Chester Zoo
Chester Zoo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous post, I considered the role of animatronics at Chester zoo from the perspective of ‘zoo archaeology’: a growth area of research by historical and contemporary archaeologists. British proponents include the work of Sarah May on tigers and their material culture in a fascinating paper in a 2009 edited collection entitled Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now by Angela Piccini and Cornelius Holtorf.

In that post, I noted the many ways in which the material cultures, sculptures, architectures and landscapes of zoological gardens can be approached using archaeological methods and perspectives and related to zoo history and animal studies more generally. Yet it has always struck me that the many species of animals that populate zoos rarely leave direct material traces for visitors to see. This is one of the ways by zoos acquire a transtemporality: the passage of time is obscured, even denied, in the careful management of animal tracks and marks. Natural history is perhaps celebrated and the cycle of birth to maturity (and sometimes into old age) is also integral, but death through disease and predation, and the passage of the lifecycle of individual beasts and birds are removed from the visitor experience.

Quite so,  I hear you say. Because animals don’t have material culture and certainly leave fewpermanent material traces. Their environments are designed by and for humans, that is the very nature of the zoological garden! And kids don’t want to see animals dying and being eaten: not pleasant. In the same way, we don’t want to be reminded, when we look into a museum display case, that the display itself is old and run-down, let alone traces of the artefacts that previously inhabited the display case.

In cases where enclosures are designed explicitly for particular species, families or orders, or for species geographical/ecological zones, certainly they possess a long-term tenacity within the zoo’s organisation and structure and acquire a range of features that link them to those regions/species, either through design or accumulation. So, for example, elephant houses, giraffe houses and monkey houses, once established rarely move. They become important traces of the philosophies of display and attitudes towards different groups of species at particular times. Similarly, aquariums and reptile houses, because of their specific needs, can hardly be shifted without major reorganisation and rebuilding and hence are persistent elements of zoo topography.

Oakfield House outbuildings, formerly part of the lion enclosure

Many others, however, are more fluid and can be quite rapidly adapted on a rapid basis for new species. Chester zoo provides many examples of this. Bush dogs have recently moved into part of the Jaguar enclosure, Aardvarks have recently replaced Porcupines. There is a phenomenal fluidity in which bird species seem to be kept in the Tropical World cages.Still, for all of these enclosures, animals themselves leave few traces. When they die, their bodies are removed from view rapidly. Their only material legacy is their offspring, although even that is not geographically fixed as animals are regularly exchanged between zoological gardens.

I guess what I a saying (and probably I owe this point to Cornelius Holtorf who has written about this properly) is that zoos project immortality in their material environment but their management and structure denies the history of their occupants. The rhino house is there and designed specifically for that purpose. Yet the rhinos are born, moved between zoos and they die. They rarely leave a mark or memorial.

Memorial to lion claws

All the more interesting then is a case I recently came across where animal marks are not only discnerible but memorialised as a self-conscious part of Chester zoo’s landscape. Slightly embarassing for me, I confess that while I have been visiting Chester zoo for c. 5 years, I only noticed it last week!On the outer wall of the courtyard of brick outbuildings adjacent to Oakfield House – the nineteenth century mansion around which the zoo developed – I noticed this rare trace of long-gone captive beasts. Historically, the lion enclosure, now separated from the building by a path, had abutted these outbuildings. Lions had used the bricks as scratching posts and a plaque is now there, above the abraded brickwork, to explain and commemorate their long-gone presence. The traces and the plaque together commemorate the history of the zoo itself and the persistence of this place as the lion enclosure. Still, in part, they celebrate these long-gone animal ancestors for the modern zoo-going public. They relate to an iconic zoo species, and the marks are situated at the very heart of the historic zoo, on the very walls from which the zoo developed and then spread. These claw-marks are a rare trace of past animals that capture something of the essence of the early history of the zoo and celebrate its work past and present, and its occupants otherwise denied to history.