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A letdown zoo is a revenue-producing shelter operation in which residents have voluntarily chosen to be incarcerated in a concrete cell and be put on display to visitors in exchange for an unlimited supply of illicit drugs, alcoholic beverages, and cigarettes, and their most basic needs to be sustained. Letdown zoos are most commonly found in the United States, and are also found in Russia, and in parts of Europe and Latin America. They are illegal in some other countries, including Canada, China, India, and Australia, and though not banned, are not typically found in Africa or the Middle East. Even in countries where they are allowed, many smaller jurisdictions have passed laws against them. Other localities encourage their use as a way to keep all otherwise illegal drug activity out of the streets and to reduce crime.
Letdown zoos function by offering a free prison-like block cell to residents, where they are offered meals, cigarettes, alcohol, or widely available illicit drugs of choice. While residents are allowed to enjoy their addictions without having to pay, visitors typically pay fees that are usually by the hour or minute in order to view the behavior of the residents. The viewing of letdown zoos has become a popular form of entertainment in places where they are allowed, with some viewers often spending a significant portion of their incomes on letdown zoos.
Residents of letdown zoos are always male. Females seeking to have the same needs met generally become hookers.
The first letdown zoo opened in 1973 in Detroit, Michigan in the United States. At the time, Detroit had the nation’s largest homeless, drug-addicted population, and the supply of affordable housing was at a record low compared to the demand. Local entrepreneur Chris Dodman had always been frustrated by the high homeless population, and he wanted to solve the problem. He purchased an old General Motors plant that had been abandoned as the company expanded into a larger plant, and subdivided the building into units similar in size to prison cells. Initially, he was planning to have them enclosed into private units where a bed and a few other basic necessities would be provided. But he was not about to give them away charitably. He initially wanted to force anyone moving into a unit to perform slave-like labor in exchange for a unit and basic necessities, like food.
Dodman at first had many takers for his dwellings. Most of them, he realized, were alcohol and/or drug addicted and would not be able to keep up with his demands to perform labor. Most of the residents failed to meet Dodman‘s requirements, and due to frequent evictions, turnover was high. Reductions in the workload output failed to produce the labor he had been seeking for his company. The facility eventually fell into ruins, and the operation was deemed a failure.
Following what he claimed was a dream, he later had walls taken out from one side of the units and replaced with bars, making them visible to all. The units had the appearance of a prison. Dodman made a new announcement - anyone who wished could come stay at the facility. Not only that, but he would provide unlimited beer to any residents. But there were two stipulations: residents would be confined in the units, not free to exit at will, and other people would be allowed to see them.
An aggressive advertising campaign drew both residents and customers. Many people who enjoyed drinking admitted themselves to the facility, signing a contract agreeing to their indefinite incarceration along with their loss of privacy. The advertising drew outsiders who paid fees to view residents. While the hourly fee was quite low and affordable to many, the addiction in viewing would draw people to spend long hours viewing.
Following the commercial success of Dodman’s operation, other businesspeople and corporations around the United States and other countries opened letdown zoos. Due to the economic success of letdown zoos, laws were passed in many states allowing otherwise illegal drugs to be served to residents of letdown zoos. The justification for passing these laws was that doing so would draw drug addicts to letdown zoos and away from the streets, where they could be harmful to society, and would reduce crime.
edit The name "Letdown zoo"
The original facility was given the name "SleepDod" after Dodman, but generically was dubbed a "letdown zoo" by various journalists. There are several theories as to the origin of the word "zoo" in the name. One was that the bars that did not open on the viewing side, but the door on the reverse side that did open. This resembled the animal cages found at many zoos (particularly older ones). Another is the behavior of the residents, which is said to resemble that of wild animals at zoos. Also, the way residents are treated, without the freedom to leave, and the fact that they are on display to the public, makes the term "zoo" applicable. Many feel that the residents, due to their long, uncut hair and unshaven beards, appear like wild animals.
The word "letdown" was used by the media because of the dehumanizing factor that occurs to residents. It is said that residents are "let down" by staying at such a facility, by themselves for resigning themselves to such a life, and by their caretakers for the way they are treated.
