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Feng Shui and Monkey Madness at the L.A. Zoo

News & Comment

Jim Underdown

Volume 31.4, July / August 2007

It sounded like a joke. Early in March, my office started receiving calls that the L.A. Zoo had hired a feng shui practitioner to help design their new $7.4 million monkey habitat. One CFI supporter said, “I know you guys are busy, but it kills me to think they are going to put feng shui info on a zoo information sign!” But it was no joke. The zoo dropped a cool $4,500 on a Beverly Hills feng shui master to help ensure that the valuable Chinese golden monkeys, due to arrive in 2008, will feel right at home.

Feng shui is the ancient Chinese art of creating living space that’s in harmony with the universal energy, or qi, that supposedly flows through it. The practice dates back to the twelfth century and incorporates aspects of astrology, luck, and aesthetics. The aesthetic value of feng shui might have some merit, depending on the individual making the decorating decisions, but scientists are still waiting to see evidence that qi even exists, much less that it influences one’s romantic or financial condition. Besides, there are different schools of thought in feng shui, and masters advising on identical environments have been shown to radically disagree on what changes should be made. (See the episode of Penn and Teller: Bullshit! illustrating this.)

If the value of feng shui for humans is dubious, the joy that it brings into monkeys’ lives seems, shall we say, yet to be established. Indeed, I invite any scholarly research on monkey luck and any evidence showing baboon behavior changing with the alteration of a door’s location.

Since science seemed to be escaping from the zoo, it was time for a visit from CFI. I was the first community speaker to be heard at the zoo’s March 20 Board of Commissioners meeting and was allowed three minutes to try to convince the commissioners that feng shui wasn’t worth forty-five cents, much less $4,500.

To her credit, one commissioner said she was surprised at hearing this had been approved. The zoo staff member who green-lighted the feng fee was not present to defend him or herself, but another staffer said it was an effort to replicate the cultural aspects of a rural Chinese village where these monkeys are from. “Why not just hire someone to recreate the look of a village,” I asked. “You don’t need all that ‘energy’ mumbo jumbo to make it look the same.”

They seemed to agree, and I got the distinct impression there was at least a hint of embarrassment over the whole affair. We can only hope. . . .

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James Underdown has been Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry-Los Angeles since 1999. He is also the Founder and Chair of the Independent Investigations Group, a team of inquirers who look into paranormal, pseudo-scientific, and extraordinary claims. He is also the creator of the Steve Allen Theater at CFI-L.A. Jim has appeared on numerous radio and TV shows including Hannity and Colmes, Penn and Teller's Bullshit, History's Mysteries, Proof Positive, and the Oprah Winfrey Show. He is a regular Skeptical Sunday guest on the SETI Institute's Are We Alone? radio show/podcast. His many pre-CFI endeavors include writing and directing short films (A Day in the Life of Frank Sinatra, The Test, Dear Father), and directing his stage play, Party of 13, a secular re-telling of the Last Supper. Jim also toured midwest comedy clubs as the Poet Laureate of Calumet City, IL.