Jessica Robinson, Anthropology, University of Chicago
“Connection to the Collection: the value of human and non-human encounters in a Bahamian zoo”
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For many Bahamians snakes are “devil’s creatures,” and an encounter with one is cause for alarm and violent response. However, native snakes in the Bahamas are non-venomous and play a valuable role in the ecosystem (in both environmental and economic senses). In order to counter the misinformation and fear over snakes the zoo keepers at a for-profit zoo in the Bahamas have rescued injured wild snakes that, after careful rehabilitation, they introduce to local children in curated “animal encounters.” In stark contrast, these animal encounters are not shared with North American tourists who make up the bulk of the zoo’s paying customers. Instead, the tourists are treated to a marching Flamingo show, in which a photo opportunity with one of these majestic animals is a key component. The value of looking at animals is assumed to be different for tourists and locals.
Drawing on ethnographic research, this paper explores theories of value (Graeber 2001) to consider the affective ways in which encounters with these non-humans are being mobilized, on the one hand, as an active and affective literal hands-on approach to local conservation that is embedded in the landscape and ecosystem from which the animals are collected, and on the other, as a tourist experience of the “exotic” dislocated from the natural environment (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009; Urry & Larson 2011).
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