Based on James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge’s novel of the same name, CBS’s Zoo is my guilty pleasure of the summer. It’s a TV series firmly in the eco-horror / revenge of nature sub-genre, and its many flaws haven’t yet dispelled its power. Zoo has many of the flaws of network TV shows—some badly-written dialogue, an overly melodramatic plot, too frenetic a pace—but it’s really quite engaging, more so than other series I began hopefully after reading the novel (i.e., Under the Dome, The Strain, The Last Ship), only to abandon them after a few painful episodes.
Zoo tells the story of animals—lions in Botswana and LA, wolves in Mississippi, dogs in Slovenia, bats in Rio de Janeiro—who inexplicably abandon their habitual behavior and band together to attack the heretofore dominant species. And they aren’t killing for food or to protect themselves. Groups of animals across the globe engage in what can only be called premeditated and purposeful acts of murder. An eclectic group of “experts” is drawn together to figure out what’s happening—and why. The five main characters are likeable and the actors do a surprisingly good job given the sometimes cringe-worthy places the plot takes them.
The main flaw of the series, in fact, lies with the plot—and I’m utterly mystified by the fact that the show is diverging quite dramatically from the novel. To avoid possible spoilers, I won’t pursue this now, although when the series is over, I’ll take up the ways in which the novel and the series seem to account differently for the causes of the animals’ dramatically changing behavior. What the novel does with causality is the best thing about it, and yet the series seems to be in the process of jettisoning the novel’s explanation.
In the show, the fault for the baffling animal attacks appears as if it will end up at the feet of a single corporate villain—the biotech company, Reiden Global. Reiden developed a molecule (the “mother cell”) that has ended up in everything Reiden produces, from dog food to drugs to pesticides. “It’s everywhere and it can’t be stopped,” says one character, unwittingly describing the perfect horror monster. The causal chain gets laid out quite explicitly in the case of the rampaging lions in LA: Reiden pesticides were used on grain that was fed to cattle, which was slaughtered and fed to the lions. For those who weren’t paying attention or who prefer to receive their information visually, Jamie (Kristen Connolly) maps out the animals’ symptoms and the single cause on her notepad!
This identification of Reiden as the cartoonish, lone villain eschews the possibility of a more opaque, complicated causality for animals’ global change in behavior (a clear metaphor for climate change, among other things). Everyone else is thereby relieved of guilt: we are all merely blameless victims of corporate malfeasance.
Zoo is most interesting, however, not when its characters are discoursing about Reiden Global, but in its uncannily chilling scenes of animals appearing in spaces they shouldn’t, animals massing and attacking. Unlike Reidon’s “mother cell” in its glass case (which belongs firmly in the realm of comic books), the scenes of animal attacks are planted in a conceivable reality. They partake of our world and suggest what could happen with a not-entirely unimaginable shift in our eco-system.
The show takes several opportunities to highlight the thin line between reality and the apocalyptic events unfolding in its fictional universe. In episode 2, we’re told that animals have always had the potential to “take down the human race,” but their fear of us has made them take “flight” rather than “fight.” And in episode 5, veterinary pathologist Mitch (Billy Burke) describes the “tropic scale,” topped by apex predators like lions and wolves. Humans, he says, score “naturally” only a 2.2, taking their place with pigs and anchovies. What allows humans to behave as if we are 5s is our ability to reason and our technology—and, as it turns out, the animals seem intentionally to be trying to destroy our technology in particular. As Chloe (Nora Arnezeder) puts it, it’s “only our technology that keeps us from being their prey,” and the animals themselves have finally figured that out. They’ve had their “emperor-has-no-clothes” moment.
One way in which the show serves as “eco-horror,” then, is in its message of human self-destructiveness. Technology may be the way we achieved our place at the top of the tropic scale, but we’ve come a long way from the sharpened stick, and the technology that once protected us has now (as personified by the science of Reiden Global) reached the tipping point: it has dangerously shifted the precarious ecological balance that served our own interests, catapulting us back to some (perhaps more natural) status as prey. Certainly many of Zoo’s animal attack scenes suggest our inherent, utter vulnerability.
The series also, to some degree, critiques humans’ treatment of animals. The opening credits may offer the strongest statement. The voice of Abraham (Nonso Anozie) describes how we have “domesticated animals, locked them up, killed them for sport.” The main thrust of the plot, though, is not so confrontational. While one character comments about a circus—“You do know this is unnatural?” (ep. 2)—and some hunters in Biloxi are shown to be trigger-happy and dangerous buffoons, allowing Mitch to chastise them, “I just don’t think slaughter’s necessary” (ep. 4), the series on balance shows most human-animal interactions to be positive (the safaris in Botswana are for photography, not slaughter; the LA zoo-keeper is likeable; a dog is a sick girl’s best friend).
On the one hand, that many human-animal interactions are positive is just true: many are. On the other hand, though, the series is in danger (again) of blaming only a few people for what is (as the opening credits insist) the more universal human history of domesticating, dominating, and wantonly killing animals. It’s also in danger of suggesting that the animal attacks are actually completely unprovoked. Zoo may thus incite in its viewers a dangerous fear of the top predators, which are already living precariously on the edge of extinction (wolves, lions, tigers, bears). If they can so easily enter our world and terrorize us, perhaps they should be wantonly killed.
Zoo’s politics are intensified in light of the recent furor over a Minnesota dentist’s hunting of Cecil, a protected lion in Zimbabwe—an encounter that involved the group tracking the wounded lion for 40-some hours and then beheading and skinning him, all for a trophy. While the media demonization of this lone hunter is as simplistic as Zoo’s practice (so far) of vilifying only Reiden Global, it’s important to recognize that in the real-life scenario, the human was the hunter (for pure sport) and the lion his tormented victim. In Zoo, however, we see lions who purposefully inflict on humans “slow, painful deaths” (ep. 2). What point is being served by having nonhuman animals engage in sadistic behavior that has pretty much been the sole purview of humans?
The animal politics of Zoo are made even more complicated by PETA’s protest of the show: after assuring the organization that real animals would be only minimally used, and that CGI would be employed as often as possible, CBS did use real, trained lions for much of their lion- attack footage.[i] This practice is, of course, as “unnatural” as the scene the show itself offers (for purposes of critique) of animals in a circus.
So far, then, Zoo seems to try to engage with the critical conventions of eco-horror, while at the same time exploiting viewers’ fear of our top predators—and even exploiting those animals themselves. But I’ll certainly be watching to see where it goes from here. Stay tuned for an update after the series ends.
[i] “PETA Protesting Use of Real Animals in CBS’s ‘Zoo,’” June 29, 2015, Variety.com, http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/peta-protesting-zoo-cbs-1201530440/