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27 June 2022

From the NS archive: Through the bars

22 August 1959: The zoo is a penitentiary, a theatre, an alms house, a laboratory, a conference room, a microcosm.

By John Berger

A visit to the zoo in 1959 has the critic John Berger reflecting on the lives of its inhabitants. For Berger, the appeal of visiting a zoo lies in the narcissistic realisation that animals exist as “partial images in a mirror for us”. The South American agouti “with her round-bottomed body, her drooping shoulders and her withdrawn face” reminds him of a middle-aged woman “who has been forced into the street with only a blanket pulled round her”. The tree-shrew is determined and furtive “like a wise man on thin ice”, and the male lion in failing to attract his lioness looks like a man who “may grind his teeth in the street as he suddenly remembers touching a breast”. A life behind bars means the only threat of danger is a natural illusion, and yet the animals are “no more aware of that than a petit-bourgeois shopkeeper brought up in a Wesleyan chapel”.


All kinds of types end up in the zoo. There’s even a jackdaw there who used to ride regularly on the shoulder of a motor-cycling friend of mine. When the lights were against him, he’d stop, and the bird would fly on. Finally the landlady’s complaints (the same friend also kept a fox in his room) led to the bird’s being given to a London park. And from there – because he stole so many handkerchiefs, artificial cherries and hats – he was transferred to the zoo. The zoo is a penitentiary, a theatre, an alms house, a laboratory, a conference room, a microcosm.

The agouti comes from South America. In its natural surroundings it’s a night animal, staying under cover most of the day. The one here in London is female and about the size of a large hare, only she is round and cumbersome. Her hind legs are larger than her front ones, which, like a squirrel, she uses to hold the food she nibbles and to handle whatever she finds and does not fear. In fact she fears almost everything.

She has an extraordinary cowed look, as if she were constantly trying to make herself as scarce as possible. Perhaps this is partly because she appears to have no tail, although actually she does have one, no larger than a small pink teat. She is hopelessly vulnerable. Her only defence is her bouncing gallop. Her teeth are only for nuts and fruit. Her claws are feeble. Even her rather coarse brownish hair is sparse. Indeed, with her round-bottomed body, her drooping shoulders and her withdrawn face retreating from one shock after another, she looks like a middle-aged woman whose house has caught fire in the night, and who has been forced into the street with only a blanket pulled round her.

When she sits on her haunches to suckle her offspring who push their round heads between her front paws, when she herself is eating with the nervous, acquisitive little bites of all rodents (count the pennies and the pounds’II take care of themselves – that’s how they eat), or when she is licking her young, breathing in their smell, cleaning them and recognising the familiar, all the time her warning system is picking up and deciphering signs of foreign approach and danger. She breathes in rumours with the air. Full of natural illusions, her young scurry back to her for safety. Yet she can do no more than scurry them and herself away. A life of dread. But she is no more aware of that than a petit-bourgeois shopkeeper brought up in a Wesleyan chapel.

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How different another kind of timidity! The tree-shrew is from Malaya. He is only about six inches long with a narrow, pointed, inquisitive face and sharp pink front paws. In the back wall of his cage are three round holes, not much larger than pennies, which open into a dark box behind. Most hours of the day and night he stays there in the dark. If, however, you wait long enough you will at last see a long face with unblinking eyes peering through one of the holes. It is a tight fit, the hole no bigger than a collar for his neck. Face out – and then face back into the dark where it is safe. But wait longer. He is persistent, this one, and his method is one of trial and success.

He has noticed your finger between the bars and he intends to investigate it. Glance away and you may miss him; he’ll be out into the cage and then back into one of his holes and all you’ll glimpse is his bushy tail as he disappears head first. But fix your eyes on him and you’ll see him dare perhaps three inches of his open cage before he bolts back. He has tested three inches. They are safe: nothing pursued him. Next time he tests five inches. Then back again: head first: tail in: head out. Then seven inches. And so on, till he’s reached your finger. He touches it with his nose and shows his teeth which are no larger than the points of wooden tooth-picks. He bolts back. And ventures out again. If you move your finger slightly he will now snarl and snap at it before retreating. His snarl is unexpected: a brief spitting sound like the crackle of one flame flickering in a single gust of wind. A six-inch rodent dragon breathing fire!

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After several attempts to bite your finger off – and you will find it quite difficult not to pull your finger away for his teeth are as sharp as his eyes and his persistence – he will try to pull it through the bars with his front paws. These are a whitish pink like his muzzle and gums. After each sustained grasp and tug he bolts back to one of his holes. If you make a noise now, the whole process may begin again. If you are still, he grasps and tugs, flies back, re-emerges, grasps and tugs – until you give up.

And this, they say, is one of the most timid animals in the whole zoo. They are wrong. He is careful – like a wise man on thin ice. He is furtive – like any good sniper. And he is incorruptible. Not to be diverted from his purpose. Romantics could learn from him.

A lion and a young lioness. The lion is on a low bench in the darkest corner, half asleep. She lies on a high platform, a kind of rostrum in the middle of their cage. Her tail swings like a loose rope from a boat in a harbour where there’s a slight swell. Her paws are relaxed and heavy and look overlarge – like hands with boxing gloves on. Her eyes are drowsy, flickering. But every other minute a noise alerts them. Suddenly one of the noises becomes urgent. I can hear nothing. But for her something has changed; the possible has become probable. She sits up. Everything is now battened down. The tail is still. The ears stand up to gather as much as they can, like two people trying to peer over the heads of a crowd. The eyes are undistractable. She is looking into the distance as expectantly as lovers look into one another’s eyes – except that the signs she is seeking will be given involuntarily by whatever has alerted her. Wind, sound, shadow have become extensions of her sensory system, as tools for men are extensions of their hands.

She lands on the ground and awaits further events; events which, by the nature of a zoo, can never occur. The lion watches her in such a way that it is impossible not to conclude that he is more knowing. She still waits. It is a full half minute before she relaxes. Relaxed she looks smaller. She ambles over to the far corner of the cage, and there, squatting like a bitch, she piddles.

The lion continues to watch her but now after she has done, he begins to move. He walks slowly over the puddle and takes a lick of it. Then, as if still holding the taste on his tongue, he straightens himself up and raising his head to the sky, bares his teeth. His head is enormous, far wider than any section of her body. He licks again, and again raises his enormous head and draws back the flesh of his mouth. It is a threatening grimace but it is directed against no one. It is a kind of physical swearing. He continues to lick and after each lick he swears at the sky – as a man may grind his teeth in the street as he suddenly remembers touching a breast.

The lioness is now lying on the bench. He goes over to her directly. And there rubs his face against hers. She is indifferent. But he persists, rubbing especially the hard plane between his eyes against her soft ears. Their heads are almost the same colour, but the shape of bees is self-contained, pear-shaped, whilst his is like a cauliflower that has gone to seed.

Apart from the monkeys whose show has also never closed, and the elephants who work as hard as tax-collectors, all day long receiving and docketing cake, leaves and paper bags, apart from these, the tortoise is among the most popular of the animals. Why? Is it because a tortoise can never take us by surprise? Or is it because it looks so much like a stone and yet is alive, alive enough with luck to outlive any of us? Most animals are partial images in a mirror for us. The tortoise, we think, is our antithesis. We look upon them as we look upon history in the abstract. And of course it’s equally a mistake. They do not carry the world on their backs. We do.

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