The Zoo in Our Psyches: What Marius can Teach us About our Unconscious

The Copenhagen Zoo Debacle:

This week, the debacle about Copenhagen Zoo and the killing of the healthy giraffe Marius really got people’s passions riled. The bloodied image of a cute giraffe was hard to watch and I have to admit my own first reaction was to go and like the Facebook page for “Animal Activists against Copenhagen Zoo”…

The Other Side of the Story

A few days later, however, I watched a television interview with the Danish Zoo director who explained why the giraffe had been killed. He explained why killing the giraffe was necessary out of love for the species and how it was essentially no different than killing a cow or a chicken. Nature too is ruthless, he said, and the natural course in the wild would have been for the herd to fulfill the function of the zoo-keeper and for Marius to meet a similar faith. He went on to defend the dissection of the giraffe in front of children as an educational experience, for why shield children from reality? Feeding the giraffe to the lions was also spoken about in a matter of fact way, for how do you think lions survive in the wild?

Guilty as Charged!

The media, however, would hear nothing of it. In the most dramatic display of contrast to the zoo-director’s story, they displayed the gory details of the event as an act of unspeakable violence and moral depravity. They focused on Marius as a singular individual that we could all imagine keeping as a pet, and not as livestock or a member of a species. They also carefully picked out one child in the crowd who could not bear to watch the dissection and played the clip in slow-motion for dramatic effect. In subsequent interviews on Anderson Cooper 360, the zoo-keeper was invited to speak, but really only to ridicule his point of view after he went off the air. This was a trial where the Danish zoo-keeper was guilty and where the morally indignant needed no proof from the defense to arrive at a common sense conclusion.

A Confrontation with the Unconscious?

What struck me about this whole debacle was that the zoo-director’s truth could have no place in the American psyche. His viewpoints and actions spoke to a different kind of reality that was as real as it was raw. His was the reality that could not be considered without making us uncomfortable. And yet, when it came to talking about the need to feed lions animal meat, the natural ruthless herd behaviors in the wild, the educational value of not shielding children from experiencing reality, or the view of Marius as a member of a species rather than an individual with a name, did he not have a point?

In my opinion the drama of the Copenhagen Zoo and the strong reactions it elicited indicates that it tapped into an unconscious conflict and confronted us with something real that we would rather repress. Hence the strong moral reaction that could not even give room to consider the zoo-keeper’s perspective. The zoo-keeper reminded us of something we would rather not know, and our moral outrage shielded us from knowing that we would rather not know it.

Speaking an Unpopular Truth

And, yet at the end of the day, I could not but admire the courage of the Danish zookeeper to speak a truth in spite of death threats, moral outrage, and judgment without trial. In his insistence on confronting us with a different perspective, he forced us to confront something about life that has no room within our everyday self-understanding: The fact that we are killing animals every day to manage animal populations in the wild and to feed ourselves, the reality of seemingly unkind actions that are undertaken for the sake of a supposed greater good (such as going to war, executing people on death row, spying on other people and countries without permission, or even keeping animals in zoos in the first place). The Danish zoo-keeper forced us to look at ourselves a little deeper to confront a reality which we would rather have happen behind closed doors, and out of sight.

So What Does All this Have to Do with Therapy?

The Copenhagen Zoo debacle reenacted a psychological drama within every human being between Eros and Thanatos, or the forces that bind and bring together and the forces that separate and confront us with limits.

As a psychologist these kinds of uncomfortable truths are what my work is about. People do not come to therapy because they feel all the right feelings. If that were so, they would probably be quite at peace with themselves. No, they often come because they feel wrong for having their feelings or cannot accept certain impulses, thoughts, or wishes that are deemed morally depraved by themselves and by society at large.

A person who has just lost his father, may for example not feel grief, but may feel anger at his father or relief. However, because these feelings are not morally acceptable, he will develop guilt about them, and do his best to suppress them.

Hence, in her book about the psychoanalytic community in New York, Janet Malcolm talks with a psychoanalyst who says that he does not offer condolences to a client who has just lost an important person. Why? Because he does not want to assume that the client is sad, and does not want to suggest that there is one right response to a given event.

Psychology as a Pursuit of Truth

A good psychologist does not approach a client’s emotional life through the lens of commonly accepted truths or expectations, but seeks to provide an opportunity for the less acceptable truth to be spoken. A psychologist, in other words, wants to access rather than silence the metaphorical zoo-keeper from within. Similarly to the drama played out in the social media and in the news, this truth may initially be violently defended against, and might invoke the client’s discomfort or disgust.

My identification with the Danish zoo-keeper who speaks an unpopular version of the truth, is therefore not a justification for the killing of Marius, but an appeal to more closely examine every voice inside of us that is too distasteful to be heard, too violent to our preference for harmony, and too at odds with the prevalent moral consensus.

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, a psychologist and therapist in Houston, Texas. Click here to visit my website.