Worlds in a Bottle: Zoos, Rainforest
The Lied Jungle
3. Story Line as Ideology
by Ken Sanes
Having examined the material simulations that make up a
rainforest exhibit, we
will now, like visitors at Cleveland's RainForest, ascend the spiral staircase inside the
artificial kapok tree and progress to the next level, examining the larger meanings or
stories that artificial rainforests try to convey. Once again, if you believe the public
relations for these exhibits, all this simulation is used to tell a story about nature,
which faithfully portrays its subject.
But that claim also doesn't hold up under close inspection. First, there is the fact
that, in order to come up with something interesting, the creators have to condense and
exaggerate the most impressive features of rainforests, which is why the exhibits include
the same towering rock formations, and giant buttress trees and waterfalls, displayed in
ways that allow for safe and easy viewing.
In effect, these exhibits are an example of what the Italian writer and culture critic,
Umberto Eco, has referred to as the realm of "hyperreality" or "absolute
fakes": they are imitations that are intended to be better than the originals. To the
degree that visitors think of them as accurate representations, they will come away with
an image of a rainforest as a place crowded with large animals, where one can get good
vistas of peaceful surroundings full of impressive landscapes and gigantic trees.
In these characteristics, artificial
rainforests are a lot like the re-created places
from other nations that one can find in theme parks, such as Epcot's World Showcase,
featuring a (more or less) Mayan temple, German castle and Japanese pagoda, which, Disney
brags, have "authentic architecture." Like the World Showcase, zoos and
rainforest exhibits give visitors a condensed version of world travel in which they can see
the most interesting features of natural places.
According to Jack Cover, curator of the South American Rainforest at the National
Aquarium in Baltimore, Americans are often disappointed when they first see genuine
rainforests precisely because they expect something similar to the unrealistic portrayals that
they have seen in zoos and nature documentaries. Instead, they find themselves in places
that are often inaccessible and full of navigational hazards, that typically require an
investment of time and energy in which one might go for long periods without seeing large
Another source of distortion can be found in the fact that
rainforest exhibits create
a sense of excitement in visitors through the way they deal with space and perspective.
The Lied Jungle, for example, doesn't merely display a rainforest; it takes visitors on a
kind of walking roller coaster ride in which they gaze down at impressive panoramas of the
jungle from various vantage points; travel through caves; and experience what it is like
to be immersed in the jungle, looking up at its towering features.
Of course, we can't very well criticize
rainforest exhibits for these characteristics.
We wouldn't expect them to create displays full of obstructed views and monotonous
landscapes, in the service of realism.
But an increasing number of exhibits portray something that is unlike nature in another
sense: under constant pressure to be entertaining, they are incorporating themed
environments based on fantasy that have little to do with the natural world. In essence,
these attractions, even though they are the handiwork of nonprofit institutions, find
themselves in the same circumstances as television and theme parks: they have to attract
an audience that will help keep the enterprise afloat financially and justify its
existence. And, like television and theme parks, they are trying to win that audience with
ever more spectacular displays and excursions into fantasy. The result is the growing
numbers of those simulated ruins, suspension bridges, vines that hang over pathways and
other popular fantasy elements commonly found in television and movies, which are,
supposedly, the sugar that coats the pill of educational value.
Indeed it can be argued that the decision to display
rainforests is, itself, primarily
motivated by a desire to entertain the public and draw large numbers of visitors.
rainforests, after all, are the most visually complex of all large natural environments
(except for aquariums, which will be described later). And many people have connotations
to them as places of mystery, which can be traced back, at least, to colonial fantasies in
which Africa, for example, appears as the "dark continent," a place of secrets
that resists the encroachments of civilization.
Those fantasies found expression in dozens of movies about Tarzan and, more recently,
about Indiana Jones, that often portray safaris in search of lost cities and treasures in
the jungle. Those movies, in turn, have shaped our view of rainforests. Now, many zoos
are creating rainforest exhibits modeled after the movies.
