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Know the West

Real predators don’t eat popsicles

Once again, in Zootopia, Disney’s view of nature is sanitized and out of touch.


The movie starts with a roar. Then we hear the words “fear,” “treachery” and “bloodlust.” Disney’s latest offering highlights the relationship between predators and prey. Curious to see how they’d spin this for kids, I bring my daughter to a spring break showing. At first, in Zootopia, they don't pretty things up. Someone is about to get eaten.

Then the camera pulls back to reveal a school play about the distant past. “Over time we evolved and moved beyond our primitive savage ways,” a narrator intones. “Wait, who did?” I think. “The tiger? The kid two rows over eating a hot dog? Don't carnivores still deal with blood and sharp teeth?”

Ecological inaccuracies in kids' movies push my buttons, I admit. The New Yorker's suggestion that SpongeBob SquarePants is an actual sea sponge triggered a rant about how he must be polyurethane because his pants are square. And don't get me started on Dr. Dolittle 2, where a bear that looks like a grizzly roams a forest outside San Francisco.

Clearly, I need to calm down. These are just fantasies. No one confuses the creatures cracking jokes on screen with real animals, do they?

Zootopia tells the story of Judy Hopps, the first rabbit on the police department of the city of Zootopia, where predation no longer exists and ecosystems (Rainforest District, Sahara Square) are connected by rail, in a layout that looks suspiciously like Disneyland. Despite the lion mayor's “mammal inclusion initiative,” the police department is full of hulking, male carnivores: leopards, tigers, polar bears. Judy meets with sneers and gets assigned to ticket parked cars. But when several meat-eaters revert to their savage ways, Officer Hopps is on the case.

A still from the Zootopia trailer shows Hoops and her foxy sidekick.

At her first press conference, she issues a warning about predators. “We may be evolved, but deep down we are still animals,” Hopps says. She implies the attacks might have something to do with “biology.” Yet the movie exists to prove her wrong. It is, as reviewers pointed out, a metaphor for civil rights — the opposition faced by women and people of color as they joined police and fire departments. And, as such, it's topical and convincing. But isn't biology the key? Isn't Hopps right?

The early 20th century was marked by efforts to sanitize nature, to make our national parks into “zootopias.” Though many predators were killed off, Yellowstone and Glacier allowed a few to linger. According to Yellowstone's superintendent in 1925, “In great wilderness areas such as these parks are, we can afford the luxury of a few of even these cruel and destructive beasts.”

And the lesson from these efforts to create a real-life Zootopia? Predators matter. And what matters is their biology, their teeth and the blood that gets shed. It's a lesson many in the West have learned as carnivores struggle to make a comeback: We ignore wildlife ecology at our peril. The issue of how to respond still roils many communities, but everyone can agree that waiting for meat-eaters to evolve to prefer kale isn't the solution. 

In the East, forests lacking predators are so overrun by white-tailed deer that some native plants are browsed too heavily to grow back. When the deer problem became apparent in the 1940s, and conservationist Aldo Leopold wanted to change hunting rules, his opponents used a powerful symbol against him, a movie that had just been released: Bambi.

Over the years, my family has absorbed my concerns. The credits roll and my daughter wonders, “Where did the reptiles live?” My husband, when I describe the characters later, asks, “What did they eat?” For a movie all about diet, not much. The rabbits ate carrots. The predators drank soda and ate popsicles, donuts, and a few blueberries. The question of protein was politely ducked. Predation is still seen, as it was in the 1920s, as “savage,” “cruel” and “destructive.”

Using animals as a metaphor without reference to reality in the wild is a challenge because the animals’ beastly nature is difficult to disguise. Adults get the racial profiling references, but, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times, kids are already clamoring for pet fennec foxes, like the cute sidekick in Zootopia.

Movies, particularly the most artistic, feed our sense of the wild. That vision shouldn't be that of a zoo or a utopia. Our biologically rich, morally complex world is fantastic enough, and it is humans, not predators, who will have to adapt and evolve in order for it to flourish. 

Kim Todd is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the column service of High Country News. She writes in Minneapolis.