Animal Edutainment in a Neoliberal Era

Politics, Pedagogy, and Practice in the Contemporary Aquarium

by Teresa Lloro (Author)
©2021 Monographs XVIII, 170 Pages


Animal Edutainment in a Neoliberal Era is a rich and beautifully written multispecies ethnographic monograph that explores pedagogy and practice at a Southern California aquarium housing and displaying over 10,000 animals. Drawing on extensive interviews with aquarium staff and visitors, as well as fieldwork interacting with and observing human-animal interactions, the book demonstrates the complex ways in which aquarium animals are politically deployed in teaching and learning processes. Weaving together insights from anthropology, critical geography, environmental education, and political ecology, Teresa Lloro crafts a three-pronged "political ecology of education lens," illuminating how neoliberal ideologies interact at various scales (local, regional, national, and global) to deeply shape aquarium decision-making and practice. Acknowledging that neoliberalism enrolls humans and other animals in teaching and learning in new and often poorly understood ways, this study challenges the anthropocentrism of contemporary informal educational approaches, suggesting that imaginative ways forward will require a paradigm shift in regarding the role of animals in education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Foreword by Lori Gruen
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1: Introduction
  • 2: The Making of a Regional Edutainment Venue
  • 3: Neoliberal Subjectivities and the Pedagogy of “Sustainable Seafood”
  • 4: Bird Biopower in Lorikeet Forest
  • 5: The Disembodied Shark
  • 6: Affective Labor in the Lorikeet Forest
  • 7: A Watershed Moment for Zoos and Aquariums? Exploring Feminist Posthumanist Theories and Pedagogies
  • Author Index
  • Suject Index

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Foreword by Lori Gruen

There is no place on earth that remains untarnished by human activity. As our reach widens, our relationships with the more-than-human world tighten, becoming more strained and destructive. In the so-called Anthropocene humans are entangled in a complex web of connections with other animals and the planet, but these connections often are not affectively experienced; indeed, most of these relationships are mediated through economic markets and leave us feeling detached from nature.1 In recognition of this disconnection, modern zoos and aquariums promote themselves as sites to reconnect, learn about other animals, and marvel at the natural world.

No longer solely designed to amuse and amaze visitors by presenting animals as fantastical or frightening spectacles, zoos and aquariums are now “edutainment” facilities, paradoxical sites where technologies and animals come together to educate people, largely young people, about the wonders of the natural world. The inconsistencies of edutainment are deftly explored in Teresa Lloro’s engagement with the animals, both human and nonhuman, at the Aquarium of the Pacific. The Aquarium’s mission is: “To instill a sense of wonder, respect and ←xi | xii→stewardship for the Pacific Ocean, its inhabitants and ecosystems” in an “aquarium dedicated to conserving and building Natural Capital (Nature and Nature’s services) by building Social Capital (the interactions between and among peoples).” The solution to the alienation of our market disconnections to nature that the Aquarium of the Pacific proposes, then, is capital-mediated encounters with animals whose very lives are jeopardized by market forces.

Teresa Lloro argues that zoos and aquariums “biopolitically regulate and commodify animal bodies in a multiplicity of neoliberal ways” by offering visitors who spend a bit more than the admission price direct access to animal bodies. These premium “animal encounters”—like touching sharks in the Shark Lagoon or feeding Australian Lorikeets in the 5,400 square foot aviary—are designed to bring visitors closer to animals in a highly curated encounter. The goal of these orchestrated connections is to help move people to change their personal behaviors, perhaps by purchasing sustainable seafood. But can market-based edutainment really help solve the problems other animals encounter as humans carry on with their earth-destroying practices? It seems highly unlikely.

The way animals are presented in these close encounters as well as in their exhibits further distorts our relationships with them. Part of the problem is that zoos and aquariums are not places in which animals can be seen as dignified, as worthy of respect. They are valuable only insofar as they serve us or serve as ambassadors of their species. The enclosures and the scripted and unscripted “shows” are designed to satisfy human interests and desires. And the experience creates a relationship in which the observer, even a child, is free to feel dominant distance over those being observed. Writing about zoos, Ralph Acampora (2005) observes, “The very structure of the human-animal encounter is disrupted, and the interaction that is sought—encountering the animals—becomes an impossibility as the ‘real’ animals disappear and the conditions for seeing are undermined” (p. 71).

