Thomas French was a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times when he read Yann Martel's Life of Pi and decided he wanted to learn all about zoos. That was in 2003, just as four elephants from Swaziland were about to take up residence at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. Zoo Story begins with the arrival of the elephants, now the zoo's most physically powerful creatures, and continues with Herman the chimpanzee and Enshalla the Sumatran tiger, king and queen of their own domains. No matter how strong, dominant, or popular they may be, however, all the mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians in the zoo are under the control of an even more powerful alpha male - Lex Salisbury, CEO, known to his employees as El Diablo Blanco.
Through fast-paced, absorbing stories, French depicts power struggles on many levels. Demonstrators from PETA and other animal rights groups oppose bringing in the elephants. Bamboo the chimp dethrones former alpha Herman. Enshalla refuses most suitors and outwits her keeper. An elephant tramples an employee. Zoo employees grumble about their tyrannical boss. Lex tangles with the mayor, the zoo board, and the press. Who knew that zoos were such hotbeds of dissent and intrigue?
Underlying the stories is an ethical question: should zoos even exist? Obviously zoos with small, dirty cages and scruffy, frightened animals should be revamped or closed. But what about zoos like Lowry Park that have created natural looking, cage-free environments, that attempt to breed endangered species, and that even return many of their animals to the wild after training them for independent living? And what makes anyone think that nature, "red in tooth and claw," is a better place for animals than a commodious zoo?
On the other hand, can large wild animals ever live normally in a confined area? Are endangered species, rather than being preserved, being domesticated to the point that they can no longer survive outside a sheltered environment? Do even the best zoos really care about animal welfare, or do they exist to make a profit?
French never answers these questions, but they preoccupy him right from the epigraph:
"I know zoos are no longer in people's good graces.
Religion faces the same problem.
Certain illusions about freedom plague them both."
--Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Zoo Story makes me want to spend a day at the zoo. It may make some readers want to shut the zoo down.