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Environment and History

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Environment and History

'In Sight, Insane': Animal Agency, Captivity and the Frozen Wilderness in the Late-Twentieth Century

Andrew Flack

Environment and History 22 (2016): 629-652. doi: 10.3197/096734016X14727286515899

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In 1979 Bristol Zoo acquired a male polar bear named Misha. Although he was one in a long line of popular attractions, he behaved in ways that the public and, to a lesser degree, the zoological society increasingly judged to be disturbing. He endlessly paced back and forth in his enclosure, swaying his head repetitively from side to side. Following media attention from animal rights organisations and the media between 1985 and the early 1990s, Misha’s ‘psychotic’ appearance in a captive environment repeatedly evoked images of the prisons and asylums of the past, where surveillance, spectacle and suffering collided to alter the natures of the ‘beasts’ within. Apart from this, Misha’s unsettling behaviour also contributed to swelling concerns about the state of the natural world and the bear’s ‘wild’ kin in the advancing shadow of ozone depletion and the retreat of the continental ice shelf in the ecologically fragile frozen North. The combination of Misha’s evocative behaviour, and the conceptual links it forged with the world’s wild creatures and places changed the complexion of Bristol Zoo as a captive and increasingly conservation-minded environment. Furthermore, it not only contributed to transformations within institutions far beyond the walls of this singular captive space but also affected individual mentalities. Thus, this essay’s aims are two-fold: primarily, it considers the nature of the historical influence of animal life, centring on Misha as an individual animal of substantial influence. In so doing, it examines shifting and conflicting values with regard to a range of broader animal and environment-related issues in a world increasingly concerned by global warming and an astonishing decline in the Earth’s biodiversity.

KEYWORDS: Polar bears, captivity, climate change, agency

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