Friday, January 14, 2011

Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives

by Thomas French
Star Rating: 4 out of 4

If you like animals and zoos as much as I do, this book will be a treat for you. French, a Pulizter-winning journalist, spent six years researching the Tampa Lowry Park Zoo and delves deeply into its characters, both human and non, and the daily operations of a zoo, and then frames them in terms of the larger debate about the morality of holding animals in captivity. It's chock-full of fascinating tidbits about animal behavior and biology. For instance, did you know that elephant urine is so corrosive it can eat through metal? I didn't! I shared this factoid with my housemate, but he didn't seem to appreciate the addition to his knowledge... but oh well. I think that kind of thing's awesome.  :-D

The descriptions of animal intelligence were staggering to me. Orangutans, it turns out, are great tool-makers and -users, as well as engineers: "One orang used a wire to pick a lock, and another used a piece of cardboard to dislodge a security pin that held the doors of his cage closed... 'Orangutans,' Linden writes, 'have made insulating gloves out of straw in order to climb over electrified fences.'" Elephants, it turns out, are equally if not more intelligent, using one another's bodies as battering rams against electric fences. But it was this description that really got to me: more than intelligent, these animals are compassionate.
After years of observing the species inside the park, the staff knew that elephants - unlike most animals - were aware of death and were drawn to the remains of their kin, sometimes burying them in branches and grass. Some researchers even believed that elephants could identify the fallen body of a cow or bull they had known in life. Once, after a cull in Uganda, park rangers had stored severed feet and other body parts of the fallen inside a shed. That night, other elephants pushed their way into the shed and then buried the body parts.
But the debate over zoos is inescapable. French is admirably even-handed in his attention to both sides of that debate, though he clearly feels anger and regret over humanity's contribution to the extinction of countless plant and animal species. Given the demonstrable intelligence and sophistication of many of these species, is it viable to entrap them in an artificial, enclosed environment where they won't learn or practice the skills of their species? Even with good intent, is putting them on display ethical? It's a sobering debate:
All zoos, even the most enlightened, are built upon an idea both beguiling and repellent - the notion that we can seek out the wildness of the world and behold its beauty, but that we must first contain that wildness. Zoos argue that they are fighting for the conservation of the Earth, that they educate the public and provide refuge and support for vanishing species. And they are right. Animal-rights groups argue that zoos traffic in living creatures, exploiting them for financial gain and amusement. And they are right.
French also makes a subjective point: who among us, upon visiting a zoo, hasn't felt a sense of sadness blended in with our excitement and awe? Beautiful as it is, important as conservation and education are, there's something that feels wrong about it. Yann Martel in his Life of Pi made wonderful points in favor of zoos, including that zoo animals no longer have to fear predation, drought, illness, or humans' indifference. But possibly we have something to fear - our own urge to dominate and control.

It's hard not to feel repelled by some of the descriptions of human behavior at zoos; people can be damn fools when it comes to treating animals with respect, or even taking proper care of their own interests. French relates several zoo horror stories involving human deaths because of negligence, ignorance, or outright stupidity. However, he also does a wonderful job of presenting the zoo keepers with all their love and care toward the animals. There's a hilarious division among the keepers between bunnyhuggers (the type who'll nickname and baby-talk animals) and non-bunnyhuggers (who tend to be the ones working with frogs, snakes, tarantulas, and other less cuddly charges). Some of the bunnyhuggers even go so far as to name the animals along a Star Wars theme:
One of the young howler monkeys had been christened Anakin, as in Anakin Skywalker, which was Darth Vader's name before he grew up and went to the dark side. The name made sense, because howler monkeys are born with tan fur and then turn black as they mature. It was an inside joke. A keeper thing.
As interesting as the human characters are, for me, the best part of the book dealt with the animals at the zoo. There are unforgettable characters here: Ellie, the first-time pregnant elephant; Enshalla, a beautiful but very nasty Sumatran tiger who dominates all the male tigers that're brought in to mate with her; and Herman, the alpha chimpanzee, who's kind to his fellow chimps and has a serious weakness for human blondes.
Like many of the animals at Lowry Park, most of the chimps disliked the veterinarian because they associated him with the sting of a tranquilizer dart and other indignities required for their medical care. One day, Murphy appeared in the chimp night house with a tranquilizer gun so he could attend to Herman. Murphy was a good shot and almost never missed. But this time, his aim was off. The other chimps would have run and hid. Herman just picked up the dart, walked over to the mesh, and handed it back to Murphy so he could try again.
I feel like I've quoted enough from this book to merit a copyright infringement lawsuit and still not gotten to half the good stuff! All I can say is, it's really wonderful.


  1. As animal refuges, zoos are heaven compared to the circus. I'll never go to one again. Once was enough.

  2. I love visiting the zoo! Thank you for letting me know about this book. I hadn't heard of it before.

    I'm a fellow Albuquerque blogger. It's nice to meet you :)

  3. December's Smithsonian has an interesting article about attempts to save orangutans in Borneo that you might enjoy: