Aug 27, 2019

Zoo Story

Life in the Garden of Captives
by Thomas French

Picked up another book from my shelves, on the same subject matter. I was a bit surprised how very similar they were. In both books, the same animals get a lot of focus- tigers and elephants. This one also has a lot about a certain chimpanzee who had lived in the zoo a very long time, seen many changes- but started his life raised in a private home, so he had some confusion including a fixation on human females instead of his own species. The shuffling of hierarchy among the half dozen chimps at the zoo as some aged and younger ones came in, was pretty fascinating. The tiger- beautiful and always fierce- even to the older, larger male tigers they bought in hoping to be her mate- met a tragic end after getting out of her enclosure one day. Main thread going through the book was about the elephants- brought over from Swaziland to spare them from being killed in a cull (the area they lived in had too many elephants, no room to roam, and they were destroying the habitat, running out of food. This felt very familiar to me- I think I read about the same elephants in Animal Wise). The zoo's acquisition of these elephants caused a huge outcry from animal welfare groups. There was also a lot of conflict among the zoo staff- some wanted direct contact methods used with the animals, others pushed for new methods that kept the keepers and staff safer from the elephants. This book, like the other, also had a lot about how inner operations and politics, but it felt more focused. Quite a lot about the zoo director's decisions and actions, how it impacted the workers, the animals, even how his wife felt about things.

Some other animals featured in the book are the manatees which the zoo rehabilitates and releases into the wild, patas monkeys that escape off their island and run around the outskirts of the city for weeks, and endangered frogs being bred in captivity. It's all based on six years of research- four of which the reporter spent in visiting the zoo and going behind-the-scenes. The appendix has detailed notes about sources for all the described scenes and conversations, very thorough. Most of the time I appreciated the author's attempts to imagine what the animals were thinking, feeling or perceiving in certain moments, but I found his constant comparison of human behavior to chimpanzees (especially in terms of males seeking high status) annoying- it just started to get old. Although he made a good point to reiterate what zoo staff told him about how they help endangered species and work for the good of the animals, a lot of what's in this book made me feel dubious about zoos for the first time- usually I enjoy visiting them. Now I'm not so sure.

Rating: 3/5                 288 pages, 2010

more opinions:
Bibliophile by the Sea
who else has read it?


  1. I'm dubious about zoos too. I may have to check this book out.

  2. Zoo books always leave me feeling more than a little sad for the animals there. No matter how hard we humans try to make it bearable for the animals, it is impossible to believe that given a choice, the animals would go "home" in a second.

  3. Sorry...make that "not go home."

  4. Sam- I agree with you, but have been surprised to read in several Gerald Durrell books, and also the previous zoo book I just read, that many escaped animals will promptly return to their cage, because that's where they know there is a regular food supply.


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