The history of São Paulo’s zoo

Translated excerpts of the Introduction and Final Considerations of the thesis:  Rastros: a constituição do zoológico de São Paulo na imprensa paulistana [Trails: the constitution of São Paulo zoo in the city press], written in 2015 by Luísa Pessoa  (luisa @ for the Social Anthropology Master’s Degree  at University of Campinas (Brazil).



In 1961, the Brazilian press announced, with fanfare, the transaction that would allow São Paulo zoo to have its first giraffe.

Chuka, a one-and-a-half year old giraffe that lived at the Gelsenkirchen zoo in West Germany, would come to Brazil in exchange for ten jaguars. The subject created a controversy at the local press, in articles permeated with indignation and irony: it was not fair that the jaguar, a so iconic Brazilian animal, had so little value in the international market. This should be seen not just as an exchange between zoos, it was argued. The national pride was also at risk, the pride of “the jaguar’s friends”(1),  (Delmiro Gonçalvez, O Estado de S.Paulo, June 23, 1961 and M.L., O Estado de S. Paulo, June 22, 1961). But exoticism, after all, prevailed and, despite criticism, the transaction was carried out.

After 23 days of travel, Chuka arrived at São Paulo and was placed in an area of ​​400 square meters (O Estado de S. Paulo, June 25, 1961). The giraffe was famous for a few months and in 1963 became the cover story of the children’s supplement that the national and well-known newspaper Folha de S.Paulo  had just released (Folha de S.Paulo, Sept. 8, 1963).

With time, Chuka disappeared from the newspaper pages. In 1968, when she died, her name was not even mentioned: the press would only refer to the loss of the only giraffe of São Paulo zoo in a brief note about the closure of the park on an election day (O Estado de São Paulo, Nov. 15, 1968).

Months later, the death of the already nameless giraffe would be remembered as a “rude blow” (O Estado de S. Paulo, February 23, 1969), financial and administrative, to the zoo. The cause of the death was attributed to a fibrinous pericarditis, a heart disease. However, the newspaper did not waste time on this subject, since the article was not about the giraffe, but how the zoo could foster researches about natural history. After all, the board of the institution was already “actively working” to expose, in the place of Chuka, a couple of giraffes who would come from Belgium (O Estado de São Paulo, Feb 23, 1969).

Chuka’s trajectory is not an isolated one. On the contrary, it is an example of the historical vicissitudes of the constitution of São Paulo zoo, which today has over 3,000 specimens and is one of the only Brazilian institutions, along with the Aquário de São Paulo (also located in São Paulo) and the Parque das Aves (Foz do Iguaçu), to be affiliated to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). This thesis offers an analysis of the debates in São Paulo press that, in 1958, finally resulted on the establishment of Fundação Parque Zoológico de São Paulo (FPZSP).

I intend to demonstrate that representations of animality and exoticism that appeared on the press made reference to a political debate concerning a civilization  project. In this context, this thesis deals with the symbolic value of the category “wild animal” (which is articulated with conceptions of “the nation”), as well as the category “exotic animal” (conceived as an index of a desired equivalence of São Paulo with other international capitals).

Chuka’s fragmentary and lacunar trajectory is also an example of the veiling and oblivion devices that operate in zoo confinement. Although the animal incarceration is common in several forms of capitalist enterprises, as in breeding farms, laboratories and abattoirs, the zoo represents a unique type. That is, it presents itself as a scientific initiative that aims the education of the urban citizen, offering a glimpse of the exotic nature that, by other means, would be inaccessible. More than that, today it also claims the role of preserving the threatened fauna.

In this thesis, I try to deconstruct the symbolic process that physically approaches  and socially moves away zoo animals, making them non-individuals and only examples of a species – thus easily replaceable. Under the scientific discourse, the “being-able-to-see” dilemma, discussed by Jacques Derrida, is emphasized: in the zoo, seeing is the fundamental practice and the animal’s response doesn’t matter beyond the spectacle.

Understanding these processes of concealment, oblivion and animal deindividuation is also the intention of this thesis.




