Zoology: The animal inside

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Josie Glausiusz contemplates a documentary on the human relationship with animals confined and stuffed.

Bestiaire

Directed by Denis Côté FiGa Films: 2012. Screening at Anthology Film Archives in New York 19–25 October.

Life in a cage disconnects animals from the natural world and breeds apathy. Credit: PHOTOCASE ADDICTS GMBH/ALAMY

A lion lies asleep atop a glass roof inside a wire enclosure. Beneath the glass, within an enclosed walkway, tourists lift their smartphones and snap photos of the torpid feline. What do they see when they look at it — a magnificent beast, or a cowed one, disconnected from its natural world?

Questions about what we really see when we look at animals run throughout Bestiaire, a strange and unsettling documentary directed by Canadian Denis Côté. Awarded a Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Environmental Film Festival at Yale, held in New Haven, Connecticut, Bestiaire continually confounds the viewer, undermining our understanding of what it means to be wild, as it reflects our own confined lives.

The film unfolds over four seasons, shot mostly inside Parc Safari, a zoo in Hemmingford in Quebec, Canada. There is no narration and little dialogue, and disparate scenes seem to pop up at random. We move from art students sketching what looks like a stuffed baby deer to snow-filled pens in which woolly bison, llamas and horses lumber back and forth. Zebras stomp frantically. A melancholy monkey cuddles a stuffed teddy bear. In summer, geese waddle through tall grass and children take elephant rides and pat young deer.

People feature too. Guards watch and feed the animals through the mesh of the cages — and are themselves observed on closed-circuit cameras. At one point the film's focus shifts to a taxidermy studio in a Montreal basement, crammed with skulls and stuffed deer heads. A man walks up to a rotating metal drum and removes what looks like a handful of dusty feathers. He shakes it, slices out bloody bones with surgical tools, stuffs it, dries it with a hair-dryer and voilà — a green-headed duck.

Although Côté insists that Bestiaire has no message, it nonetheless depicts perfectly the distorted relationship that zoo-goers and others have with wild animals: no longer free, but dispirited creatures that we incarcerate, ogle, coddle and capture on tiny screens.

Bestiare raises unsettling questions about humanity's habit of gawking at confined animals. Credit: FIGA FILMS

That, in turn, raises compelling questions about the role of zoos today. Humans have enjoyed gawking at imprisoned animals since as long ago as 2100 BC, when Mesopotamian kings exhibited lions in cages and pits. The Tower of London was once home to a menagerie that over the centuries featured lions, tigers, alligators and hyenas, whose bodies were dissected in the pursuit of anatomical science. London Zoo took over from it in 1828. Now, an emerging consensus argues that zoos should discard the old 'entertainment' model to devote resources to the conservation of animals that face extinction in the wild. A coordinated zoo-breeding programme of the golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia), for example, has helped the endangered monkey to thrive once again in its fragmented Brazilian forest habitat.

Life in a cage may protect an animal from habitat destruction, but it also breeds apathy. In one spring-time scene in Bestiaire, three bears line up obediently in a pen as a keeper tosses grapes into their open mouths. Denied the opportunity to forage far and wide, they seem to have adapted to a life free from independent exploration.

In an interview, Côté recalled that he wanted his film to be like seeing “through the eyes of a six-year-old who is turning the pages of a bestiary and excited to discover a new picture of an animal at every turn”. But the medieval bestiary was also an instructional book, filled with illustrations of animals both real and imaginary — elephants and lions, griffins and unicorns — each of which had a symbolic moral or allegorical value. Like these didactic tomes, Côté's film shows us that we face ethical choices: understand and empathize with the plight of wild animals or treat them as yet more playthings to be photographed, toyed with or stuffed.

Bestiaire prompts viewers to ponder what it really means to be human — or more accurately, humane — in our relationships with wild beasts. Whether or not Côté intended it, the movie has a message — a powerful one.

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Correspondence to Josie Glausiusz.

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Bestiaire on FiGa Films site

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Glausiusz, J. Zoology: The animal inside. Nature 490, 340–341 (2012) doi:10.1038/490340a

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