The Zoo Story

The Zoo Story Summary and Analysis of Pages 12-19


Jerry relates “The Story of Jerry and the Dog” with great animation (12). Ever since he moved into his apartment, he and his landlady's dog have been at odds. The dog would chase Jerry with great enthusiasm and has bitten him several times, even though it is old and in poor health. Jerry had tried to befriend the dog by feeding it hamburgers, but the dog always ate the hamburgers and then chased Jerry anyway.

Eventually, Jerry decided to kill the dog. He kneaded rat poison into a hamburger patty, which he then fed to the dog. Later that night, his landlady informed him that the dog was deathly ill, and Jerry began to regret his actions. He actually began to hope the dog would survive, so he could learn how the incident might affect their relationship.

Sure enough, the dog recovered, and Jerry returned one day from the movies to find it in its usual spot. With great emotion, he confesses to Peter that he became so obsessed with the animal because he believes he could learn to get along with people better by learning first to relate to animals.

Since the poisoning, the dog has stopped chasing Jerry; they simply leave each other alone. Jerry concludes his story by meditating on the nature of love and cruelty.


Jerry’s story about his neighbor’s dog is the culmination of the animal motif that runs throughout The Zoo Story. Earlier in the play, Jerry showed great fascination with Peter’s pets. He inferred a great deal about the power dynamic in Peter’s marriage based on the fact that he has cats instead of dogs. Here, Jerry once again observes a parallel between humans’ relationships with animals and their relationships with each other. “If you can’t deal with people,” Jerry explains, “you have to make a start somewhere. With animals” (17).

It makes sense, then, that Jerry subjects animals to a great deal of personification. Personifying animals is central to his worldview, since he views them as substitutes for human company. This personification is evident in the language that Jerry uses to tell Peter about the dog. Throughout the lengthy story, Jerry ascribes human emotions, such as jealousy and resentment, to the animal. Jerry also expects the dog to understand his motivations for poisoning it, although he admits himself that this is silly. To some extent, his reliance on the personification of animals reveals the extent of his loneliness and desperation for human contact.

Because Jerry views relationships with animals as fundamentally similar to those between humans, his interaction with his neighbor’s dog reveals much about his approach to social interaction in general. In fact, there are a number of striking parallels between the dog story and Jerry’s conversation with Peter. For example, Jerry experiences many abrupt shifts in mood and attitude throughout the dog story. With little natural transition, he shifts from hoping to befriend the dog to aggressively engineering the dog's death. This manic rhythm foreshadows the aggression he will show toward Peter when they fight over space on the park bench. Further, it parallels the abrupt mood shifts Jerry has already displayed in their conversation thus far. As with the dog, Jerry’s friendliness to Peter hides a short temper.

A poignant drive for connection and intimacy informs Jerry’s relationships with both the dog and Peter. The conversation between Peter and Jerry is itself a desperate bid by Jerry for companionship, which Peter obliges only because he cannot think of a polite way to excuse himself. Jerry’s aggression and subsequent suicide can be best understood as a response Peters' rejection, manifest when Peter refuses to share the bench with him. His murderous impulse towards the dog is a similar response to what he feels when what he considers a friendly overture (sharing the bench) is rejected.

And yet it is difficult to understand Jerry's entire goal as simply a desire for friendship, considering how aggressive and intimidating he is to Peter from the beginning. Certainly, one could see in their short relationship an allegory for homosexuality, as previously discussed. From this vantage, the quick anger could be a reflection of the emotions that society requires gay men to repress. (See the previous section of Analysis for a more in-depth discuss of this interpretation.)

However, one could also see Jerry's entire purpose as deliberate and almost self-fulfilling. The saddest part of the dog story comes at the end, when the dog no longer wants to bite him, but also has little desire to engage with him at all. It has become positively civil. Though Jerry will not get bitten any longer, he will also not be acknowledged as someone worthy of attention. In many ways, this could be worse for a depressed man; it is arguably better to be acknowledged and reviled than to be simply ignored, an anonymous loser in the big city. Certainly, Peter has been defined primarily by civility from the play's beginning. One could argue that Jerry identified Peter as this type of person when he saw him, and has deliberately, if unconsciously, confronted him in order to challenge this level of civility. If this is so, if Jerry understands the pain of being treated with uncaring civility, then it could be argued that his entire purpose is to engineer his death, to force this symbol of the civilized world to literally kill him, rather than starving him of intimacy and a slow, lonely death. He is taking a last stand, rather than fading away.

That Albee's play supports such myriad interpretations despite its simple setting is a testament to its great theatricality. And perhaps the apex of its theatricality is Jerry's long story, which on stage takes quite some time and is positively thrilling to observe. It is not meant to be read but rather seen, which is even more apparent when one considers Albee’s stage directions for Peter’s non-verbal reactions. Though terse, they are nonetheless important to examine. Peter’s mood shifts along with Jerry’s during the story. Peter listens attentively, and his moods shift from disgust to outrage to contemplation to ultimate fascination. If nothing else, Jerry is actually engaging him here, not merely prompting civil, polite replies.

In fact, Peter’s emotions in this section can be interpreted a microcosm of his reaction to Jerry more generally. The disgust and anger he felt at the beginning of the story were due to being approached by someone of questionable mental stability from the lower classes; however, as Peter got to know Jerry, these emotions gave way to serious interest in Jerry’s life story. Although the men never have any overtly romantic interactions, Peter’s changing attitude reinforces Zaller’s interpretation of The Zoo Story as a seduction narrative.