In the first chapter, I recover a historical line, until now unknown, of the initiatives and debates for the creation of a public zoo in São Paulo, emphasizing the reasons and justifications presented over the years in defense of this institution, which only became reality in 1958, with Fundação Parque Zoológico de São Paulo  (FPZSP). As will become clear, the existence of a zoo has been repeatedly understood as an indicator of “modernity” and “civility” of the urban space. As such, it became essential to São Paulo to be able to claim a “civilized” status and to equate itself with other major world capitals.

In the second chapter, I analyzed the representations made in the press of zoo animals as well as the variations of public sensitivity towards captivity. It was possible to note that the understanding of animals as creatures capable of agency, that is, intentionalities, feelings and actions, did not necessarily imply a condemnation of zoological gardens. Still, over the decades, the discourse that captivity depreciates and saddens animals gained momentum and entered in constant tension with another, backed by “scientific authorities,” that such criticisms were nothing more than an ignorant anthropomorphism.

Finally, in the third chapter, this discussion was brought to the present, with a brief presentation about the current functioning of FPZSP. Both the behavior of the public and some of the captive animals were analyzed. Also, as far as possible, part of the trajectory of some of FPZSP animals was recovered. The controversy involving the death of more than a hundred of animals, between 2004 and 2005, was also addressed.




I hope to have shown that the justification presented at the end of the nineteenth century for the existence of a zoo, that is, that this institution provides amusement and education, still endures. To that, it was added in the middle of the twentieth century the idea that the zoo also plays a role for the conservation of wildlife.

Even today, the FPZSP presents itself as capable of educating its public through recreation, with the premise that “looking at animals” is a mean to reach knowledge.

The correlation between the seeing/gazing (“voir”) and the production of knowledge was the theme of one of Jacques Derrida’s seminars at the Collège de France, when he analyzed the dissection ceremony of an elephant from the Versailles ménagerie in 1681 to Louis XIV. Derrida argues that, at the bottom of the episode, it was being expressed a logic that directly associates the possibility of knowledge with the act of dissection – a word whose original sense is the experience of seeing / inspecting with its own eyes, but which, over the years, has acquired two other meanings: first, of sharing and establishing exchanges with divine power; second, of necropsy.

The dissection of an animal would thus be the most evident expression of a knowledge that comes from domination, since this knowing implies total control over the body of the other, transformed into a literally exposed object – alive or dead. More than that, the dissection scene can reveal the intimate connection between power, seeing, willing and having:

The order of knowledge is never a stranger to that of power, and that of power [pouvoir] to that of seeing [voir], willing [vouloir], and having [avoir]. (…) the scene of knowledge, and especially of knowledge in the form of the objectivity of the ob-ject, of the knowledge that has what it knows or wants to knows or wants to know as its disposal in the form of an object disposed before it -[that this scene of autopsic/autoptic knowledge] supposes that one disposes, that one poses before oneself, and that one has taken power over the object of knowledge (…) Knowledge is sovereign; it is of its essence to want to be free and all-powerful, to be sure of power and to have it, to have possession and mastery of its object (Derrida, 2009:279-280)

Subscribing to Derrida’s reasoning, I suggest that the zoo crystallizes such equation, since its functioning implies the continuously display of a sovereign control over animal bodies, a feature that, spatially, is also expressed through architecture.

The dissection of animals – the laboratory aspect of the zoo – would be the unfolding of this same principle. Not by chance that the two-year-old giraffe Marius was dissected for Copenhagen zoo visitors in February 2014, after having his genetic characteristics considered undesirable for the breeding circuit of European zoos. It is important to remember the interest of the public in this spectacle and the zoo’s choice to not display the moment when the giraffe was killed – with a shot of a bolt gun on his head, after receiving his favorite food: rye bread.

In fact, the equation between power and knowledge, as Derrida (2009) stated, and Foucault (2013) before him, was already inscribed in the architecture of Versailles ménagerie.

