The contemporary zoo in Switzerland:
a postcolonial critique

#colonialism #decolonialism #zoo #Switzerland

6 April 2023


Taking the zoo as an object of postcolonial critique in Switzerland may seem surprising, as the zoo is generally perceived as a place of entertainment. However, the presence of a zoological garden often implies that a city has a history of (international) trade and prosperity, and therefore has been in contact with issues of coloniality and its representation for a long period of time. Zurich’s zoo serves as an example of how the history of the zoo and its entanglement with the “Völkerschau” can be critically reviewed. Analyses of the map and architectural expression of the zoo lead to reflections about how the representation of culture and geography in contemporary zoos contributes to our ways of being in the world.

by Salome Rohner

This contribution is part of the seminar “Decolonizing the Swiss Urban Landscape”
(University of Basel, Autumn 2021) coordinated by Claske Dijkema.
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The Lewa Village, Zurich Zoo 2020
Photo by Dimitri Burkhard


The zoo as simple exposition has become a relic from an antiquated past, today it is evolving into an educational institution that ensures the preservation of rare species and the climate. The implementation of this self-imposed educational mission must be looked at critically, as it touches upon issues of worldwide power relations and cultural representation and reaches a wide range of visitors. The architectural design of enclosures and stores in contemporary zoos often seem to convey an exoticizing view of non-Western cultures.

The bodily presence of the native (in contrast to the bodiless manifestation of the white scientists) […] raises the history of non-white people as objects of the visitor’s gaze in the zoo. »
Purtschert 2014, p. 510

The resurgent phenomenon of depicting and “othering” humans in zoological gardens in the global North must be examined in the light of current attempts at de-colonizing the gaze. For this I will draw on examples from the past and present of two zoos in Switzerland: the Zurich Zoo and the Basel Zoo. The Zurich Zoo serves as the stage of my critical reflections regarding its spatial and architectural composition. In particular its newest buildings will help me illustrate my observations. With the example of the Basel Zoo, I will touch upon the history of the zoological gardens as sites of “ethnographic expositions” or “Völkerschauen”. I focus on their influence on the staging of animals and foreign cultures in contemporary zoos in Switzerland. My inspection of the spatial and structural design of the Zurich Zoo concentrates on aspects that strike me as especially problematic in relation to a postcolonial discourse. Of course, many building designs do not confirm the trend I want to explore here and are therefore not considered in my analysis.


The zoological garden in Zürich is beyond doubt one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions and has recently been ranked the second-best zoo in Europe. As a long-time visitor since childhood, I know very well the vast complex that occupies about 15 hectares on a forested hill at the border of the city and have followed up on many changes to its built and conceptual form. The last years have been marked by expansion and redistribution: whole new compounds have been built to host what could be called the representative areas of the new ideology of cultural and scientific education. Animal cages have made room for bigger, integrated landscapes that can house not only one species or kind but that include the whole range of inhabitants of a geographical and ecological region.

My background in architecture spurs my interest in the configuration and formulation of the zoo as a performative cultural space. My positionality as a white western woman rarely strikes me as much as when I stroll through this patch of staged exotic world. In the process of implementing the renewed concept of exposition and education in the Zurich Zoo, I have been taken aback multiple times by the approach to its architectural formulation. The landscape that is being transformed into the stage set of the respective natural environment of the animals and plants consist not only of “natural” elements like rocks, ponds, or meadows but includes also human made habitats as well. Walking through the eastern part of the zoo (a new annex) to the renowned building for the elephants named Kaeng Krachan after a national park in the south of Thailand, the visitor walks along a pathway lined with a choreographed ensemble of supposed Thai countryside. There is an old, junked car, a shack made of bamboo and corrugated metal, lots of indigenous plants and plant species like coffee and a small woodhouse with a thatched roof serving as an ice cream booth. Inside the spectacular dome like wooden structure for the animals the so-called Thai lodge awaits, an open double storied house in a southeast Asian style, where one can eat green curry dishes while watching the elephants stroll around.

This is only one example for the exoticized representations of non-western culture as a scenery for the main attraction (which remain the animals). This exoticization reminds me of the “Völkerschau”, which were staged in the 19th and early 20th centuries, first as supplement to zoological expositions and later as cultural attractions in their own right (Zoo Basel website, 2022). Even though the racist people shows were mostly abandoned by the 1950s, the animal zoos kept their prominent place in the entertainment industry.

