SAN DIEGO—In an effort to challenge traditionally held views about animals and their habitats, the San Diego Zoo announced this week the opening of a new conceptual wildlife exhibit that features the severed head of a rhinoceros affixed to a large, tempered-steel frame.
The deconstructed African white rhinoceros, affectionately referred to by zookeepers as The Process Of Unbeing, incorporates a taxidermied head and 2,000 pounds of forged steel repurposed from a cage once used to confine the creature. According to zoo officials, this installation is the centerpiece of a larger new exhibit called “Devolved,” which seeks to reduce animals to their elemental components and reconstitute them in all their fraught depth.
“Our goal is to dismantle all preconceived notions of wildlife,” San Diego Zoo president Douglas G. Myers said of the exhibit, which also includes five sea turtles suspended from a drainpipe that leaks a viscous brown fluid into an empty tank, a former gift shop filled to the ceiling with egret feathers, and a herd of water buffalo turned inside out. “By exploding such conventions, we can explore the existential catastrophes faced by man and beast alike as the world enters the post-democratic age.”
“Iron and fur are simply the medium,” Myers added.
For The Process Of Unbeing, conceptual zookeepers told reporters they took barbed wire that, until recently, had topped a fence at the San Diego Safari Park and reshaped it to suggest a hollowed-out rhinoceros rib cage. Officials said the dirty syringes scattered on the ground of the installation contain traces of etorphine and carfentanil, drugs once used to tranquilize the animal, and that a large feeding trough placed against the wall had been filled with ground rhino horn.
In what proved to be a busy opening day for the “Devolved” project, guests of all ages were seen flocking to what used to be the “Africa Rocks” exhibit, where all live animals have been replaced by a pyramid of 10 black-and-white televisions playing a looped video of a woman silently screaming at a giraffe. By early afternoon, the zoo confirmed patrons were waiting in line for up to 20 minutes just to get a glimpse of the trenchant commentary on mammalian stoicism.
“We really enjoyed the primate house,” said Chula Vista, CA native Kristen Cawley, who, along with her young niece, was visiting the zoo for the first time. “When you get inside, there’s nothing but mirrors all over the place, which is kind of cool because you’re forced to just look at your own reflection and marvel at the unremarkable taxonomy of the human species. It was a nice reminder that we are all animals, mere byproducts of a series of natural processes wholly indifferent to our existence.”
Transforming a traditional animal park into a postmodern critique of biology was no simple task, zoo officials said, revealing that it took workers more than three months to demolish the “Discovery Outpost” and replace it with the 20 acres of empty desert across which they have strewn the skeletal remains of a solitary blue whale. Meanwhile, the park’s petting zoo reportedly required $30 million of upgrades to render its former collection of domesticated animals as three-dimensional holograms.
Despite the project’s initial popularity, not everyone agreed the zoo’s reconceptualization of animal life had been worth the wait.
“I was hoping to see something here that truly confronted our received attitudes about zoology,” renowned biologist Desmond Fairchild said while studying a naked animal trainer lying motionless in an empty enclosure. “Any hack zoo can replace their rare bird collection with packages of frozen chicken and have a zookeeper throw food pellets at it. Truly remarkable installations go further. They ask more of their audience and give more in return.”
“It’s not something that can be accomplished by simply encasing a live chimpanzee and her baby in separate plexiglass cages that allow them to see each other but never touch,” he continued.
For his part, Myers said such detractors do not concern him, as he believes the concept of ambiguity is fundamental to the captive animal experience.
“We’ve held nothing back, and we certainly do not coddle our visitors,” said Myers, standing near a turnstile and gesturing toward the pit of venomous snakes and chrome ball bearings one must now step across to enter the zoo. “The whole point of ‘Devolved’ is that there is no answer—that nobody truly understands wildlife, a concept that is surely as meaningless today as the notion of God. What we offer is a brand-new and significantly more challenging zoological experience.”
Added Myers: “Except for the dolphin show. That’s still pretty much the same.”