Zoo Story, by Thomas French

Zoo Story

Thomas French is a journalist who covered Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo for a number of years, writing numerous articles for his newspaper, and eventually putting all the material into book form.

However, Zoo Story is not one of those books that’s a minimally-edited compilation of previous writings. The book certainly is informed by all the research done for those articles, but it very much stands on its own. It doesn’t have that unsatisfying cobbled-together feel of a compilation.

It’s a story of animals, but also a story of the people that work at the zoo, including its somewhat megalomaniacal director, who is one of those dynamic, domineering people who pride themselves on how they’re able to get things done and achieve their goals without excuse, and without worrying about how much of an asshole they’re being in the process.

When things are going well and the zoo is prospering, and it’s only some employees and outsiders complaining, he’s untouchable. But when things go sour and people with power could be inconvenienced by the zoo’s problems, he finds that suddenly he’s quite touchable.

So the political stuff and the personality conflicts are certainly an important element of the book. But that’s not to say it’s not primarily an animal book. The bulk of the material is about elephants, chimpanzees, tigers, and other animals.

I didn’t realize that zoo animals maul and kill people as much as they do. I’ve never watched one of those When Animals Attack programs, or maybe I’d know better. But I was surprised by the stories of animals killing zookeepers, and even occasionally escaping from their enclosures and going after zoo visitors.

There’s the cliché that “they’re wild animals after all,” and I guess that applies, because even after working with such an animal for years and seemingly having some kind of a friendship with it, it can just up and decide to kill you one day.

Most zoos have gone to a system of reduced contact now, where the workers don’t interact with the animals as directly as they used to, but are protected in one way or another.

Interestingly, there’s been considerable resistance to this from zoo veterans. Many people who’ve worked at zoos, and maybe worked around animals before that at circuses and such, are aware of the risks but think it should be up to them if they want to assume those risks. They see not letting them work with animals in the way that they are accustomed as being like banning people from owning pit bulls (my example, not theirs).

Chimps, by the way, are surprisingly vicious. You wouldn’t think it from when they’re wearing funny little outfits, like in the classic Red Rose Tea commercials (the greatest commercials in the history of television), but especially when they get older they’re mean sons of bitches. Including toward each other. In one incident at the Lowry Park Zoo, a leader chimp is murdered in premeditated fashion by two other chimps.

French lays on the “people are like animals/animals are like people” message a little thick sometimes. He delights in describing human behavior animalistically, e.g., the way the body language of two men in the presence of women shows they’re competing like peacocks spreading their tails. That’s supposed to be a humbling reminder that we’re at the same level as animals, not entitled to think of ourselves as superior.

It’s a cute device, but not if it’s taken too far or too literally. To me it’s like pretending we’re no better than inanimate objects because we too are subject to the law of gravity. Imagine a passage purporting to explain why a person crossed the room by citing the effects of gravity and other natural forces on the movement of his body. “Here we are, thinking we’re somehow superior to rocks, yet with each step his foot returned to the earth in keeping with the law of gravity as he walked across the room…”

In the other direction, the anthropomorphizing of the animals is similarly dubious. Routinely he attributes human-like motives, knowledge, and emotions to them in a way that probably goes beyond what is warranted.

In describing a female tiger strutting around, he remarks that “She was beautiful and she knew it.” Really? A creature without language has some knowledge of the concept of “beautiful” and has a developed enough consciousness to apply this abstract concept to herself?

It’s fun to attribute human thoughts and emotions to animals like that—I do it myself—but there’s an element of make believe to it, like a child talking to its doll and acting like the doll is a person with whom one can interact. It’s one thing to talk like that for fun, and another to take it literally.

I’ve always liked animals—don’t 99% of people say that?—but oddly I felt like this book made me more conscious that maybe I’m not as much of an animal person as most folks are. I felt a resistance to this equating of people and animals that I’m guessing most readers wouldn’t feel.

You can connect with an animal better than with an inanimate object, but you can connect with a person better than with an animal. A person has all kinds of capacities to tap into that an animal doesn’t. If you don’t see that, then you’re missing out on a lot of the potential for human relationships, or you’re playing make-believe thinking you also have all that in your relationships with animals.

I’m sure this is coming across as more anti-animal than I intend. I find animals interesting to observe, and I agree that there is value in the kind of relationships you can have with animals. I simply don’t equate them with people to the degree I feel the author does in this book.

Which is not to say he’s some kind of hard core animal rights activist. If you knew nothing about PETA except what you got from this book, you’d think its members were shrill unreasoning fanatics (which some of them on some issues certainly are), so I’m sure some readers will find him unjustifiably biased in favor of zoos.

Zoo Story is a pretty good read. There’s enough of interest going on with the animals and with the people of the zoo to keep you engaged.

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