Zoos today claim an educational mission for themselves, acting as ambassadors of natural conservation and for saving the planet. As a result zoos are organized as micro worlds, depicting a western gaze upon geography, exoticizing foreign flora and fauna and thus reproducing colonial hierarchies. In this essay I draw on Derek Gregory’s text on the colonial present and on different authors writing about the history of the zoo and its dark chapter of the “Völkerschau” to explore the Zurich zoo’s current role in a postcolonial discourse. Patricia Purtchert’s text on the Masoala Hall in Zurich Zoo reveals the contemporary expression of racialized space that helped me to think about my own observations in plans and buildings in situ in the Zurich Zoo. Based on my impressions and informed by this historic background, I want to ask to what extent the zoo can be seen as an undetected relic of colonial modernity in the midst of our society. It is not my intention to assess the ethical or moral value of the zoo, but to propose a postcolonial critique upon its material expression and functional intention.

Starting with a short explanation of terminology, I explore the concepts of modernity and coloniality and their linkage with the institution of the zoological garden. Then I outline the history of the “Völkerschauen” and their influence on the zoo today. For my analysis, I examine the zoo with a focus on its material and spatial aspects as well as on its concepts of representation of animals and culture. For example, a map of the zoo helps me to shed light on its geography as a reproduction of the colonial order and gaze. Finally, I will look at the functions of the zoo and how they have changed in Switzerland. My own perspective on and my writing is shaped by my upbringing and education within a system that privileges a Eurocentric world view.

Modernity and the zoological garden

Colonialism is defined as “an enduring relationship of domination and mode of dispossession (…) usually between an indigenous majority and a minority of interlopers who are convinced of their own superiority (…)” (Gregory et al. 2009, p.94). I use this definition in addition to coloniality, a concept from a stream of thought in South America introduced by Anibal Quijano in the late 1980s (Walsh and Mignolo 2018, p. 99), referring to the power relations between Europe and colonized countries and describing a way of being in the world. Coloniality for me also refers to how the imbalance of power between the former oppressor and the oppressed affects the form of their every encounters, such as in the representation of indigenous people in the space of the zoo.

The term decoloniality, which builds on the concept of coloniality, was first coined by Walter Mignolo (see Walsh and Mignolo 2018, p. 99). It denotes the active turning away from colonial power structures and economic relations of exploitation, as well as the growing awareness of and active resistance to a racist, sexist, and exploitative capitalist worldview. Two other terms that I use in this text add the prefix “post” to colonialism. In contrast to "post-colonial” (with a hyphen), “postcolonial” refers not to the era chronologically following colonialism, but to a critique of the colonial way of thinking, acting, representing, and interacting. It builds on the premise of a lasting presence of colonial patterns and structures in contemporary societies. These after-effects can be felt acutely in formerly colonized societies, but also, and crucially, in formerly colonizing societies, including countries such as Switzerland that did not officially act as colonial powers, but participated in and profited in multiple ways from the European colonial project (see Purtschert, Lüthi and Falk 2012/2013, p. 13-63).

The establishment of the first zoological garden of Switzerland, which is the “Zolli”, the Basel Zoo, must be viewed in the context of its time in 1874 which is the zenith of modernity. The modern age is a cultural complex that evolves in Europe after the “era of enlightenment” in the beginning of the 18th century and that is closely intertwined with the history of colonization. Derek Gregory describes colonial modernity as a double-headed coin: one side shows modernity; the reasonable, geometrical, and disciplined space. But this side cannot exist without its reverse where you find depicted wilderness, the “primitive” and “exotic”, “disordered” space (Gregory 2004, p. 3). He argues that the production of Western culture is based on difference from the designated “other”; it needs the representation of the non-modern to accumulate the power and control that constitute it.

Modernity produces its other, verso recto, as a way of at once producing and privileging itself. »
Gregory 2004, p. 4

Privilege and power are used to create representations and meanings of the “other”. The construction and hegemonization of a rationalized worldview by the imperial powers find a perfect expression in the zoo, which became the representational space for the modern perspective on nature. The “power of the human mind over the mind and brute strength of the animal” in reference to animal training in the late 19th century (Rothenfels 2002, p. 155) was exemplified in circuses and zoos and helped to reinforce the achievements of the enlightenment. The domination of other organisms and the natural environment, as demonstrated in the context of the zoological garden, is increasingly the focus of modern humans and their efforts to distance themselves from their natural environment.

