Publisher: Hyperion Books, 2010
My Rating: 4 stars
I’ve always felt conflicted about zoos. On the one hand, I enjoy seeing the animals up close and personal. On the other hand, I always feel guilty. No matter how big or “friendly” their habitat, I still feel a bit melancholy when I see magnificent wild animals living their lives in such an unnatural way. Then I try to make myself feel better by telling myself that they might be better off in a zoo—safe from poachers and other dangers found in the wild. In short, like many others, I have a love/hate relationship with zoos. So when I saw journalist Thomas French’s book, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives, that purported to give an inside look at Tampas’ Lowry Park Zoo, I snapped it up immediately.
In addition to my curiosity about the inner workings of a zoo, I was also drawn to this book because we visited Lowry Park Zoo several times, and I always enjoy reading about places I’ve been to in real life. I was able to picture many of the places he described—and remember watching the baby elephant whose conception and birth is described in the book.
This book tells many stories—including the rise and fall of the zoo’s controversial CEO Lex Salisbury to the reign and tragic ends of the zoo’s “king” and “queen” (Herman the Orangutan and Enshalla the Tiger). The book opens with the transport of a group of elephants from Swaziland, Africa to Florida. Using the acquisition and journey of the elephants to highlight some of the issues and controversies surrounding zoos, French highlights the reasons why so many of us are conflicted about zoos. He tells how the elephants are losing their native habitat through their own voracious appetites and why this perilous journey might be their best hope of survival, yet he contrasts this with the way the zoo markets the elephants and may not really have their best interests at heart. In addition, French’s account of the death of a young Lowry Park zookeeper at the hands of a captive elephant gives the reader pause about whether keeping wild animals in a zoo is really the best decision for all involved.
The story that French is trying to tell is complex, and I think that both helps and hurts the book. On one hand, the reader gets to view the zoo from many different perspectives. We meet various keepers, the animals, and the zoo’s management. We get a glimpse of how a modern zoo must balance financial health, conservation efforts, and the well-being of the animals. In the case of Lowry Park Zoo, we also get an insider’s look at the controversy surrounding Lex Salisbury, who was both loved and reviled within the zoo. On the other hand, juggling so many different stories means that none of them get enough attention. I often found myself getting caught up in a particular story line and then being disappointed when I didn’t get more depth or follow-up. French has a wealth of material, and I wished he had written a longer book. Too often, I felt like the individual stories were given short shrift.
Despite that, I found the book to be interesting and eye-opening. Although it did little to help me settle my own misgivings about zoos in general, the book provided me with lots of food for thought. If you’re interested in learning more about zoos, I think this book does a good job highlighting their pros and cons. (And it would be a great Z book if you are doing the A to Z Title Challenge.) A word of caution though: If you are reading this book mostly because you are interested in animals, you might be disappointed. Although French takes the time to discuss various animals, he spends considerably more time on the various political machinations that affected the zoo during Salisbury’s stewardship.