March 2007

The Nation Reviewed

The human zoo

By Ashley Hay
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Walking through the gates of the Adelaide Zoo one day in late January, I passed a man asking what kinds of Australian animals were inside. Well, said the ticket lady, there are wallabies and koalas, and all sorts of birds. She directed him towards a map that, sure enough, had symbols for wallabies, for koalas, for all sorts of birds. But the largest symbol of all was a man's head, chubby-cheeked and hair shaved to almost nothing, with a banana balanced across the crown. Welcome to the Human Zoo.

Under the watchful eye of Dr Carla Litchfield, the vice president of the zoo and a lecturer in psychology at the University of South Australia (subject area: human and animal behaviour, and human-animal interactions; particular passion: great apes), the Human Zoo project had locked groups of six humans into an empty orangutan enclosure, each for a week at a time. It aimed to "create awareness of the closeness of humans to their primate cousins", "provide a platform for research on animal behaviour and enrichment", and "raise awareness of the conservation needs of primates in the wild". By this Wednesday, the fourth and final group was halfway through its stint.

The project's other aim was to raise money for Australia's largest chimpanzee enclosure, to be built at the zoo's out-of-town sister institution, the Monarto Zoological Park: visitors could make donations by voting for their favourite "exhibit" in each group. On the last weekend of January, the four weekly winners would "come together for the final lock-in", with audiences voting which one "super human" from among them would win a trip for two to Honolulu. All of which would allow Dr Litchfield (locked in herself for the four-week duration) to enjoy "a unique opportunity to ... experience things from the animals' point of view".

As Litchfield had said when the program was announced, if she was "keen to improve conditions for captive apes ... [then] what better way to do it ... This will give me a first-hand idea of the smells, the noises, what it is like to be looked at all day by humans." It was, she says now, both a novel and controversial thing to do.

Deprived of the usual stimuli - books, internet, music, television - participants would be offered "enrichment activities" and exercise equipment, but would go home at night. They'd have daily vet check-ups and be fed like the other great apes (good news, as one successful applicant said, given that he couldn't afford his own bananas), and some celebrity "zoo-lopers" would pop in (more political animals - the state's premier, Mike Rann, and the soon-to-be-former federal immigration minister, Amanda Vanstone - visited). But the really novel part of the deal was that, unlike anything else in the zoo, in any zoo, this species' exhibits would be able to talk back to their audience.

Following the map to the Human Zoo, I noticed the other exhibits along the way seemed to be struggling for an audience: the yellow-footed rock wallabies had few takers; the flamingos were balancing for no one in particular; even the macaws were squawking to themselves. But around the final corner, I heard a commotion.

Young people, old people, couples, families, people in wheelchairs, people in prams: the path between the glass separating Homo sapiens specimen from Homo sapiens audience and the back wall of the adjacent hutch was full. Some hated it: "Oh dear," murmured one older woman, while a boy tugged his mother's sleeve, pleading, "Mum, can we move on?" But most loved it: "Mum, can I make a donation?" "Mum, are they pretending to be apes and monkeys?" And whichever side they fell on, they all stood for a while to hear what the Humans had to say. About how hot it was in that old orangutan house, for one thing, and how the heat ranged from 29? in the shade to 43? at the top of the ladders. "All this information is going to help when they design the new chimpanzee house up at Monarto," they explained.

It seems an obvious thing to know about animal houses, but this was new research: Litchfield had "four thermometers set up at different parts of the enclosure, and they got up to 50 or 60? at some points," she says. "People have never done those tests before. Now we understand that enclosures need more shade, more shelter."

After three days in the house, she says, her sense of smell was incredibly heightened - "there's a real smell deprivation in there, so we need to think about enrichment activities that address that" - as was her sense of hearing. She couldn't hear much: "the chimps and gibbons sometimes, and once I heard the African wild dogs. Mostly all we could hear was the noise of the people watching us." Which was nothing compared to the noise coming from the exhibits themselves, all of them talking and talking (amplified by microphones), rushing around and talking, under the blazing midday sun. Up ladders, down ladders, into the spa, singing songs and spruiking the names of sponsors: if the audience was going to nominate a favourite, the competition for its attention was manic. This was pure Big Brother.

"The naked ape really is the ‘talking ape'," Litchfield concedes. "There was such constant interaction with the people outside. Even if the mics weren't working, people yelled to us, and we could hear a lot of what was said out there.

"Sometimes I wasn't sure who was entertaining whom - one guy in the audience got a mic from a zookeeper and organised karaoke." But it bothered some of her exhibits that they "had to perform", she says, "that audiences expected them to do weird things. People expect animals to entertain them - our participants certainly understand that better now. They learned a lot about humans by being inside the glass." By the month's end, she confesses, "I just wanted to sit in silence."

As the day ticked past noon, the audience began to consider food - some unwrapping sandwiches, others talking about cafés - and so did the exhibits. Unlike all the other animals in the Adelaide Zoo, you could throw treats at these ones - although, as Litchfield told the audience, on the matter of snacks, "these guys are a bit out of control; it's like Lord of the Flies sometimes."

What interested her was "just how much people eat in front of animals", she says. "Animals food-beg when people eat in front of them, and our humans were, too. They were getting really healthy food inside, and if someone outside was eating ice cream, they'd start begging for it. Again, it seems obvious, but maybe we need to ask people not to eat in front of the enclosures." A different sort of please-don't-feed-the-animals sign.

Zoos can be tricky places to negotiate, the privilege of seeing animals you wouldn't otherwise see jostling against that anthropomorphic tendency to project your own emotions onto them. And that was the strangest thing about watching a brace of humans: they could project right back at you, and in language you could understand. "Bet it's much cooler out there," said one, "with your lovely cool breeze." Imagine a tiger muttering that as you passed by.

Still, by the end of their stints, says Litchfield, "some of the exhibits were almost desperate not to leave - and they're still missing it." In subsequent focus groups, she found some were "dead keen to do it again, and do it for longer." Friendships had sprung up, as had inter-group rivalries - something "very normal for primates".

The experiment is over now, with Josh Penley, a corporate trainer, voted the favourite and thus heading to Honolulu; the zoo enjoying a 25% increase in attendance during the month; and Litchfield enjoying the international response to a project that was "both interesting and bizarre". (Curiosity may now shift to China, where one zoo plans to put six humans in a cage with monkeys, and reward whichever human stays longest with $1900 and the title of "honorary animal lover".) In late March, she'll catch up with her humans again to talk about "whether this has changed their life, whether they'd come back". For her, it was "an amazing experience, and something I'd definitely repeat".

Sneaking away from the humans, I found two women looking for western lowland gorillas in the enclosure next door, eyes shaded as they squinted into the empty space. But there, at the back, sat two very hot-looking apes, as dark as their own shadows, one waving some leaves. There was no spa, nowhere near as much noise or attention - and unlike their "naked ape" relatives next door, no one was going to let them go home for the night. "I didn't come to the zoo to see humans," one of the women sniffed.

Visitors came and went from the humans' lines of sight - "come back," the Human Zoo called sometimes, "come back this afternoon" - some seeking sea lions and red pandas, and some another great ape, the Sumatran orangutan. A huge hot thing, he lay on a platform in his lushly jungled house, maybe trying to catch a breeze between the boards.

"Why's it staring at me, Dad?" asked one little girl.

"Well," her father considered, "it does look a wee bit bored."

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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