The consequences of the behavior of the members of just one species allow to make a deduction about its relation to the other species and its surrounding. To enclose animals and plants in cages for observation like objects is a practice symptomatic of what Malcom Ferdinand would call the “colonial inhabitation” (Ferdinand 2019). By this he means a way of thinking ourselves in the world that doesn’t recognize other beings (human and non-human) as co-inhabitants of the earth (Ferdinand 2019, p. 22). For him, a decolonized inhabitation would necessitate a different contact with land, animals, and nature as a whole, so that our thinking of ourselves within the environment could reverse the exploitative, alienated relationship we have with it now. The zoo is evidence of how the white European human conceives its existence and position in the world.

Before the emergence of public zoological gardens in the 19th century, there were its precursors, the menageries, which are private, often courtly collections of animals, that were common for wealthy and powerful players (Rothfels 2002, p. 31). The animals in these exhibitions were often diplomatic gifts from the associate or opponent rulers in the colonies, hence they had a political meaning. The bigger the colonial territory of a sovereign was, the more impressive his menagerie became. The reading of an animal collection as status symbol persisted throughout history even though today most animals are bred in the zoo. At the time of its emergence, the zoo also provided a great opportunity to showcase the findings of costly explorations in the colonies and served as propaganda for the ongoing colonization of other countries.

Its role as educational attraction thus dates back to its very beginnings and formed the relationship between the visitor and exhibits early on.
In its early days the Basel Zoo focused on showing the natural world of the central European context in order to familiarize the urbanized people with local species. However, it was not possible to entertain the people visiting the zoological garden with local alpine flora and fauna for long. Already ten years after its opening, the area was expanded to accommodate exotic animals and host travelling shows, which at the time were very common (Basel Zoo, 2022). Growing numbers of people attended the attractions and the distribution of roles along racial lines were clear; the visitor acts as the scientifically interested human while the exhibit (be it animal, plants, or humans) serves as the “native” informant. Seen through Gregory’s eyes, the “self” of the West and its power becomes all the stronger, the more clearly the “other” can be distinguished from it. It was therefore advantageous to make the gap between observer and observed as large as possible, meaning to stage the exhibition as bewildering for the European audience as possible.

Such ensembles, which traveled throughout Europe, often consisted not only of animals, but were intended to show the “authentic lifestyle” of another place and culture, and therefore also included people and their alleged dwellings. These were staged together with the animals to give visitors a “complete” impression of everyday life in the place in question. The following section is a brief discussion of the development and impact of human displays and their importance to the concept of the zoo.

Völkerschau (Human Zoos) and the colonial present

The “Völkerschau” as the people show was called in Switzerland was an extremely racist practice and is deeply entangled with the original concept of the contemporary zoo. Carl Hagenbeck, a tradesman for exotic animals from Hamburg and the alleged inventor of the modern zoo started to exhibit people in his zoos and circuses in the late 19th century. The first “Völkerschau” in 1875 showing a Sami family together with their reindeer attracted huge numbers of visitors in Germany who wanted to see the “savages”, as whom the people were presented (Rothenfels 2002, p. 82).

For about 75 years these racist and exploitative exhibitions that also functioned as propaganda for the colonist activities by Europeans on other continents were widely accepted. The Basel Zoo even reduced its entrance fees for schools if they wanted to see human exhibitions (Staehelin 1993, p. 114). For these “anthropological-zoological” attractions, people from all over the world were transported to Europe and toured for months through different countries. They were paid very badly or not at all and were exposed to medical and mental strains. Many of them did not survive the harsh conditions and died during or as a result of their time working and being exhibited in European countries.

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Poster «Aussterbende Lippennegerinnen.»
Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, BSL 1001 N 7.1, 1932.

Their portrayal as savages living in precarious dwellings certainly contributed to people’s stigmatization as primitive, underdeveloped inferiors, but I wonder if it can be said that the “Völkerschau” was a place where racism as such was intentionally “produced” for a broad population (Figure 02). After all it was one of the first and only spaces were an everyman, or an everywoman could “get in touch” with the inhabitants of other parts of the world. To represent the inhabitants of the colonies as scientifically interesting and rare objects is yet another way of domination. Taking control of their narrative by choreographing the display of their daily lives is a sophisticated form of violence under the disguise of interest. To keep the groups acting “natural” in their behavior, they were deliberately held from becoming “civilized”, in order not to ruin the much-desired difference.