What we are seeing, then, is a second order simulation that is both a re-creation of a
rainforest and of the fictionalized images we have of rainforests. Indeed, if one were
so inclined, one could match movies and rainforest exhibits, fake ruin for fake ruin,
suspension bridge for suspension bridge, vine for vine, and discover striking
Another indication of the central place of fantasy and entertainment can be seen in the
fact that the Larson Company, which is the most important designer and fabricator of
imitation naturescapes, frequently describes these exhibits as containing story lines and
"adventures," which is the way Disney describes its own attractions. Larson's
concept report for a rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science says: "The
visitors will follow a sequence of adventures as the mysteries of this unusual place
Its concept report for the Cleveland RainForst refers to the "exhibit story
line" and describes the display of the destruction of the rainforest, referred to
earlier, in terms right out of Disney: "The imminent destruction of the rainforest
becomes a reality to visitors through a 'time-travel' machine which shows the current
destruction of the rainforest and how it will look several years into the future, if this
When I first read those references, I thought they were industry PR, designed to
impress the clients by making the product sound as exciting as possible. But in
interviewing a Larson executive, he too repeatedly referred to the "story line"
of the exhibits. So, despite all the educational wrapping and references to realism, the
Larson Company conceives of these places in the same way Disney conceives of attractions
such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion: as environments full of sensory
simulations that tell stories, in which fantasy is a dominant element.
In terms of the traditional categories of storytelling, these places are still mostly
setting, of course, presenting audiences with ideal landscapes and romanticized visions,
which inevitably symbolize the eternal feminine, giving us some variation on Mother
Nature's mystery and bounty. They portray the rainforest as both an untamed wilderness
full of secrets and a garden paradise, in which invisible barriers create the illusion
that the predator is lying down with its prey.
But zoos and rainforest exhibits are increasingly adding characters and plots, as well
as creating Disney-style participatory "adventures" that draw the visitor into
the story. A rainforest exhibit called Amazonia at the National Zoological Park in
Washington D.C., for example, has invented a fictitious naturalist named Dr. Brasil,
allowing visitors to see a mock-up of his office and displaying information signs in the
exhibit that look like open field books of his notes. Similarly, Zoo Atlanta (although not
in a rainforest exhibit) routinely puts on a show in which a costumed actor, playing a
game warden, pretends to arrest a poacher. Visitors are invited to act as jury and listen
to each side justify its actions.
The effort to draw visitors into a story may have gone farthest at the Lied Jungle
where we have seen how visitors go on a kind of manufactured safari, pushing away those
hanging vines and crossing that swaying suspension bridge, which looks like it is
connected only to a rock at one end and a decaying tree stump on another. Perhaps the
climax of the story is the journey up to the fabricated ledge at "Danger Point,"
where visitors can look out at the artificial rainforest.
Compare all of this to the Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland in which visitors walk
through what looks like an underground maze, and then go on a ride where they encounter
walls of skulls and get stuck on a bridge over bubbling lava. The Indiana Jones Adventure
is advertised as a form of entertainment, while the Lied Jungle is supposed to be, as the
director of the zoo puts it, "a giant classroom." But both look, equally, like
At first glance, it would seem that all this fantasy and entertainment would undercut
the messages of environmental destruction that frame these attractions. After all, if what
is being portrayed isn't a rainforest in danger of being destroyed, but merely the zoo's
playful rendering of Never-Never Land, then the message would seem a little pointless.
But those messages of ecological collapse are, themselves, a part of the story, giving
it an essential element: a plot with a compelling danger and a sense of urgency. They turn
a static nature display into an absorbing story of a kind that has become popular in much
of the culture, about innocent nature, forming ideal and harmonious ecosystems, that is
being destroyed by the evil intruder, humanity. Visitors are invited to play the heroes of
the story and help save nature, by becoming involved in environmental issues and by
donating money, dropping their spare change into converted parking meters that can be
found in some rainforest exhibits.
What we see in places like the Lied Jungle, than, is a form of political theater rather
than "a giant classroom." It represents the blending of two story lines, that of
going on safari and of saving nature. In essence, it turns visitors into ecotourists on an
educational trip through the jungle. Visitors go inside a Tarzan set; walk on a platform
as if they are in a treehouse; push away vines as if they are forcing their way into the
jungle; see a variation on Cheetah swinging through the trees; get a socially relevant
message in which they learn valuable lessons about nature and the dangers facing the
rainforest; and are invited to help solve the problem, so they can feel as if they have been
involved in a kind of social activism.
