No doubt about it: Simon and Garfunkel got it exactly right when they sang "it's all happening at the zoo." As Thomas French shows in his new book "Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives," a lot more is happening than you might think — at least at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo.
This is a great story. It's got humor, drama, tragedy, page-turning suspense, and a compelling cast of appealing/appalling characters (both animal and human). I couldn't put it down (though I can’t help feeling sad that this book had to be written in the first place).
Here's the deal: Many species face extinction from habitat loss, poaching and other human-made problems. It’s a reality that can't be denied. One way to save them is by collecting them in zoos where they're presumably safe to live and breed — and perhaps inspire zoo visitors to save even more.
However, as French shows, it's not so cut-and-dried. Are wild animals really better off in zoo "sanctuaries"? Or should they remain free — even if their lives are cut short? Are zoos really just prisons, there for the amusement and entertainment of humans? Not happy questions. And ones that French, who maintains his newsman's objectivity, never really answers.
A former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and now a journalism professor, French spent six years investigating the inner workings of Lowry Park. We begin with 11 wild elephants from an overcrowded African wildlife refuge, bound for U.S. zoos in a 747. Four are slated for Lowry Park. Lex Salisbury, the zoo’s big-dreaming CEO and resident alpha male (known to employees as "El Diablo Blanco"), hopes these pachyderms will propel Lowry Park into a top-tier attraction. Along the way, we meet various characters — zookeepers, animals and others — who endure the triumphs and calamities of Salisbury’s increasingly dubious crusade for greatness.
There’s Herman, an alpha chimp raised by humans, who lapses into trans-species sexual confusion whenever he sees a tank-top-clad blonde; Enshalla, the Obsession perfume-adoring tigress and resident "tease"; zookeepers Dan and Dustin, the hilarious herps department duo (I smell comedy blockbuster potential here); and Lex. Always Lex.
To his credit, French avoids vilifying all humans and exalting the animals. Yes, some Lowry Park critters outwit their captors and a few humans seem stalled on the evolutionary scale. But as French also makes plain, many non-humans are perfectly capable of inexplicable — and seemingly premeditated — brutality, and some people do amazing things for love. Even Lex acts from his heart — at least in the beginning — fully convinced his charges are receiving a better life.
Is there a right or wrong here? Truth be told, the jet-bound elephants probably would have perished if not relocated. And many injured manatees have a second chance at life because of Lowry Park’s rescue-and-release program. But some of the deaths recounted here (both human and non-human) are clearly the result of wild animals being confined unnaturally. Are there better alternatives than zoos? Or are they the last refuge of a dying planet? "Zoo Story" may not offer answers, but it’s a good place to start.
Related on MNN: An op-ed about the treatment of circus elephants