I, and likely many of my millennial peers, are disillusioned by zoos. Going to the zoo feels like setting an alarm in the morning to go to the local animal prison. Groundbreaking and revelatory documentaries like “Blackwater” have shed important light on the ways wildlife are mistreated in captivity, and although the documentary focused solely on Seaworld, there are elements of it that are reflected in other places, like local zoos. The lack of entertainment, the boredom and tiredness of captivity, the stale and repetitive food, the need to please an alien race. I pity them more than anything as I walk by, as they must be so confused by everything going on every day outside their cages. Just think how confused they must be by average human behavior. Just think how confused you might be by average human behavior.
Even if the animals are mostly treated well and taken care of, I would vastly prefer going to a nature preserve rather than a zoo. Seeing authentic nature, as found on a hike or trek, just appeals to me more than a performative recreation of nature. This is all not to discredit or devalue zoos as an institution for others to enjoy; I just wanted to share my personal preferences so as to introduce a new blog topic.
A more idealistic and humanitarian utopia of animal and human interaction can be found in “Animal Crossing,” a video game series developed and published by Nintendo, appearing on all of their most recent video game consoles. Although the games have certain elements exclusive to each entry, the core formula has stayed the same: enter a new town, befriend the local animal population, curry their favor through gifts and conversation, and take part in local events and festivals such as fishing and bug-catching tournaments, holiday celebrations, and museum viewings. The animals interact just like humans, adopting unique personalities to their speech that shape their decorative and gift preferences. They also have their own houses where all their favorite, hand-selected items and furniture exist. You can find these animals wandering around the town, and sometimes they have optional requests for you to fulfill or random musings they want to share with you. Very rarely do events take place that originate from outside the town; there are no competing cultural influences, just one culture of all animals coexisting with each other. Essentially, Nintendo has gameified having neighbors and a steady, local collective.
What you might notice about this description is how sophisticated Nintendo treats the idea of animal-human community, not as a zoo with humans in complete authority, but as a coexisting world in which regular social norms apply. It is treated as a completely normal and usual thing. In the games, no one ever comments directly on the differences between species, there is no predator versus prey dichotomy, survival of the fittest does not exist, and when animals misbehave or act out, it is in a way that feels more human than anything else. The fact that animals do not need to acknowledge their differences in order to stay alive, like in movies like “Zootopia,” but instead focus silently on being consistently cordial and polite to each other, showcases deep social maturity. It is a benchmark of society’s potential for us, even if that sounds silly.
It also helps that the game moves at a slow, steady, go-with-the-flow pace, incentivizing consistent visits to your town but not without sincere cheer waiting for you when you arrive. Weeds grow on the soil and animals miss your regular visits to their houses, but there are no major consequences for taking it easy in this game. Sometimes an anxious mind needs reassurance that the world can be just as quiet, kind, and thoughtful as needed, and “Animal Crossing” specializes in providing that.