Hagenbeck’s “unadulterated people of nature” in his “Lapland” exhibit were as comfortable, Hagenbeck insists, nursing their children before the German public as they were milking their reindeer.
Rothenfels 2002, p. 89

Anthropological studies were conducted with the individuals brought to central Europe by the “Völkerschauen”: they were measured, photographed, and tested often in their “primitive ideal”, their nakedness (Rothenfels 2002, p. 103). Ethnologists too profited from the people presented as “Other” that were made “available” to examine in such great proximity, even though the western influences on the shows biased their behavior and observations undertaken in the field gave “better” results.

The human zoos were not held for scientific studies in the end and their educational mission can be seen as a side effect. First and foremost they were an attraction to amuse a general audience. The visitors’ desire to contemplate the “otherness” and astonishments of the foreign world was met in every way. After 1870, the “Völkerschauen” often consisted of an entire tour of a built-up village, in which people performed rituals and dances of the scenery of their homes and animals as ordered (Rothenfels 2002, p. 127).

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Karawane «Krieger des Mahdi» (H.Besson)
Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, BSL G, 1898.

This reminds me of a haunted house with its choreographed and anticipatable way of scaring off visitors or of theme parks in general. The carefully crafted world made racist thinking suitable for a mass market. Purtschert very aptly describes this in the following:

In the Victorian age, the narrative of imperial progress is transformed ‘into mass-produced consumer spectacles’ (McClintock 1995, 33). This problematic interrelation of a colonial view of the Other and her commodification can surely be found at the Zurich Zoo.
Purtschert 2014, p. 518

I would name the economical concept described here “colonialism sells”. What is sold and consumed in a “human zoo” isn’t primarily the knowledge about the people displayed but the experience of superiority and control. The exhibitions left visitors with a sense of supremacy that legitimized and reinforced colonialism. The selling of exoticized difference and the racialized spectacle of primitiveness has not since completely left the zoo, it has just changed its costume.

Even though we are officially in the post-colonial era, Gregory argues that the accomplishments of the colonial past are reaffirmed and reactivated in the colonial present, if you look at the domain of power. The production of power in his opinion is inherently involved with culture: “(…) culture underwrites power even as power elaborates culture.” (Gregory 2003, p. 8). Therefore, colonial power is reproduced through post-colonial contemporary culture, which are rarely the focus for de-colonization.

The colonial present is not produced through geopolitics and geoeconomics alone, through foreign and economic policy set in motion by presidents, prime ministers and chief executives, the state, the military apparatus and transnational corporations. It is also set in motion through mundane cultural forms and cultural practices that mark other people as irredeemably “other” and that license the unleashing of exemplary violence against them. (Gregory, 2004, p.16)

These above mentioned mundane cultural forms correspond to what a zoo can be described as today. Drastically expressed a zoo is sensational entertainment that addresses a broad public and normalizes the process of “othering” under the disguise of education. In Gregory’s words, the zoo as an exhibition of the exotic “other” can be placed in the category of colonial nostalgia as it is an “idealization of other cultures as ’other’ and it dominates the representation of this ’other’ with deference”. He describes the nostalgic approach as a trap for postcolonial critique (Gregory, 2004, p.9). Thus, one could say that the zoo revives perceptions of coloniality/modernity today, thereby hindering postcolonial critique. Through this prevention of critique, the zoo produces a colonial present by renewing colonial power relations within its closed cosmos.

The backdrops of the staged enclosures in contemporary zoos like the Zurich Zoo that mimic the sociocultural spaces of non-European cultures contribute to a romanticized image of the “other.” Ethnological representations of “foreign” peoples through the medium of architecture in a zoological garden, which stated purpose is to exhibit animals, seem out of place and out of time. The problematic presence of the visual and spatial legacies of the “Völkerschau” in the architectural design of the zoo will be further explored below.

Architecture in the zoo

Carl Hagenbeck’s heritage has contributed to the history of the zoo in many ways. Even though “human zoos” were given up in the 1960s in Switzerland (Brändle 2013), the depiction of western power over “exotic animals” and non-European people, who had been promoted by them stays at the conceptual origin of the zoo. Besides his activities in trade with exotic animals and the organization of animal and people shows, Hagenbeck was known for his interest in the spectacle itself. The “authenticity” of his acts was astonishing and included whole building complexes to stage the rituals and dances of the people. (Figure 04).