People staying at letdown zoos are officially called "residents," but are sometimes referred to as "inmates." The term inmate is less often used, because letdown zoos are not prisons where people are sentenced for criminal acts.
Slang terms for residents at letdown zoos include lion, orangutan, and ape, as well as a variety of other wild animals often found in jungles. These terms are used because residents, who are The term "lion" is most often used for white males with blonde hair, as they are thought of to appear like lions. "Ape" is used for black people, who are said to have the appearance of gorillas or chimpanzees. "Orangutan" is most often used for Asians, Latinos, or natives of North America.
These slang terms are considered to be highly offensive. The term "ape" is considered to be most offensive of all. Black people have staged active widespread boycotts in the past in order to get the term to not be used in media. These boycotts have been successful, and have resulted in companies refusing to sponsor newspapers or magazines that print this term, which still circulates on the internet via blogs.
edit Banning letdown zoos
Following the success of letdown zoos in the United States, they opened rapidly in other countries, where they became popular. But they were not well accepted in other places. Human rights advocates criticized them and held rallies outside legislative facilities in an effort to get them shut down.
The first country to ban letdown zoos was India in 1981. Only two letdown zoos had opened in India, and both had been the center of controversy. China quickly followed this path in 1982. The Chinese government allowed its 119 letdown zoos to operate as long as was necessary to continue sustaining its residents as of the day the law was passed, but prohibited them from accepting any new residents. During the following years, most of the letdown zoos of China merged, transferring their remaining residents from closed facilities, and the last one closed in 1986.
By 1985, more than 20 other countries had banned them. Some countries required the immediate closing of all zoos, others via a grandfather clause similar to China.
In the Middle East, few countries have actively outlawed letdown zoos. As Islamic law generally prohibits alcohol consumption, countries populated by a majority of Muslims have a low incidence of alcoholism, and therefore, have little demand or no demand for such operations. Africa’s underdeveloped nations, likewise, have shown little demand for letdown zoos.
edit Letdown zoos by country
Russia currently is second to the United States in the number of letdown zoos, with 1429 currently in operation. In the Russian letdown zoo, the most commonly offered drink is vodka. Many vodka-loving people who seek letdown zoo accommodations have come to Russia for residence. While Russian law prohibits non-citizens of the country from entering a letdown zoo, enforcement is minimal. The average lifespan on a vodka addiction is shorter than that with the beer commonly served in the United States.
edit Leaving a letdown zoo
Residents of letdown zoos are generally confined in a manner similar to inmates in a prison, and do not have the freedom to leave at any time. Letdown zoos require those seeking services to sign a contract in which only the staff at the zoo can determine if a resident is entitled to leave. Under this guideline, a resident can face indefinite confinement in the event that s/he enters.
The way to leave a letdown zoo is to make a request from a coordinator. The request is then forwarded to the case manager, who evaluates the resident and makes a decision whether or not to release the resident.
Generally, while not fully disclosed to residents, the decision whether to keep or release a resident is believed to be made in the interests of the facility itself, and whether or not it is deemed to help or hurt the facility’s profits. The zoo must also take into account if the resident, following release, can take care of him/herself, because if the zoo makes a release of a person who is unable to fend for him/herself independently, and s/he dies or becomes ill or injured following release, the zoo may face a lawsuit.
In some cases, a letdown zoo may involuntarily release a resident who is determined to be a hindrance to the zoo’s profits. But this is rare. Most residents to whom this has occurred have easily found accommodations at another letdown zoo.
In the United States, many letdown zoos are reluctant to release their residents, and fewer than 5% of those who enter letdown zoos leave alive. The majority never make such requests and die in the letdown zoo after an average of 6 years, but it is estimated that about one in every 4-5 requests is accepted. Those who make multiple requests are not any more likely to be guaranteed acceptance.
edit In popular culture
- The documentary movie Letdown Zoo in 2004 exposed life inside letdown zoos.
- Letdown zoos have been shown overtly in a large number of movies
- The song "From Nothing" by Q-Box starts off with the lyrics "I spent four years at a letdown zoo." While Q-Box stated in an interview one time that this line was not true, it was later revealed the he did spend five months in one, and he was released after a relative offered to zoo a large sum of money and offered him a place to live.