When the royal collection was transformed into people’s property with the French Revolution, according to Derrida (2009: 296-297), there was a simple transfer of sovereignty: the domination model was not affected. And it was precisely Versailles ménagerie in the Republican period, made Ménagerie of the National Museum of Natural History, which served as a model for the most important zoos organized throughout the nineteenth century: at London (United Kingdom, 1829), Amsterdam (Holland, 1838), Berlin (Germany, 1844) and Antwerp (Belgium, 1848). In São Paulo’s case, as we have seen, the sovereign control over animal bodies at the zoo made a distinction between national and exotic fauna and instigated a debate about nationality and civilization.

As Keith Thomas (2010) has pointed out, the exploitation of animal bodies has become possible in modernity thanks to removal and concealment operations that transform animals into merchandise. This process was historically more evident in the case of slaughterhouses (Dias, 2009) and animal testing laboratories. Despite having a veiled side, however, promoting visibility to the outside public is at the core of the zoos, unlike slaughterhouses and laboratories. Such dilemma, as we have seen, was addressed by the German entrepreneur and animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck at the beginning of 20th century, when he proposed that zoo animals need not to feel free, but that it was essential to give to zoo visitors the illusion of authenticity, that is, of animal freedom and close contact with wild nature.

The solution for this dilemma was an architectural and landscape one, with enclosures that mimicked nature and masked the captivity with the use of acrylic barriers or pits instead of grids. In this way, mainly after the so-called Hagenbeck revolution, zoos began to build enclosures whose panoptic control was disguised. After all, without this, the product promised by these institutions, the contact with “nature”, would be lost.

Nonetheless, we can argue that even though the zoo architecture can efficiently simulate the idea of ​​”nature”, it does not control the behavior of animals and their responses to captivity. In other words, the grandiosity of the scenario is impaired if the protagonists of the spectacle demonstrate, in their own bodies, the consequences of domination: repetitive and stereotyped behavior, alienation or the useless attempt to hide.

Although the public’s perception of animal boredom and suffering in zoos is currently dismissed by the scientific discourse as a nuisance and ignorant anthropomorphism, it is a fact that a lot of zoos today use techniques of environmental enrichment, whose theoretical premise is the recognition, for the consequent minimization, of the damages caused by captivity (Coutinho, 2012; Hediger, 1953).

Let us, however, get back to the dilemma between exposure and concealment at zoos.

On the veiled side of the zoo, one finds the trajectory of the animal: its origin, its destiny, birth and death. As we have also seen, the press and the general public are usually only interested with the animal en scène: generic, not-individuated and replaceable – an attitude, therefore, which allows part of this veiling. Outside the mise-en-scène, in backroom and closed spaces, sovereign control – as Derrida presented, updating the power-knowledge equation – passes from the visitors to the technical-scientific discourse. It is a field, therefore, structurally marked by great institutional opacity.

One example of that, as reported by the Brazilian magazine Piauí (July 2015), was the case of the Spix’s macaw Presley. In this occasion, the FPZSP prevented the parrot specialist Mickey Muck to visit the bird, although Muck had participated in the effort to recover and repatriate the animal from USA to Brazil in 2002. Later, coincidentally in the same period of unsolved animal deaths in the institution, FPZSP lost the custody of Presley and other specimens.

Another example was the refusal of FPZSP to disclosure to this research the number of animal deaths that happened on the zoo, as well of their causes, on the last 5 years [2009-2014], under the justification that this data was confidential because of scientific partnerships developed with public and private institutions.

This thesis, within its limits, sought to expose the relations and actors involving FPZSP. I hope to have paved the way for further investigations about Brazilian zoos, showing the importance to track back animals’ past so they can have new future  possibilities.


(1) “Jaguar’s friend” is an old Brazilian expression that designates a bad friend. It comes from this famous anecdote:

Two hunters talk at their camp:

– What would you do if you were at the jungle and a jaguar appeared in front of you?

– Well, I would shot it.

– But what if you had no gun?

– Well, then I’d kill it with my machete.

– What if you were without the machete?

– I would get a club?

– What if you had no club?

– I’d climb the nearest tree!

– What if there were no trees?

– I would run!

– What if you were paralyzed by fear?

Then the other, already irritated, says:

– But are you my friend or the jaguar’s friend, after all?