In these characteristics, the Lied Jungle still hasn't strayed so far from Disney,
which many accuse of being the ultimate form of political theater, for corporate America.
As has been noted before, Disney idealizes America and progress. The Lied Jungle idealizes
the rainforest. Both provide a distorted view of their subject.
As one might well predict, Disney is now keeping up with the times and adopting the
story line found in rainforest exhibits. In the Disney movie, Pocahontas, for example,
(and, perhaps in a zoo that is planned for Disney World), it provides a depiction of
innocent nature threatened by a rapacious humanity.
One can also see this same environmental plot line in other products of the
entertainment industry. The virtual reality attraction, the Loch Ness Expedition, in the
Foxwoods Resort Casino, in Connecticut, for example, has three small theaters decked out
like a miniature submarines, that can hold six audience members each. Through the magic of
3D images (seen with 3D glasses) on a screen that is supposedly a window into Loch Ness,
they act as the crew and try to save the eggs of the benevolent monster from malevolent
poachers, so the species won't become extinct.
Here, the natural environment that is portrayed consists of computer images pretending
to be a three-dimensional environment rather than a fabricated landscape. And the species
being saved may or may not exist, and certainly doesn't exist in the form in which it is
portrayed. There is nothing vaguely like nature, here, but the ecological story line is
the same as those found in places like the Lied Jungle, allowing the audience to enjoy the
same sense of adventure and social activism. The technique -- immersion in a simulated
environment -- is similar, as well.
It is clear that what we see in attractions such as the Loch Ness Expedition and the Lied Jungle are
characteristics commonly associated with traditional romance stories, such as those found
in fairy tales and myths, in which heroes are portrayed as going on journeys to fantastic
places on a quest and encountering various wonders and dangers along the way. But in these
attractions, advanced forms of art and technology have been used to turn the audience into
This kind of romance story is now an essential feature of popular culture,
characterizing most of the science fiction and adventures produced by the entertainment
industry. With increasing frequency, it tells us what may be the myth of the age,
in which we save some element of the world from humanity's evil plans.
When we look at another natural environment that nonprofit institutions have decided to
simulate with enormous displays, namely aquariums, we see many of these same
characteristics. Aquariums have a different history than zoos. Because they take up less
space and exert a great fascination for many people, they have frequently appeared in
urban settings as tourist draws. But they are, in essence, aquatic zoos and have many of
the same visual elements.
Like zoos, aquariums offer visitors an opportunity to transcend the limits of everyday
life by going to exotic places full of mystery, a prospect they frequently play up in
advertising. And, like zoos, they take visitors on a kind of walking roller coaster ride
through a visually rich environment full of shapes and colors.
In place of all those smaller displays of animals that make up the larger part of most
zoos, aquariums offer a series of tanks along internal walkways. And in place of the giant
rainforest exhibit, they offer a central tank with massive artificial coral reefs,
patrolled by the great crowd pleaser of television and movies, and the villain in most
aquarium dramas: the shark.
Aquariums are also similar to rainforest exhibits in another way: their central tanks
are now being turned into immersive environments with transparent walk-through tubes that
cross the bottom. As in rainforest exhibits, these go as far as they can to create the
illusion that visitors are inside the natural environment being displayed, while keeping
them safely outside it.
Just as one would predict, as zoos look for new and ever-more spectacular environments
to simulate, they are being drawn to aquariums. The Lied Jungle, for example, having
created the ultimate fantasy rainforest, has opened a giant aquarium with a walk-through
zigzagging tube that, it claims, gives visitors "the sensation of walking on an ocean
bottom." In essence, then, zoos and aquariums have the same characteristics although
many aquariums don't have a political message or explicit narrative.
When we look at another educational institution -- science museums -- we, once again,
see many of these same characteristics. Like zoos, science museums have to compete with
television, movies and theme parks. As a result, they have abandoned many of their static
displays in favor of fantasy environments, games, giant Imax theaters, interactive
exhibits -- anything that moves and can hold the attention of the television generation.
