Controversial colonialist remnants taint childhood favorite

“ ‘But if I ran the zoo,’ / Said young Gerald McGrew, / ‘I’d make a few changes / That’s just what I’d do…’ / The lions and tigers and that kind of stuff / They have up here are not quite good enough / You see things like these in just any old zoo / They’re awfully old-fashioned. I want something new!” prescribed Dr. Seuss, the iconic children’s book author who most of us grew up on, in his 1950s publication “If I Ran the Zoo.”

At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with the story told in that stanza. As a child, it would’ve been hard to even conceptualize any issues with wanting our dream zoos to incorporate the incomprehensible, the exotic, the mystifying. After all, isn’t that what a zoo is meant to do? They are exhibits for people to gawk at, but what’s the fun in gawking at something you could see at, as Seuss puts it, “any old zoo”? Wouldn’t it make the most sense for one to scour the ends of the earth for the most far-flung, foreign species in order to entertain one’s zoo-goers—in order to give them their money’s worth?

That’s what a colonizer would say, anyway. Or at least Dr. Seuss. In “If I Ran the Zoo,” Seuss combines his trademark surreal images with pithy poetic stanzas to create a piece of work that depicts and describes all the fantastical creatures that young Gerald McGrew wants in his zoo to set it apart from the rest. These creatures range from large to long, furry to freaky and hybrid to horrifying. They are creatures you would never find within the comfortable and conventional confines of the Western world; ones that only so-called “exotic,” developing countries of the Global South could possess. As Seuss puts it in his charming (read: chauvinistic) way, “If you want to catch beasts you don’t see every day / You have to go places quite-out-of-the-way / You have to go places no others can get to / You have to get cold and you have to get wet, too.”

The discourses present in this book are rich with problematic and racist stereotypes that paint these countries as wildly different from Western centers of power, thus teaching young children that othering these countries is wholly acceptable and even encouraged. Seuss casually throws in the line, “I’ll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant / With helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant,” pairing this blatantly racist sentiment with images of East Asian men who are wearing wooden Geta sandals and carrying a large caged animal on their heads, with a proud Gerald McGrew standing atop the cage. Apart from the grossly Orientalist exoticization present—from the stereotypical visuals to the wacky make-believe name given to the mountains—the images and text reinforce the idea that East Asians are automatically subordinated to (the presumably white) McGrew by sheer fact of their race and nationality.

Portraying developing countries as uncharted land, brimming with brutes who engage in strange habits and rituals, Seuss’s book is ripe with colonialist imagery that romanticizes the conquest of unknown animals and resources in far-out areas. And when I say conquest, I really do mean conquest: almost every page of the colorful picture book depicts a furry and frenzied fictitious animal being captured against its will by young Gerald McGrew, or as I’d like to call him, Child Colonizer.

So, while it’s easy to simply see a bunch of funny-looking fauna on the surface, even the most perfunctory read unravels the true ideologies that inform Seuss’s writing: the viewpoint that the developing world doesn’t hold a candle to Western civilization, thus making it good for nothing but exploration and exploitation of the treasures found within them—the treasures that the savages living there don’t know how to use anyway.

It’s true that this book was written in 1950, a time when colonial power, although waning, did still exist and prevail in many parts of the world. However, regardless of Dr. Seuss’s positionality in the context of the time period, it can’t be denied that his legacy has served to immortalize his books, no matter how problematic they may be. Thus, subliminal—or, in this case, outright—messages of Western superiority and conquest of the so-called “Other” are filtered into children’s imaginations even to this day. Yet, we brush this issue under the rug because it would be futile to defame a beloved icon whose colonial views don’t seem to hurt the interests of the middle-class white parents who make up the majority of his books’ buyers. Plus, nobody wants to admit how creepy “The Cat in the Hat” really is, but that’s a whole other article.

If you’re still not convinced—if you’re still trying to preserve the perfect image of the man who brought you “Green Eggs and Ham”—let me hit you with the big one. There comes a point when Seuss depicts a large animal that looks suspiciously like a camel, but is apparently called a “Mulligatawny,” being reined in by a man sitting on it. The man sports a turban and sword reminiscent of “Arabian Nights,” and just as the creeping racism starts to make your skin crawl, your eyes focus on the text: “This beast is the beast that the brave chieftains ride / When they want to go fast to find some place to hide / A Mulligatawny is fine for my zoo / And so is a chieftain. I’ll bring one back, too.”

“And so is a chieftain. I’ll bring one back, too.” For his zoo. A chieftain for his zoo, an Arab for his zoo, an East Asian for his zoo. Guess what, I can make rhymes about slavery too! But maybe I’m being too harsh; in Seuss’s words, “And eight Persian princes will carry the basket / But what their names are, I don’t know. So don’t ask it.”

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