| Pandas have saved Edinburgh zoo from extinction – but what for?|
|It seems that Edinburgh zoo is marking its centenary with something of an annus mirabilis. Ever since the arrival of "our" pandas, a stampede of visitors has seen the once somnambulant finances of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland firmly perk up.|
Little wonder then that in a lecture given to the Royal Society of Edinburgh last week, the zoo's Chris West should pay tribute to Scotland's forbearing celebrities Tian Tian and Yang Guang.
Using the customary idiom of a chief executive officer, West explained to his audience that the pandas "wrote a cheque that allowed us to mend the penguin pool". "And in future," he added, "we'll be asking them for more cheques."
Thomas Haining Gillespie, the Edinburgh solicitor who founded the zoo in 1913, would probably have been impressed with West's obvious business acumen. After all, Gillespie's vision of keeping tropical animals on a post-glacial Scottish hillside was never going to come cheap.
But he probably wouldn't have anticipated that the institution he founded would one day bring about the forcible insemination of a giant panda with the defrosted sperm of two males – one of which, a cold war diplomatic gift, was already dead. (Nothing signalled east-west "peaceful coexistence" as well as a languid bamboo-muncher.)
Such are the paradoxes of the modern zoo. West is no doubt sincere when he says that zoos offer a solution to the current "nature deficit" – the idea that urban dwellers, particularly children, have lost any environmental experience.
And we know that kids love the zoo. Don't they?
Recently, my mother gave me an old cine reel she had filmed when I visited Edinburgh zoo as a three-year-old. It's not a feelgood movie.
There I am watching a grubby polar bear. And here's me staring at an elephant that is swinging back and forth, back and forth. Again and again. The undoubted melancholy of the scenes cannot be blamed on the bleached colours of 1970s Super 8 film.
Even today, our experience of the zoo is so often interrupted by disappointment and confusion. The zoo is a kind of fantasy world: a miniature Earth that we haven't already wrecked, in which we attempt to relate to animals on terms that aren't evidently compromised by fear, loss and displacement.
For West the zoo can provide "genuine nature-based experiences". But it's a coy version of nature where the animals are in lockdown and the technical means of their captivity must also be veiled. Bars and cages are out; moats and discreet electric fences are in.
Yes, zoos have changed but part of their evolution has been aimed at our own discomfort at the spectacle of incarceration. In the bad old days, the cage was as much part of the picture as the lion: together they symbolised our power over other species, and, for the wild beasts of India and Africa, over other territories.
Now, in the new "immersive" zoo, we human visitors apparently enter the animals' world – a wafer-thin contrivance that never fully masks the anxiety of the encounter.
The questions for me are not just about the welfare of individual animals but what our experience tells us about our relationship with the non-human world. What are zoos for? What do they mean?
West points to the importance of biological conservation and captive breeding. There are, for instance, Polynesian tree snails in Edinburgh that are now extinct in the wild.
That's also the purported logic of having pandas in Scotland (beyond being a comparative index for the number of Scottish Tory MPs). Tian Tian and Yang Guang are here to reproduce, hence the unrelenting circus of breeding windows and panda porn.
But of the 300 or so pandas in China's worldwide programme of bio-diplomacy, only two have ever been released into the wild, the first being quickly dispatched by a rival aggressor.
I can't help thinking that the much lauded conservation rationale is actually back to front: in Edinburgh's case, it is the pandas that have saved the zoo from extinction, with its visitor numbers now up 51%.
And I'm not convinced that the zoo is a species worth saving. When West referred to it as "a sort of refugee camp", I fear that kinship between these spaces of confinement is altogether too real.
From showcasing the spoils of empire to smoothing our current trade relations, zoos have continued the age-old human trick of resolving the social order through the abjection of an animal.
Pandas should be left to conduct their own relations, diplomatic or otherwise.