Some are also creating their own participatory attractions that turn visitors into a
character in a story. An exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, for
example, invites visitors to play Columbo and solve a fictitious crime. Visitors come upon
a simulated murder scene, with a manikin for a corpse, in a setting that is a re-creation
of a diner and an alley. Their task is to look for clues and use techniques of
crime-solving to figure out both what happened and who the perpetrator is. According to
the museum, the exhibit "allows visitors to use their powers of observation to solve
a crime, while exploring scientific principles, methods, and technologies employed by
Even more than in the rainforests, everything about the exhibit exudes movies and
television, starting with the exhibit name: "Whodunit? The Science of Solving
Crime." Not surprisingly, the first line of the museum press release begins with
references to well-known mystery stories: "From Sherlock Holmes to Nancy Drew and the
Hardy Boys to Columbo, the chance to solve a crime has stirred the imagination of children
and adults for generations."
Like the Lied Jungle, "Whodunit?" is a form of entertainment: a Disneylike
participatory adventure that is labeled as a learning experience. The entertainment is,
once again, supposed to be the sugar coating for the pill of education. But it looks
mostly like a sugar pill.
None of this means these institutions lack value or are corrupted beyond redemption, of
course. Good aquariums and zoos provide fascinating sights, and a visual and sensory
education about the world and its elements. And zoos certainly have a role in educating
the public about environmental destruction. Similarly, children may learn something from
exhibits such as "Whodunit?" or from digging for dinosaur bones, which is
another participatory exhibit offered by the same museum.
But these exhibits of artificial nature reveal a good deal about the strengths and
limitations of simulation culture, which, here, can be seen transforming the field of
education. Like much else we will examine, they offer visitors a taste of freedom from the
constraints of life, in the form of magnificent visual displays and instant travel to
inaccessible places; they create images modeled after what is real and imaginary; they
simplify and exaggerate; they draw visitors into stories and, increasingly, they turn
education into an entertainment product that is sold to the public.
They also do something else, which could turn out to be very insidious: they present
visitors with an ambiguous object of perception that blurs the boundary between simulation
and "reality." They do so by creating a physical environment that is both
authentic and unreal at the same time, with imitations that look genuine; with efforts to
monitor and control nature that turn it into something artificial, and with the seamless
interweaving of nature and fabrications. They bring about this same blurring of the
boundary at the level of narrative, in the way they weave together fact and fiction,
giving us stories about rainforests that are like ecologically correct jungle movies and
a story about the science of crime detection that is more like Columbo. In effect, it
isn't only the images of movies and TV that have escaped into everyday life but the
narratives, as well, as we become a society whose primary vision seems to be television.
There may be no easy way that zoos can extricate themselves from some of these
contradictions, at least not if they want to compete for the audiences that keep them in
business. But at least it would make sense for them to reveal to visitors the degree to
which they use artifice and technology -- and elements of fantasy -- to create their
displays. That means visitors would be given the same information revealing the techniques
of simulation that I, as a writer, was able to get, so they will understand how these
places produce their effects. There is also a danger in this, of course: like Disney, zoos
could end up turning the fabrication of the exhibit into a part of the show, in a way that
simplifies, exaggerates and idealizes it, to the point where it becomes just another form
Nevertheless, letting visitors in on these techniques would move zoos away from a model
in which they manipulate the public and more toward genuinely educating the public, not
only about nature but about the new role of simulation in contemporary life. Stage
magicians may not want to reveal their trade secrets but there isn't any reason zoos
should follow the same imperative.
Such a tour would be instructive for another reason: artificial nature is starting to
change our everyday surroundings. There are already innumerable examples of this process
at work. The Larson Company, for example, now produces cellular telephone polls disguised
as trees, and utility boxes disguised as rock outcroppings, which are intended to protect
neighborhoods and developments from "visual pollution." According to a
spokesperson for Larson, there are now some 25 to 30 of the company's faux trees around
the United States.
A prototype, sitting on Larson's property, has a bird that has chosen it as a nest
site, the spokesperson adds. Like us, it either doesn't know or doesn't care that it is
nesting in unreality.
