Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives
Journalist Thomas French takes a darkly humorous look at humans’ paradoxical drive to tame wild things.
(Page 2 of 2)
“Only a few months before the scandal, the rich and powerful had treated Lex like a prince of the city,” French writes. “Now that he was wounded and trailing blood through the turpentine grass, the pride was ready to finish him off.” Salisbury, a fallen “alpha” stripped of his animal kingdom, proves an easy takedown for the media when his wife is caught leaving the couple’s dogs in their car on a hot Florida afternoon. “Here was a man allegedly incapable of protecting his own pets,” French writes of the former zookeeper. “Lex is our prey, bleeding in the water.”Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
As muckraking, “Zoo Story” is a blast; even an, ahem, cub reporter knows “Zoo Administrator Leaves Pooches Out to Roast” is a great headline. But French really shines when articulating the philosophical quandary presented by zoos’ mere existence.
“That’s my son,” says Ed Schultz of Herman, Lowry’s showcase chimpanzee. Schultz, who rescued Herman from Liberian hunters in 1966 and raised him in his own home, donated him to Tampa when the chimp reached adolescence. But if Herman – an aging primate who grew up in the company of humans and makes sexual overtures to Lowry’s blonde female visitors in lieu of mating with a female of his own species – is Schultz’s child, that paternity doesn’t bode well for the future of chimpanzees. This wild animal has been rescued from his hostile native land, brought up in a human household, then separated from the humans he thought of as family, transported to yet another alien environment, and left to make tenuous peace with his keepers and fellow captives. “As much as the keepers liked the old man, they sometimes wished he wouldn’t stop by so often,” French writes. “Because every time Ed walked away, it seemed to leave the chimp shaken.” When Herman is felled by a younger chimp who wants to be top ape, French can only highlight the Lowry staff’s naiveté: “Everybody considered them buddies,” French quotes a veterinarian who describes Herman’s friendship with his animal assassin. “They were like two old gentleman, rolling around on the ground, laughing and tickling each other.”
Such anthropomorphism, French makes clear, is absurd. But his greater point – if nature is disappearing, what better hope do animals have than that humans deign to imprison them and put them on display? – is chilling. Herman may have fallen into the clutches of incompetents, but would he have been better off as bushmeat? The ability of “Zoo Story” to pose such questions about an issue too often reduced to PETA v. profiteers is a testament to French’s reportage and writing.