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Bedouin Show” at Stellingen, 1912.
Rothenfels 2002, p. 144, but originally from: Alexander Sokolowsky, « Carl Hagenbeck und sein Werk

Such a performance was a many-layered composition, appealing with depth to the visitor’s eye only from specific angles. In the 1890s, Hagenbeck opened his first own zoological garden named “Animal Park” near Hamburg, where he developed a new concept for the display of wild animals, much reminding me of his people shows in terms of aspiration to originality and “naturalness”. His vision of a “Zoological Paradise”, a travelling exhibition that was installed in the zoological gardens in Berlin and in Hamburg, has influenced the presentation of animals in zoos all over the world (Wainwright 2020).

Instead of a cage, the animals are staged in a built landscape representing their “natural habitat”, creating a panorama within a romanticized, artificial nature. Hagenbeck first empirically investigated the heights, to which each animal could jump and then designed the enclosures accustomed to his statistics, having the fences replaced by moats and artificial rocks. Visitors could hence observe different animals seemingly free in a landscape next to each other like on a tableau of wilderness (Rothenfels 2002, p. 163). “The zoological garden of the future” was a huge success and fulfilled visitors’ expectations to see the species embedded in a romantic paradise-like landscape instead of in barred cages.

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Hagenbeck’s Animal Park, enclosure for grazing animals, mid-1920s.
Rothenfels 2002, p. 164 but originally from: Alexander Sokolowsky, « Carl Hagenbeck und sein Werk »(Leipzig: E. Haberland, 1928). Courtesy of Hagenbeck’s Tierpark.

Until today, in many zoos the architecture of the enclosures imitates the original surroundings of species and often resembles an ensemble of elaborate film sets. A four-minute-long video with the title “The zoo of the future – A development plan” can be watched on the web page of Zurich Zoo. It’s an impressive virtual tour through different projects that should be realized until the year 2050, all built up as a 3-dimensional, rendered model with animals and people. The future zoo will be an accumulation of different biotopes, each enclosed in a huge dome-like structure, where not only nature but also climate can be simulated. The animals play, undisturbed by visitors, who move through the landscapes on elevated walkways, observing as well as experiencing nature.

The perspectives are choreographed and not only show tableaus of the wildlife in the respective part of the world, but also merge at their edges with the view of Zurich’s forest and the lake panorama. A completely new geographical illusion is constructed. But what is missing in the advertisement video, is what we can observe in the three already built habitats: the ambitions to simulate ecological realities obviously don’t stop with the preoccupation with animals and nature. Even though on the web page of the Zurich Zoo one can read that its goal is to “meet the ecological challenges of our society and (to) preserve endangered animal species and habitats”, the sceneries in which the animals are held are sometimes completed with replica of indigenous buildings (Zurich Zoo 2022).

The observations I made in the Zurich Zoo affirms the contemporary tendency of going beyond the exhibition of animals again. Several compounds are amended with small buildings and staged sceneries that look like the indigenous people living there have just left, among them buildings inside the renowned Masoala Hall, the new Lewa Savanna with its restaurant complex and the kiosk near the Tiger’s cage that looks like a Mongolian yurt. This kind of voyeuristic exhibition of non-European culture is reminiscent of the “Völkerschauen”, simply without the living people.

Purtschert makes a very plausible analysis of the two human dwellings in Masoala Hall to explain racialized space. She shows how one of the huts, staged as a research base, represents an accessible, scientific, orderly, white space, while the other, staged as the kitchen of a Malagasy family, represents the “primitiveness”, the closedness, and the obscurity of non-European life (Purtschert 2014, 512). But what seems to be more important than the academic examination of racialized spaces, is the insights she got through surveys in the Zurich Zoo. Independently of what the zoo intended to communicate “the Malagasy kitchen is often seen as evidence of the primitive lifestyle of Malagasy” (Purtschert 2014, 512). This means that such installations about indigenous life do not serve the claimed educational goals, but primarily intend to create a colonial experience, a sense of superiority.