Another example of the way simulations of nature are appearing in everyday life can be
found in pet stores. If you go into many pet stores and examine the aquarium supplies and
habitats for reptiles and amphibians, you will see the components of JungleWorld all over
again, in miniature. A random trip to a pet store revealed a complete selection of plastic
plants, fake ledges, bridges, tiny Grecian urns and more imitation ruins, allowing
consumers to have their own exotic world inside their homes. Similarly, the heated basking
rocks that can be found in zoos, which are placed near viewing areas so animals will sit
where visitors can see them, can also be found in pet stories, in miniature, so your pet
lizard can bask on his own, toasty, fabricated rock in your home imitation naturescape, in
A Rhode Island company even manufactures synthetic river environments that convert an
empty fish tank into a miniature Lied Jungle, with land areas made of pressed plastic and
a river system that includes a waterfall and one or more rapids. It can be stocked with
small plants, reptiles and amphibians, along with fish that can be seen swimming up the
Finn Strong, who owns the company, says he may one day create a larger version of these
environments in airports and hotels. So, here too, variations on the Lied Jungle might be
popping up in our everyday surroundings.
But one has to wonder where all these developments will lead us. The artificial trees,
which are fascinating works of fabrication in zoo exhibits, seem to be a disturbing
presence when they are "planted' in public spaces. The vision of Roger Vick, curator
of the Deonian Botanic Garden in Alberta, who believes our yards and parks will one day be
covered with artificial landscapes -- "decorscapes" -- with imitation buds
programmed to open at certain times, is no pleasure to contemplate, except in science
At the same time, it has to be said that the ability to create enclosed public parks,
with genuine plants and trees and, perhaps, some artificial rockwork, would seem to offer
an advance for many places where inclement weather keeps people shut inside. A rare
example is Edinborough Park, in the City of Edina in suburban Minneapolis/St. Paul, which
encloses a large park with genuine trees and plantings under a glass roof, with pathways,
benches and park lights designed to look like street lamps.
Unfortunately, right now, our society is very good at creating artificial nature in
zoos and theme parks. We are also very good at setting up and tending to genuine nature in
outdoor parks. The idea of creating indoor parks with genuine nature doesn't seem to have
But theses issues aren't only important because artificial nature is beginning to play
a larger role in our surroundings. As alluded to earlier, they are also significant
because they are an example of a larger change that is taking place in many places, in
which simulation is being used to re-create not only our surroundings but our culture.
Most elements of popular culture, including theme parks, malls, movies, television, video
games, news, politics and advertising, are a variation on the Lied Jungle: they are
complex simulations that give invented places and people and situations an objective form
in a way that lets us play out our fears and desires. As we will see, all use some
variation on fabricated environments, animatronic figures, theatrical performances, rides
and electronic images.
All are made possible by what some on the left refer to as instrumental reason in the
form of means-ends analysis, market research, planning, and science and technology,
especially computers. They have brought these elements into a remarkable new synthesis
with the arts, including sculpture, painting, architecture, theater, fiction, even
gardening. As a result, they are able to create something that is realistic, unreal, and
seemingly better than real at the same time, which is sold to the public or used to sell
Behind this society of simulation, we find new industries of culture fabricators --
"imagineers," if we want to use Disney's sanitized term for it -- who specialize
in adapting images from all possible sources and giving these images a lifelike form.
Since they are, sooner or later, called on to create an image of almost everything, from
sincere politicians to alien landscapes, they are learning how to imitate almost
The Larson Company is a good example of what we find in these industries: it designs
and constructs both realistic environments and environments of fantasy, and it works for
educational institutions as well as entertainment companies. As in many simulation-based
companies, Merv Larson, the company founder and a pioneer in the creation of artificial
nature, was originally inspired by the landscapes of Disneyland. Not surprisingly, Larson
also does work for Disney.
The question is, what kind of values will shape this new age of simulation? More
specifically, as we develop the ability to control and re-create nature, will we try to
construct gardens or Never-Never Lands? Will we choose to enhance life or replace it? Will
we build an environment full of synthetic adventures or, unlikely as this may sound, one
that is conducive to peace of mind? So far, it seems that a set of values derived from the
entertainment industry has the upper hand.
- - - - - -
You can go back to
or to an essay on
Disney's Animal Kingdom
There's also more on simulation at:
Age of Simulation
© 1996-2011 Ken Sanes
*Note: Roger Vick, "Artificial Nature; The Synthetic Landscape of the
Future," The Futurist, July/August, 1989.