Pi’s father ran the Pondicherry Zoo, which was founded soon after Pondicherry entered the Union of India in 1954. Pi describes the wonders of the zoo and compares it to a hotel with especially uncooperative guests. As a child he felt like he was living in paradise, surrounded by such amazing animals. His daily schedule was marked by an alarm clock of lions roaring and the regular routines of other animals.
Pi’s upbringing at the zoo is both an important part of his life and sets the stage for the events of the novel. Without his extensive knowledge of wild animal behavior Pi never could have survived as he does. Martel places the Patels in a historical setting, Pondicherry in the 1970s, but they still seem to exist in a unique universe.
Pi defends zoos against people who feel that animals in the wild are happier. He argues that in the wild, animals are at the mercy of many dangers, but in the zoo they have safety and security. He also argues against the idea of zoos as “prisons” – he says that animals prefer to have a set territory and rigid boundaries, so they will be happy if they accept the edges of their cages as their territory. He cites instances of animals who had the option of escaping, but refused to do so. Pi says that now both zoos and religion have fallen out of favor. The Pondicherry Zoo is shut down now.
These digressions are the adult Pi reminiscing, but also setting up the story of his ordeal. Pi here introduces the important idea of boundaries and animal territories. Animals, like humans, generally like comfort and ritual, so a good zoo provides a sense of order that they have no desire to escape from. In the wild, however, animals (and soon Pi) have to struggle constantly to maintain order in the midst of danger. Pi and Martel are clearly both fascinated with the intersection of religion and zoology, as Pi associates them here and will study both in college.