The sorts of shows that Teresa Lloro discusses help further inform an ethics of sight that I have been thinking about, particularly as such ethics illustrate the difficulty of respecting animal others in captivity (see Gruen, 2014). The relationship of watched and watcher under ←xii | xiii→conditions of captivity, whether or not the watcher is the one who confines and controls the watched, strains the possibility of respect. Here, the biopolitical management of the lorikeets, and the human visitors, clearly illustrates the strain. The watcher and the watched are themselves surveilled by staff who try to regulate visitors’ quick movements, as well as the biting and shitting lorikeets. In addition to undermining the possibility of regarding animals as worthy of respect, animals do not often have a choice to escape the human gaze. In the relative freedom of their native habitats, sharks and lorikeets, for example, can be seen or not and can watch humans, either seen or unseen by us. But in captivity, animals are forced to stop doing the things that make them indecent according to human norms and made to do things that they do not ordinarily do because humans want them to. When they try to assert their will by failing to participate, they are disciplined. What visitors end up seeing is what the curating staff want them to see.

Should the shows be stopped then? Should zoos and aquariums be shut down? Teresa Lloro does not think that abolishing zoos and aquariums is ultimately the answer, at least in the short term. And to a certain extent I agree. Even if no more animals are taken from the wild and the practice of breeding to sustain captive populations was abandoned, which would drastically reduce the zoo and aquarium populations, there will still be many long-lived animals in captivity for quite some time. But for some species, like elephants, dolphins, and whales, continued captivity is not good as there simply is not enough room in a zoo or aquarium to satisfy their need to travel long distances. We need to develop alternatives.

The people who work at the Aquarium have a “deep passion for helping animals and/or the environment and they genuinely believed that the Aquarium provided them a place to embody that passion by improving the lives of animals there.” This has been my experience with the many zoo professionals I have worked with too. They are committed to relationships of respect for the animals they care for, but the environment in which to develop respect may, by its very structure, preclude that possibility. So what might be done?

Like Teresa Lloro, I think that helping zoos and aquariums embrace a sanctuary ethos will allow for a shift from the structure of neoliberal ←xiii | xiv→instrumentalization of captive animals toward relationships of respect. One important change would be to develop an ethics of sight that works to achieve visual equality, to see animals for who they are, as worthy of respect, and to allow ourselves to be seen by them. This also means allowing animals not to be seen and also ending manipulated interactions like those described in this book. Instead of touching animals, interactive educational programming could be developed that does not turn the shark into a tactile spectacle. Helping visitors see the world through a shark or a fish or a bird’s eyes can help them recognize the limits of our ways of seeing the world. In being open to learning how others see, we can also expand our own perception.

“Sanctuary” is more than a word. Of course there are places that call themselves “sanctuaries” that do not put the interests, choices, and wellbeing of the animals first. These are not true sanctuaries. Some parts of some zoos operate very much like sanctuaries now, treating animals with great care and respect and allowing them to decide whether they want to be seen by the public or not.

For zoos and aquariums truly to become more like sanctuaries, in addition to providing the basic needs for wellbeing and enough space, animals must be treated with respect. Respecting captive animals at the very least involves providing them with opportunities for choice about who to spend time with, including captors and observers, and crucially, captives must be provided with the ability to escape the gaze of others. Animals should be provided with places to hide that are recognizable to them as hiding places given their species-specific behaviors. In captivity, we can respect animals by allowing them to be seen only when they wish to be seen and recognize that their lives are theirs to live without our judgments or interference. Since there is no place on earth that is beyond our reach, beyond our capacity to “make live” and to make die, rethinking our vexed relationships with others is crucial. Recognizing the limits of our ways of seeing and making others visible; shifting our relationships from interference, control, capture, and violence to empathy and care; developing humility when the future of our planet seems hard to fathom, will not happen in an average 2.5-hour zoo or aquarium visit. We need to expand our imaginations. Perhaps zoos and aquariums can play a role in that expansion, but as is clear in the book that follows, not in their current neoliberal, edutaining form.

Lori Gruen, William Griffin Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Science in Society at Wesleyan University


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XVIII, 170
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 170 pp., 2 b/w ill., 6 color ill.

Biographical notes

Teresa Lloro (Author)

Teresa Lloro received a PhD in education, society, and culture from the University of California, Riverside. She is Assistant Professor in the Liberal Studies Department at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Lloro recently received a California Humanities Grant for her work with community-based food justice coalitions. She is also the co-editor of Animals in Environmental Education: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Curriculum and Pedagogy.


Title: Animal Edutainment in a Neoliberal Era
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190 pages