I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.
These words are spoken by Pi early in Part One, at the end of chapter 4, after a long discussion of zoo enclosures. Mr. Patel, Pi has recently told us, runs the Pondicherry Zoo, a place that Pi considered paradise as a boy. Pi has heard many people say negative things about zoos—namely that they deprive noble, wild creatures of their freedom and trap them in boring, domesticated lives—but he disagrees. Wild animals in their natural habitat encounter fear, fighting, lack of food, and parasites on a regular basis. Given all these biological facts, animals in the wild are not free at all—rather, they are subject to a stringent set of social and natural laws that they must follow or die. Since animals are creatures of habit, zoo enclosures, with abundant food and water, clean cages, and a constant routine, are heaven for them. Given the chance, Pi says, most zoo animals do not ever try to escape, unless something in their cage frightens them.
We have already learned that Pi studied zoology and religion at the University of Toronto, and the above quote demonstrates just how closely aligned the two subjects are in his mind. He is quick to turn a discussion of animal freedom into a metaphor for people’s religious inclinations. Just as people misunderstand the nature of animals in the wild, they also misunderstand what it means for a person to be “free” of any religious system of belief. The agnostic (someone who is uncertain about the existence of god and does not subscribe to any faith) may think he is at liberty to believe or disbelieve anything he wants, but in reality he does not allow himself to take imaginative leaps. Instead, he endures life’s ups and downs the way an animal in the wild does: because he has to. A person of faith, on the other hand, is like an animal in an enclosure, surrounded on all sides by a version of reality that is far kinder than reality itself. Pi embraces religious doctrine for the same reason he embraces the safety and security of a zoo enclosure: it makes life easier and more pleasurable.