Architecture always communicates through different canals: symbols, signs and references to other built environment. Associations to other cultures or times are reused to create a specific set of reminders that make the observation of every building an experience rich with memories. In their text about architecture as sign, Venturi, Brown and Izenour argue, that the architecture belongs to a system of communication inside a society and that neither the designer, nor the observer is completely in control of the interconnection of signs and associations of the built object. (Venturi / Brown / Izenour 1977, p. 156-160).

In the case of the buildings in the Zurich Zoo that represent indigenous architecture styles, this issue seems to be multilayered. Some serve as gift shops or kiosks, others are just staging the environment, but in all of them the association with tourism is present. The composition of styles modeled on the architecture of countries where most visitors to the Zurich Zoo only go on vacation, combined with the opportunity to consume, and see exotic animals, create a positive association with vacation. The perhaps unconsciously generated pleasant memory of vacation charges the displayed sceneries with the feeling of accessibility through the individual souvenir and with a consumerist approach of a touristic visit. I have witnessed conversations from guests whose stated reason for visiting the zoo was to relive the vacation experiences they had made in the portrayed locations. I assume that this is an important perspective on the zoo, both in terms of its reach to different audiences and in terms of the controllability of what visitors take in from the set of associations offered by such a complex cultural object as a building.

Further analysis of buildings in the newer areas of the Zurich Zoo result in an astonishing abundance of structures making statements about the lifestyle of their supposed inhabitants or users. The Kenyan School building in the fictional village Lewa, next to the Savanna, allegedly explains the zoo’s financing of the educational institutions (Figure 06).

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Kenyan school building in the Lewa Village, Zurich Zoo, 2021.
Source: Dimitri Burkhard, “The Lewa Savanna at Zoo Zürich offers an escape to Kenya“, Newly Swissed, September 16, 2020

While it serves very well as a walkable photographic scenery, it remains unclear why the replica of a whole house is needed to transmit this information about financial aid. Other impressions like the number of children that need to share the one room, the austerity of equipment (compared to Switzerland’s schools) and the dereliction of the building’s façade stand out to the visitors even more. The building complex also includes a house that from one side represents a miniature airport and ranger’s office, and from the other is a hair salon, that can be peaked into, two clay huts with thatched roofs that host the restaurant and seating area and some sheds with ribbed roofs for keeping and animals.

The ensemble is grouped around a pumped well, setting up the scenery of a village like its title promises, even completed with Baobab trees that were built from concrete. The stark contrast between the climatic conditions for which these houses are designed and those that the architecture in Zurich is meant to withstand makes the “Lewa Village” seem fragile and poor, but also desirable as it evokes an unreal dream setting of safari vacations. The mix between desire, nostalgia and pity unleashed by the architectural backdrop of the Savanna animal enclosure describes very well the feeling that I assume is being sold here: a postcolonial experience of domination reproducing the hierarchy between the developed West and the exotic, but also backward global South. The being “out of place” of the African architectural style corresponds to what Purtschert writes about racialized space, reinforces the dichotomy of white spaces and bodies which are portrayed as a self-evident, invisible norm and the racialized spaces and bodies that are constructed as conspicuous and abnormal (Purtchert 2014, p. 511).

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Thai agricultural building in Kaeng Krachan elephant park, Zurich Zoo.
Source: Zooh! Zürich, Human-Elephant Conflict, 2014.

Another impressive example of neo-colonial depiction of culture is the above-mentioned Thai shack outside the Kaeng Krachan hall where the elephants are kept (see the picture above). In opposition to the houses in the Lewa village, this structure is not accessible nor does it have a commercial purpose. Its objective is to show the approaching visitors to the giant pachyderms what damage these animals can do to an agricultural Thai house. One side of the small bamboo building is completely smashed to address the human-elephant-conflict in Kaeng Krachan National Park (Zurich Zoo website, 2022).

However, following the afore-mentioned effect of educational exhibits on visitors, the information offered on this topic could easily escape visitors’ attention compared to the other content conveyed through this exhibit. The more striking take-away seems to be the difference in the encounters between elephants and humans in the Zurich Zoo and in Thailand. While in the West star architects build huge, climate-friendly wooden structures for the elephants to enable people watching them with their toddlers, these same animals in Southeast Asia are still a major threat to the poorly built and small homes in which the people live. This suggests a western dominance over nature, that the indigenous communities are represented as unable to reach by themselves.

