Orangutans swing from Kevlar-lined fire hoses. Giraffes feast on celebratory birthday cakes topped with carrots instead of candles. Hi-tech dinosaur robots growl among steel trees, while owls watch animated cartoons on old television sets. In American Zoo, sociologist David Grazian takes us on a safari through the contemporary zoo, alive with its many contradictions and strange wonders.
Trading in his tweed jacket for a zoo uniform and a pair of muddy work boots, Grazian introduces us to zookeepers and animal rights activists, parents and toddlers, and the other human primates that make up the zoo's social world. He shows that in a major shift away from their unfortunate pasts, American zoos today emphasize naturalistic exhibits teeming with lush and immersive landscapes, breeding programs for endangered animals, and enrichment activities for their captive creatures. In doing so, zoos blur the imaginary boundaries we regularly use to separate culture from nature, humans from animals, and civilization from the wild.
At the same time, zoos manage a wilderness of competing priorities – animal care, education, scientific research, and recreation – all while attempting to serve as centers for conservation in the wake of the current environmental and climate-change crisis. The world of the zoo reflects how we project our own prejudices and desires onto the animal kingdom, and invest nature with meaning and sentiment. A revealing portrayal of comic animals, delighted children, and feisty zookeepers, American Zoo is a remarkable close-up exploration of a classic cultural attraction.
"With a keen sociological eye (and, as relevant, sense of smell), David Grazian reveals the habits, aspirations, and curious social organization of the human species. In this book, Grazian closely examines what captures us as well as what we capture, feed, display, love, and kill – in zoos and beyond."
– Harvey Molotch, author of Against Security
"American Zoo is a groundbreaking account of the elaborate cultural work we humans do to produce nature in the modern world. David Grazian spent years inside the cage, handling snakes and tarantulas, feeding monkeys and alligators, and making sharp observations about the wild ways we tame the environment to suit our needs. The result is an unforgettable look at human behavior. You'll never see our species the same way again."
– Eric Klinenberg, author of Going Solo
"An enlightening look at a world simultaneously familiar and surprising, American Zoo examines all the salient aspects of zoo culture and effectively provides a unique portrait of an important but unexplored institution."
– Gary Alan Fine, Northwestern University
"David Grazian brings us into zoos as we've never seen them before. American Zoo helps us better understand our relationship with the 'natural world,' and leads us to reconsider our culture and community. This is the finest book by a master of his craft."
– Shamus Khan, author of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School
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David Grazian is associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs, On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife, and Mix It Up: Popular Culture, Mass Media, and Society.