Is Nature Really the Greatest Show on Earth?

2,142 total words    

9 minutes of reading

On the city streets of Hobart in Tasmania, Australia, where I am currently on sabbatical leave from my professorship, it’s not uncommon to see cockatoos flying overhead and pink-billed pelicans and black swans feeding along the urban shoreline. Wander the city’s edge and wallabies, pademelons, platypuses, possums, and marsupials of varied sizes, shapes, and ways of being share the forest. 

Leave the city and roadkill is common. So common a biologist once told a local friend that it’s when you don’t see roadkill you have to worry. This notion has changed, however, as human population on this island under Down Under grows, wild habitat decreases, and human roads and traffic proliferate. Whereas locals are used to them, visitors often comment on the sheer abundance of dead wild animals on roads. In Tasmania, land of the world’s first Green party and host of Sea Shepherd, as well as home to many folks highly invested in extractive forestry and mining industries, there are a spectrum of feelings about wild animals. Some see wild animals on roads as “dog food”—hit one to take home and feed your pets. Others, such as the more than 100 rescue volunteers networked through Tasmania’s Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, are on 24-hour call to pick up roadside animals and nurse them back to health or, if dead, probe pouches for young who could be saved.  

Whether locals perceive these mammals, including wombats, Tasmanian devils, kangaroos, and bandicoots, as sentient co-equals to humans, nuisances, or fair game, they are understood as part of the life landscape here. So much so that locals seldom pause or comment when common animals such as wallabies hop and nibble just meters away. This abundance and diversity of large wild (and in no way threatening) mammals intermingling with urban boundaries, at times leaving scat on my children’s school grounds, is a wonder and balm to my American senses, even though I hail from the high desert Southwest, where roadrunners hunt throughout the city and prairie dogs struggle to endure in urbanized habitat.

Broadly speaking, however, in Western culture many people do not think of wild animals as having a place in cities, except as domesticated pets or as captives in zoos or aquariums. Those animals that successfully adapt to and live in urban environments, from rats to pigeons to squirrels to cockroaches, are often viewed as unclean pests, invading what we have come to falsely perceive as a purely human environment. And more and more of us are in our mushrooming cities, with more than half the world’s population and the vast majority of Western industrialized populations in urban areas (e.g., 89% of Australians live in cities, 83% in the United States).

One function of contemporary cities is to set a Western culturally constructed human-nature binary into literal and figurative concrete. For some time, a range of scholars have been illustrating ways Westerners symbolically and materially produce a human-nature binary, a core cultural premise of humans as different from, separate from, and superior to nature. My recent article in Environmental Communication, “The performer metaphor: ‘Mother nature never gives us the same show twice,’” identifies ways the binary in Western discourse takes the particular shape of humans as audience and the more-than-human world as entertainer.

In spaces of zoos, aquariums, and marine parks, as well as in entertainment and advertising media, cities capture, store, and stage wild animals as spectacle, and reinforce the perception that wild animals exist for human distraction or amusement. Most urban dwellers will encounter large wild animals only in these captive and staged environments, where animals are removed from their habitats and ecosystems and displayed to view upon demand, reinforcing the assumption that wild animals belong in cities solely on our terms, and those terms are for our diversion. These urban spaces and media might counteract the performer metaphor through conservation messages, but just as often those messages are entangled within the metaphor. For instance, my local zoo currently is installing an “endangered species carousel” upon which children will be able to ride on the backs of the likes of Mountain Gorillas, Blue Whales, Hawksbill Turtles, Asian Elephants, Bengal Tigers, Bluefin Tuna, Galapagos Penguins, and Black Rhinos while eating ice cream cones, listening to jingly music, and posing for photos.

Perhaps this is why SeaWorld’s recent announcement that it would cease its killer whale show at first seemed positively transformational. But details followed: Only the San Diego location’s show would cease; and, in fact, San Diego would repackage its “theatrical” Shamu show as a new “very marketable attraction” by 2017. SeaWorld described the repackaged captive show—the “new orca experience”—as meeting customer desires for a “more natural setting.” Another announcement followed: SeaWorld would cease breeding orcas. This actual substantive change, in response to economic and political pressures, will likely influence public perception as we witness captive orcas die away, no longer simply a replaceable entertainment commodity. Meanwhile, SeaWorld has no plans to free its twenty-three captive orcas.

SeaWorld’s announcements came in the face of plummeting attendance, stock prices, and profits that followed the 2013 release of Blackfish, the extremely popular documentary that took a critical look at SeaWorld’s captivity entertainment industry and associated dangers for employee trainers and captive orcas in its shows. And the announcements accompany recent substantive moves around the world to stop putting other animals in entertainment roles for the sake of human enjoyment. In 2013, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests banned dolphin captivity, stating dolphins are “nonhuman persons” and it is “morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purposes.” Also in 2013, Costa Rica’s Environment Minister tried, unsuccessfully, to close the country’s two urban zoos and said he had a long-term plan to free all animals in captivity in the country. In 2015, in the United States, after years of elephant abuse allegations and after more than 100 U.S. cities passed ordinances restricting elephant use, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus announced it would take captive elephants out of its show by 2018 (the 145-year-old circus trademarked “The Greatest Show on Earth” will continue to showcase tigers and other animals as performers).