In their short article on the zoo as a touristic site, Nekolný and Fialová conclude that contemporary zoos “reflect on the relationships between man and animals within the society or, more specifically, within the societies and cultures of a given era” (Nekolný and Fialová 2018, p. 162). Even though they do not critically reflect on the implicit messages of such depicted relationships, they cite rightfully the commercialization of leisure as one reason why the zoo is shifting more and more towards a theme park that presents many things apart from only live animals, becoming more of an open-air museum (Nekolný and Fialová 2018, p. 157).

Examples from the late 19th century show that this tendency has been lingering for a long time and has been experimented with since the beginnings of zoological gardens. One rather unsensitive example is the Elephant Pagoda in the Berlin Zoo from 1873 (destroyed in the 2nd world war) that was designed as a South Asian Temple but for housing animals (Rothenfels 2002, p. 35).

The case Basel Zoo

Even though it will not be analyzed in detail here, it should be mentioned that in contrast to the Zurich Zoo, the Basel Zoo follows a very different concept of exhibiting animals. The visitor’s gaze is always centred on the animal and is not distracted by enclosures or by additional representations. This results in very sober animal houses with outdoor areas that are called “stables” by the staff. The position of the zoo in the middle of the city certainly changes its possibilities to stage landscape like in Zurich, but the Zolli owes its urbanity also to this scientific exhibition style and its density that in this case forces it to reduce representation to an essence: the animal. After the paradigm shift from hunting the exhibited animals to breeding them, the zoo has found a new expertise and legitimization in the conservation of species. In the Basel Zoo the international studbook (a book containing the pedigrees of animals) of the Indian rhinos is managed for example.

Even though the focus is set on scientific topics like preserving the species threatened by extinction and illuminating their physical value for the visitors, the zoo is also a historical place. The historical buildings stemming from periods with different and more problematic approaches to colonial topics are still in use and to a certain extent contextualized by plaquettes. The history of the “Völkerschauen” that took place on its ground is being thematized on a blog on the website, unlike in the Zurich Zoo, where such information is absent.

The geography of the zoo

The organization of the zoo as a pleasure ground with winding walkways connecting different areas is reminiscent of the English landscape garden. These tried to represent various landscapes from different parts of the world in an ideal way and to offer their visitors selected perspectives on the picturesque sceneries. A zoological garden today is planned in a similar way, the visitors are expected to stroll around and peek into the enclosures from designated watching spots to see chosen views. The Zurich Zoo for example heads towards the distribution of the animals not by species but by their location of origin. The design of different areas is based on specific geographical sites like national parks or nature protection zones.

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Map of the Zurich Zoo, 2022

Even though they are not geographically arranged like on an actual world map, the structure is based on a western understanding of cartography, which relies on a spatial construct consisting of nation-states and borders (see the figure above). Taking a closer look on the map of the Zurich Zoo one discovers areas with titles referencing to real places in the world like “Lewa Savanne” and “Masoala”. The fact that all the spaces representing African landscapes (the “Congo” is to be built into the now empty, green area) are close together and separated from the old territory of the zoo by a bottleneck, indicates on the one hand, a certain awareness of the reproduction of geography and on the other an explicit separation of the African continent from all the other places represented.

In his text about cartography and decolonization, Raymond Craib states that space is not immune to power, new spatial configurations produce new mentalities (2017). The mapping of the world through the colonialists created a reality that in many places lives on until today, the re-ordering of indigenous space contains and preserves colonial power. As the geographer Matthew Sparke has aptly noted:

Cartography is part of a reciprocal or, better, a recursive social process in which maps shape a world that in turn shapes its maps. »
Matthew Sparke, cited in Craib 2017, p. 17

With this quote Craib marks the role of cartography as a design tool for our human perception of the world. Even though this might not be its goal, the zoo’s way to arrange the areas of the world in zones informs the visitors thinking about space, its permeability and its connectivity and thus influences their understanding about geography.

If the zoo has become a theme park about the flora and fauna of the different parts of the world and their corresponding cultures, its plan automatically becomes an anecdotal reflection of the global order from a Western perspective. Each compound is defined by an enclosing element and is adjacent to another compound or path for visitors to move back and forth. This can be compared to how nation-states function: contiguous territories, which edges are called borders that can only be crossed by some people. Moving between territories has been a privilege of whiteness for a long time, and to a large extent, it still is today.

