These decades [the 1960s and 70s] of intense revitalization transformed many U.S. zooscapes from the so-called “Naked Cage” template of animal display – widely condemned – to early incarnations of the naturalistic, immersive enclosures that typify zoo design today. Zoos also began revitalizing their animal collections in this period, breeding select species whose populations in and outside of captivity were dwindling. This spatial and biological overhaul often gets discussed as an institutional turn to wildlife conservation. What is missing from these accounts is analysis of how the turn was also fully contemporary with the smoldering racial tensions that defined the urban experience in the long postwar period, and, more specifically, the shame that made cities unbearable for so many Americans... I am considering how zoo renewal variously reflected feelings about race and urban space, how it amplified those feelings, and how it offered channels for relief. The shame of American zoos, I argue, is part of the shame of American cities.The last time I was at a zoo was in the summer of 2008, when I went to see some bands play at the Oregon Zoo (friend of a friend playing, got in free, otherwise it would pain me to pass dollars through a zoo's ticket window.) The Cowboy Junkies were playing when we arrived and I wasn't ready yet to succumb to a blanket on the grass, the soporific was already heavy in the July afternoon air, so I wandered the perimeter and came upon the elephants.
The elephants were walking back and forth in the same easy meter as the Cowboy Junkies. I thought of a beautiful essay a friend of mine wrote about watching these same elephants sway in time to the music. "They were dancing!" she said, and that fit so well with what her essay was about, a moment of relief and beauty and redemption after an ugly, rattling event. But what I learned later, by accident, was that elephants sway when they're distressed.