In these recent changes, we witness the Western performer metaphor under tension. Yet my research illustrates how this core nature-as-performer metaphor still reigns, not only in places one would expect—such as marine parks, zoos, and circuses—but also in everyday interactions and, perhaps most surprisingly, in wild settings. Based on ethnographic research in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand, I argue the performer metaphor is so predominant in Western settings that at times we have difficulty speaking about, and perhaps even perceiving, nonhuman animals in other ways. The performer metaphor, in other words, has become part of our customary speech and our common sense. So, when we say things like, “that monkey was really putting on a show” or “those dolphins enjoy performing for us,” we may actually believe it.

In a cyclical fashion, the performer metaphor also influences our larger patterns of ecological involvement. Much of my research looks at whale watch tourism related to the three matriarchal orca pods from which humans captured (and also collaterally killed) many individuals to supply SeaWorld’s first captive “Shamus.” In part due to resultant population decimation, these Southern Resident orcas are the first in the world to be declared endangered. And, as we are entertained by their captive counterparts, these wild orcas are further endangered by our actions, including our vast overfishing of the oceans (they are salmon eaters), our point and nonpoint pollution (which bioaccumulates in their blubber as top ocean predators), and our increased marine vessel traffic of all types, much originating from urban centers.

There is no doubt that SeaWorld and other urban nature-as-entertainer institutions mediate our experience of the wild. My research reveals whale watch tourists tend to expect both a predictable and spectacular wild. For instance, in North America, tourists often assume they will see whales (and seldom presume they might not) and they often expect spectacular acts familiar from marine parks, such as frequent breaching or tail-lobbing. In turn, the pressure to produce a predictable and spectacular wild is felt by tour operators, many of whom upgrade to faster boats to go farther to see whales, vie for best viewing position as they pursue whales, and reproduce the economy of predictability by providing whale sighting “guarantees.” Cetaceans, as star performers, also feel the pressure, with an increasing body of studies suggesting orcas and other cetaceans behave in ways that may reveal stress when boats are present.

Conversely, best practice tour companies may resist the performer metaphor. For instance, one North American company’s advertising material stated it does not offer guarantees because “only an amusement park can truly guarantee whale sightings.” And, in New Zealand, one tour company actively flips the performer metaphor: A pre-tour video prepares swimmers for being with wild dolphins in the open ocean by stating, “this encounter is more about you entertaining the dolphins than the other way around.” At the same time, tour guides in these Western settings on both sides of the globe often report they feel pressured to provide edutainment more than education. In response, some downplay or even leave out the more disheartening, implicating, or potentially activating information about human ecological involvement, which includes threats or endangerment to these wild animals and their ecosystems.

It remains to be seen whether changes in institutions such as SeaWorld or countries such as India or best practices by tour companies coincide with deeper, more systemic changes in ways we talk about, understand, and relate to animals and our shared ecologies. It is clear, however, that, as we reproduce the shallow Western binary notion of nature as performer and humans as audience, not only does the wild suffer, we humans do, too. We experience partial and skewed relations and miss out on opportunities to perceive and behave holistically.  

Of course, there are many alternative framings to the performer metaphor that reflect and reproduce more sustainable and restorative relations, such as interdependence, reciprocity, and respect. My children’s Tasmanian primary school, for example, features a mural on the outdoor sports courts with silhouettes of forest life and the words “Respect: For One and All.” The mural guides children toward how to perceive and be within the more-than-human world and with each other.

In my study, one North American whale watch guide highlighted differences between children and adults on tours, and their active enculturation in the performer metaphor. “The kids tend to not interpret, they just experience. The grownups are saying, ‘Isn’t it a great show,’ to the kids.” And it is often children who point to the metaphoric emperor-with-no-clothes and state the obvious, cutting through predominant cultural constructions and countering collective hypocrisy or denial. I heard such words from my clear-eyed eight-year-old son, who, upon hearing SeaWorld’s announcement, deftly redirected the performer metaphor by saying: “SeaWorld should make their new show releasing the orcas. Then everyone can see how they really act in the wild.”

And how cetaceans really act in the wild is telling—both about wild access and permeability within ostensibly “human” urban environments and about the matching necessity for metaphors that reinforce and regeneratively frame this integration. Recently, in Tasmania, a Southern Right Whale entered Hobart’s urban bay and gave birth. It likely was the first birth in this traditional calving bay since the mid-1800s, when European whalers wiped out whales who used to be so abundant that Hobart residents complained of being kept up at night by their singing. Now, hundreds of locals stood watching from the urban shore, celebrating the mother and calf and hoping their return also heralded success in efforts to regulate polluting industries and return area water health.

Tasmania, whose license plates alternately bear the slogans “Your Natural State” and “Explore the Possibilities,” provides a fertile place to reflect on such changes, tensions, and ways forward for relations with, in, and as the “natural.” In this predominantly Western cultural setting, wildlife continues to integrate and, in the case of whales, reintegrate with the urban. As my son and I pass the “Respect: For One and All” mural each school morning—dodging the occasional wallaby scat—this urban message intended for our progeny provides a basic and sound starting point. Unlike the performer metaphor, which reinforces a human-nature binary often to the detriment of one and all, respect provides a moral imperative first based on recognizing we, one and all, live here together.

*     *    *     *

Except where noted, all photographs are the author’s. For further reading, please explore the following articles:

Milstein, T. “’Somethin’ tells me it’s all happening at the zoo:’ Discourse, power, and conservationism.” Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 3, no. 1 (2009): 25-48.

Milstein, T. “Nature identification: The power of pointing and naming.” Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 5, no. 1 (2011): 3-24.

  • Tema Milstein

    Tema Milstein is an Associate Professor of Environment & Society at University of New South Wales. Her work tends to ways culture, society, and discourse inform–and are informed by–earthly relations.

Scroll to Top