The zoo can be experienced as a miniature replica or analogy of the colonial world in which imperial powers could move between countries but wouldn’t share this privilege with the colonized. Sarah Ahmed’s thoughts about racialized bodies and spaces would take this experiment of thoughts about mobility further, but I will not continue in this direction, as it opens another discourse of decoloniality. Even though the plans of the Zoo Zürich as well as the one of the Zoo Basel seem to show a fragmented world map for me, it could also be argued that this is just how a park works in general; pathways cutting through patches of landscape.

Interesting about this observation is that the zoo has the capacity to depict a world order spatially. Its degree of visibility and public reach makes it a highly political place in the incognito. Since their creation, zoological gardens played a propagandistic role in the geopolitical issue of colonization, bringing colonial issues amongst the people, and convincing them of the advantageousness for all parties (Rothenfels 2002, p. 137). Its partition and arrangement into regions of the world reproduces a political order that has been imposed onto the world by colonialism.

The layout produces an assumed accessibility to every defined part of the world like in a supermarket. This creates a (false) impression of western sovereignty for the visitor, much like the attitude that tourism has taken on in neo-liberal times: “Been there, done that.” The degradation of other world regions to places of consumable experiences that can be visited without impediments mirrors a colonialist view of the planet. At the same time, the spatial setting in a zoo makes a very clear distinction between the observing subject and the observed object, thus fixing power relations in one direction.

It is questionable to what extent the position of an exhibit changes the problematic. Is it in the visitor’s zone or off the pathway? Is it serving as shop of any kind or as shelter for the visitors or is its sole purpose to show something itself? Can it be entered or not? The way this contact with the backdrops of foreign cultures is choreographed seems to be a crucial indicator of a spatial expression of hierarchy. As for animals and plants, the legitimacy of this hierarchy might be discussable, but by displaying cultural items like buildings in this way means placing the “other” human as an object next to the animal that is being observed. Such a spatial validation surely isn’t in favor of de-colonizing our society’s attitude.


It can be said that Swiss zoos contribute to a responsible society within a globalized ecology. It is not my intention to assess the ethical or moral value of a zoo for society today; their engagements in nature conservation, preservation of rare species and activism against the destruction of specific ecosystems are doubtlessly laudable. Seen against the background of climate change, their function as ambassador for the environment and educational institutions perhaps prevents people from flying around the globe to see the animals in their natural habitat.

Assuming that we are living in the Anthropocene, the desire to represent the diversity of human culture alongside the animals and environments is understandable. However, against the backdrop of colonialism and the historical parallels with the “Völkerschau”, the tendency to show sceneries of human civilization in a zoo seems simply problematic.

While researching the specifics of the exhibition style in the zoo, it becomes clear that its function has shifted over time from the display of political power in the menageries, to propaganda for colonialism and the dominance of western culture in the early zoo, to mere entertainment through exoticizing foreign animals and cultures in the 20th century. Today, the preservation of rare species and environmental protection stands in the foreground. These different functions of the zoo certainly overlap and reoccur throughout history until today. I would even say, the zoo can be seen as a seismograph for the changing values in a society, adapting itself constantly to fit the present narrative. In this swaying, the collection seems to be a very steady function of the zoo, along with the educational mission towards the urban dwellers. This makes the zoological garden an inherently urban institution with an important role for society.

Even though the world has supposedly arrived in a post-colonial era, zoos have not been touched largely by colonial critic and have changed surprisingly little in the last 150 years. The question of representation and of sovereignty over the narratives of other people, their cultures, and the perception of the world have not been answered in the meantime. So, is the zoo an institutionalized perpetuation of colonialism?

The highly problematic display of human cultural items along with animals is still (or again) being practiced in midst of a renown and well visited tourist attraction like the Zurich Zoo. I think the responsibility to curate the depiction of “other” places needs to be taken very seriously and the zoo should be contributing to raising an awareness for the on-going de-colonization of Swiss mentality. Gregory argues that everyday cultural spaces like the zoo produce the colonial present, which in turn goes hand in hand with the colonial distribution of power.

The de-colonization of the cultural sphere is thus crucial. For the zoo this means that its heritage and conception have to be critically revisited and the questions about its future form should include not only concern for ecology, but also for the relationships between the places it represents. I am proposing that a postcolonial critic of the zoo is necessary to change the way we see ourselves in the everyday world. It’s reach in society could allocate the zoo with enormous potential regarding the awareness for decolonizing the cultural and political spheres.


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