Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives

Journalist Thomas French takes a darkly humorous look at humans’ paradoxical drive to tame wild things.

Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives By Thomas French Hyperion 288 pp., $24.99

Just ask Siegfried and Roy: When a tiger nearly severs its trainer’s jugular vein, it’s Nature 1, Man 0. But these vaudevillians – and Ringling Bros., and Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and every zoo in the world – earn their livings sustaining the illusion (in Roy’s case, with varying success) that wild animals are friendly, safe, and fun. After all, any fan of “The Lion King” will attest that the hit single “Circle of Life” mightn’t be so catchy if Elton John sang about the violent mating, vicious hunting, and senseless murder that fuel the life cycle of an actual lion.

Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas French’s Zoo Story, a barbed investigation of financial malfeasance at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, has great fun with humans’ paradoxical desire to tame wild things. “[Z]oos shake people into recognizing the manifold possibilities of existence,” French writes, “what it’s like to walk across the Earth, or swim in its oceans, or fly above its forests – even though most of the animals on display will never have the chance to do any of those things again.” For French, a zoo is the ultimate ecological non sequitur, a “garden of captives” established in the name of conservation that removes rare species like the golden lion tamarin and the Panamanian golden frog from natural habitats ruined by human incursion and no longer able support them anyway. “Against all logic, some staff members still wished sometimes there was some way they could let the animals go,” French writes. “For many of the species at Lowry Park, very little of the wild remained.”

Still, stage-designing an imagined state of nature and charging admission is a viable business strategy; in “Zoo Story,” French portrays Lowry’s “hard-charging” CEO Lex Salisbury as a flimflam man obsessed with making it pay. Half Dr. Doolittle, half Bernie Madoff, Salisbury hatched a dubious plan in the 2000s to make Lowry Park the world’s flagship zoo by importing African elephants – emotionally complex animals expensive to house and dangerous to care for – while opening Safari Wild, his own for-profit nature park that shared the zoo’s animals and charged the city of Tampa to house them. “He seemed to view the zoo’s animals and those on his ranch and at the game park as part of one big traveling collection,” French writes, ably synthesizing six years of his own reporting for the St. Petersburg Times. When things go wrong – 15 patas monkeys stage a hilarious escape from Safari Wild and elude Florida authorities for months, spotlighting Salisbury’s mismanagement as well as the incestuous finances of his two zoos – French deploys his favorite device: playing “field anthropologist” to write about humans as an exotic species roaming an urban savannah.

“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.”

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.

Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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