Lions, Tigers and Bears, Oh yes!

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Thomas French’s Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives brings the world of zoo keeping to the public in this accessible and thought provoking book.

Zoos conjure up many complex and opposing emotions in people. Some of us fondly remember the first time we saw or heard those larger than life creatures, elephants or giraffes, at our local zoos. Book cover for Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas FrenchOther people think of zoos as prisons for animals, places that would not exist if not for the insensitivity and greed of man. Still others look on zoos as vehicles for scientists attempting to save different animal species from extinction.

French introduces us to some of the most unforgettable characters and goes behind the scenes allowing us an up close look at the operations of Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. He explains how Lex Salisbury, the passionate, autocratic director of the  Zoo helped reinvent the zoo and enhance its reputation before being ousted from his position. Beginning with the transfer of eleven elephants by air transport from their homeland of Swaziland to the Tampa and San Diego Zoos, the reader will immediately get hooked. Here are a few of the characters you will meet besides the Swazi elephants and the meteoric Zoo director, Salisbury, nicknamed El Diablo Blanco, by staff members:

— Herman, the alpha chimpanzee with the ‘misdirected libido’ whose love, affection and fixation for the female zoo keepers and visitors could be problematic.

— Enshalla, the haughty,  powerful and lovely Sumatran tiger whose family history ‘was like a Greek tragedy’.

— Buttonwood, the abandoned manatee newborn cub found stranded in Buttonwood Bay near Naples, Florida and brought to the zoo by fishermen.

— The human qualities that many of the animals exhibit and the relationships they develop with the zoo keepers elevate this book to a higher level. Meeting the zoo keepers and trainers and learning of their respect, love and genuine affection for the animals they care for, in spite of often making barely minimum wage, highlights how most of them look at their jobs as an important vocation rather than just a way to make a living.

There is so much passion, humor and pathos in this well constructed book that will have you both laughing and crying. This is simply nonfiction writing at its finest with all of the compelling elements of a good story. Enjoy this well told story and you can then be the judge about the relevance and appropriateness of zoos.

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