Life of Pi Quotes About Animals & Zoos

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

'The Life of Pi' explores themes such as the nature of animals and shifting opinions that people have about zoos. This lesson looks at some of the key quotes that deal with these themes and analyzes them in the broader context of the book.

Relevant Plot Background

Imagine that much of your childhood was spent at your family's zoo, helping your father with the care of the animals and observing their behavior day after day. You would probably have a lot of time to think about the experiences of those animals, and whether they would be better off in or out of the zoo. You might also find yourself imposing human characteristics on the animals - or anthropomorphizing them - in your effort to make sense of their world. This is how Pi Patel spends his childhood leading up to his fateful sea voyage, and these experiences and ways of thinking color how he views the world for the rest of his life.

Defense of Zoos

As an adult telling his story, Pi is very much aware that many people have changed their opinions about zoos - whereas one zoos were taken for granted as a fun, family activity, people now look at them as places where animals are kept unjustly and denied their freedom. Pi looks at this somewhat differently, and explains why he thinks that animals are better off in zoos than in the wild:

'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.'

The Meaning of Freedom

For Pi, then, it does not make sense to speak of freedom in a context where most animals are lower on the food chain and spend their days being hunted and avoiding various forms of disease. In zoos, they are safe enough to enjoy the freedom from worry. It is only a confused notion of freedom that some humans have that leads them to see the animals' lives as being less constrained in the wild.

Managing Freedom in a Zoo

Although animals are better off in a zoo, Pi acknowledges that it is still important to be diplomatic in arranging the zoo so that the animals will still have an illusion of greater freedom than they have. He explains:

'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 relate and have a look at each other.'

In some ways, this seems to be a tacit acknowledgement that there might be some merit to the criticism that zoos take away some of the freedom that animals have in the wild; after all, if you have to conceal the barriers, that means that the animals would resent them if they were more visible. Nonetheless, Pi is making the case that good zoos provide both the protection and the illusion of freedom that maximize an animal's chance at leading a happy life.

Comparisons to Religion

Throughout The Life of Pi, Pi has the tendency to relate many ideas and experiences to religion - after all, he practices Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism, so it is not a surprise that religious ideas would dominate his thinking. Zoos are no exception, as Pi explains here:

'I don't mean to defend zoos. Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world). I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.'

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