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In Yann Martel's Life of Pi, why does Pi think zoos are important?

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It's not surprising that Pi should attach so much important to zoos. After all, they were an important part of his upbringing. Pi's father ran the Pondicherry Zoo, and Pi's upbringing there was a formative experience. He thought he was living in paradise, surrounded by all those wonderful, exotic animals. Pi ruefully reflects on the fact that zoos, like religion, have somewhat fallen out of favor in the modern world. He mounts a spirited defense of zoos, arguing that they provide animals with a greater degree of comfort and safety than they can ever enjoy out in the wild. Like religion, zoos provide a semblance of order to life, investing it with a much deeper significance. Contrast that with the harshness of the natural world, red in tooth and claw, where savagery and chaos reign unchecked.

Pi's apologia for zoos may be somewhat simplistic and overstated, but in his defense, one could say that his argument is a reflection of a very special time in his life, an idyllic childhood when it appeared that he really was living in paradise. Given what subsequently happens to Pi, we can forgive him for his somewhat idealized and romanticized portrait of zoos and their conditions.

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In Chapter Four of Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, the central character and narrator (and it is important to keep in mind that Martel’s switches or alternates narrators), Pi, offers an impassioned, reasoned defense of zoos, which he compares to religion in their tendency to be targeted for criticism by those who claim to know better what constitutes “freedom.”  Life of Pi is a very philosophical novel, and its discussion of the importance of zoos is rendered with great sincerity.  Pi’s main argument in defense of zoos involves a rejection of the notion that animals are somehow better off living “free” in the wild, when they are constantly threatened by predators and experience perturbations in food supply contingent upon environmental factors.  As Pi notes in this section of the book:

 “Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations.”

Zoos, on the other hand, provide stable supplies of food, good health care, and security from predators.  Interestingly, Pi further argues that animals, more so than man, are innately conservative or, as he suggests, “one might even say reactionary”: 

“The smallest changes can upset them. They want things to be just so, day after day, month after month. Surprises are highly disagreeable to them. You see this in their spatial relations. An animalinhabits its space, whether in a zoo or in the wild, in the same way chess pieces move about a chessboard-significantly. There is no more happenstance, no more "freedom", involved in the whereabouts of a lizard or a bear or a deer than in the location of a knight on a chessboard.”

“A good zoo is a place of carefully worked-out coincidence: exactly where an animal says to us, "Stay out!" with its urine or other secretion, we say to it, "Stay in!" with our barriers. Under such conditions of diplomatic peace, all animals are content and we can relax and have a look at each other.”

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Pi’s defense of zoos, Martel’s devotion of a considerable portion of this chapter to this subject suggests it is a position with which he agrees and for which he has given much thought.  All things being equal, Pi/Martel argues, animals, if they could, would choose to live in a zoo, with the room service, health care, and the security from predators they provide.  People are free to reject this rationalization, Pi suggests, just as they are free to reject religion, which he also holds near to his heart, but neither zoos nor religion are intrinsically evil and both serve valuable purposes.

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