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Life in the Garden of Captives

A-Zoo StoryThomas French uses Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo to examine America’s conflicting views about keeping animals in captivity. The Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter and Indiana University journalism professor penned the book based on several years of reporting for the St. Petersburg Times.

The Topic: Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo opened in the 1930s as little more than a "tiny menagerie." By the 1980s, the zoo had become a blight, named one of the five worst habitats in the country by the National Humane Society. Under the ambitious eye of CEO Lex Salisbury, the zoo made a "long, steady climb from shame to redemption" by showcasing such animals as Herman, the lusty chimp, and Enshalla, a Sumatran tiger. In 2003, by importing African elephants from Swaziland (a move that also benefited Salisbury’s own for-profit nature park, Safari Wild), the CEO capped the zoo’s rise to the top of the country’s municipal parks. Salisbury wasn’t what he seemed, though, and in the blowback from his personal scandals, the very purpose of zoos was called into question.
Hyperion. 304 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9781401323462

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"As muckraking, Zoo Story is a blast. ... French really shines when articulating the philosophical quandary presented by zoos’ mere existence." Justin Moyer

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"French has a near-perfect case study for examining the current state of U.S. zoos. ... After four years of reporting on the zoo, French is in the perfect position to capture triumphs and disasters, and he does so with all the expertise of a biologist who has been observing the same group of animals in the field for years." Nancy Klingener

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"If you’ve ever wanted to know how zoo animals wind up crawling on the shoulders of uncomfortable-looking talk show hosts, how an injured manatee is nursed back to health, or how an enterprising chimp engineers an escape from captivity, Zoo Story satisfies very nicely. ... One thing seems sure: No one who reads French’s lively book is likely to view a zoo in quite the same way ever again." Gregory McNamee

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Zoo Story leaves its readers a little more educated about these enterprises, and wiser about what few of us will ever see directly for ourselves." Janet Okoben

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is expertly written, but it’s not an easy read because it only adds to our conflicted attitudes toward zoos. ... French’s focus on the elephants is the perfect springboard to perhaps the largest issue facing zoos." Stephen J. Lyons

Critical Summary

French knows the Lowry Park Zoo story better than anyone else, and his writing on the subject is engaging and instructive, particularly when he describes the behind-the-scenes politics that determines what 175 million Americans see every year on their visits. French adroitly mixes the sordid details of Lowry Park with a "big-picture" approach, avoiding the finger-pointing and polemic that so often accompanies discussions of zoos. The most difficult thing about reading Zoo Story is coming to terms with some hard truths about wildlife conservation--for example, are possible solutions worse than the problem? "All zoos, even the most enlightened," French points out, "are built upon an idea both beguiling and repellent--the notion that we seek out the wildness of the world and behold its beauty, but that we must first contain that wildness."