Berger Quote

“The zoo cannot but disappoint.  The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals.  Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal.  At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on.  They look sideways.  They look blindly beyond.  They scan mechanically.  They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.” (28)


I found this quote from John Berger particularly compelling because it relates to a theme I want to explore in my final paper, namely isolation from nature.  My paper will focus on the effect on society of people choosing (or, perhaps, being compelled by society to choose) to live apart from nature in largely urban environments.  With this quote, Berger describes how the zoo can fit in with this theme.  Although humans and animals are physically close in a zoo, they are still separated so that human observers can never “encounter the look of an animal” as they would in the wilderness.  Animals become something to be looked at, as opposed to living creatures with which we can actively interact.  This relationship can be expanded to describe human contact with all of nature in more developed urban societies.  Nature becomes something to be looked at instead of something that we can interact with on a daily basis.  Although people may take vacations from their urban or suburban environments, these are only for short periods, and the amount of time living in these developed environments can hinder how they interact with nature during this short time period.

In addition, in my paper I want to explore how technology fits in with this theme, and for this reason I was drawn to Berger’s use of the word “mechanically” when describing the look of the animals in a zoo.  By using this word, he likens these animals’ behavior to that of machines: in their look, there is no deeper understanding of human beings, they only look passively in the same manner one might expect from a toy or mechanical animal.  In isolating these animals from nature, they are also isolated from closer contact with other living creatures.  Similarly, human beings can fall into this trap.  Living in a highly technological, urban world allows people to become isolated from those around them.  As there is less need for physical contact among people, the way people understand each other changes.  In this sense, I believe it is possible for humans, not just animals, to become “immunized to encounter.”


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by christys21 on November 16, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    This qoute from Berger is definately a great piece to include in analyzing isolation from nature.
    Berger’s idea that animals have a blank gaze when they have been placed in a zoo, in comparison to when they are free in nature, brings an interesting argument. This idea brings me to question what are the small details, aside from the fact that they are not in their natural environment, that changes the animals behavior.

    Berger says, “They have become immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention.” (28)

    I question whether too much human interaction/encounter changes an animal’s behavior and how this can perhaps cause problems in society. Does an animal that has lost it’s connection with nature due to isolation, pose a threat to humanity in that it no longer knows how to live on its own.

    An animal that depends too much on humans feeding it in a zoo, could almost be excluded as being a part of nature. If it has lost it’s natural instincts, and depends on society just as much as humans do, then they cannot be part of nature.

    This “gaze” that Berger speaks of also makes the reader question what is going through the animals head. Is the animal ok with being in a zoo away from nature’s harm, or does it realize that it has been stored away in an unnatural world?

  2. Posted by kwalley on November 17, 2011 at 11:10 am

    I find that Berger likening animals in a zoo to a machine very interesting. To me this comparison alludes to the fact that these animals, who are taken from their natural habitat, walk through life with little emotion or purpose. With everything they need provided for them, there is nothing for these animals to do, leaving them in a zombie or machine-like trance, giving zoo-goers no really perspective on the behavior of these animals. I think that this observation also leads people to believe these animals are quite tame and easily domesticated which only further perpetuates the problems involved with taking animals out of their environment. Berger does a great job at confronting these issues without compromising the integrity of society as a whole.

  3. Very interesting analysis (and sounds like the start to a great paper as well!).The way Berger describes the animals held captive in Zoos really made me start to analyse how much these animals differ from animals in wild. It seem they have far more differences than similarities- from eating to choosing a mate to interaction with other species and humans, zoo animals and wild animals seems to live opposing lives. They are “lethargic and dull” instead of active (24).The isolation you describe in your analysis seems almost like a barrier for these animals- hindering them from being what they truly are!

  4. Posted by etrotta on November 17, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    I like your analysis of this quote and how you structured your paper topic about it. I commented on another post about Berger and included my own experience with the disconnect between people and animals that zoos cause. The lack of real connection with the animals goes well beyond the cages, moats, and walls. It is the feeling of complete control and safety that disconnects people from animals.

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