since they know first hand that they can be nasty little rodents.

Stop a moment then, to consider that to forest-dwellers fearful of man-eating tigers or lion-wary cattle-herders, tigers and lions aren’t so wonderful either.

 

When you’re actually in Nature, it can be rather brutish.

 

Having native fauna be the focus of a zoo’s mission would force visitors to do a bit more self-introspection than they are prepared to do. Who wants to pay money so they can be lectured at for driving to the zoo in their Range Rover? When your kids are screaming for yet another palm-oil laced snack (and I’ve been there), do you really want to have to think about your consumption choices? Isn’t it a relief to read instead about poachers in Africa feeding the insatiable Chinese appetite for ever more exotic body parts?

The fact is, of course, that zoos are a human fantasy of Nature: cute, manageable and far away. And it’s possible our kids–who haven’t yet been socialized into making a distinction between the civilized and natural world–intuit this in a way we adults don’t.

That could be one reason why children, to our frustration, often seem less enthralled by the animals themselves than by the doodads (the maps, the wagons, the snacks) that are part of the zoo-going experience. To their unformed minds, it’s all artifice.