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‘Zoo Story': Tigers and Chimps and Sneaky Practices, Oh My!

Hands-on research: Thomas French with a tiger cub at the home  of the vet who worked with the Sumatran tiger featured in Zoo Story.
By Kelley Benham
Hands-on research: Thomas French with a tiger cub at the home of the vet who worked with the Sumatran tiger featured in Zoo Story.

There are people who love zoos, and there are people who find them depressing. Thomas French understands both species.

French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, spent six years investigating what goes on at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo and discovered that what’s happening behind the family-friendly exhibits is not always pretty.

French’s Zoo Story: Life and Death in the Garden of Captives, is both top-notch reporting and page-turning storytelling, a tale that takes readers far beyond the antics of the monkey house and into the shady world of how zoos really work (not always well) and how exotic animals end up there (we’re not talking first-class travel here).

The book reads like the kind of prize-winning newspaper series for which French is famous. Every chapter is another installment, painting a picture of life within the zoo. He sets the mood, taking the reader there.

“Inside the zoo, time was not human. Time moved outside human expectations. It did not settle into a single groove,” French writes. “Zoo time was fluid, changeable, unpredictable. It unfolded in different rhythms, at variable speeds, calibrated to the heartbeat and breathing patterns and behavior of each species.”

But were those animals the lucky ones to be “saved” from often horrific conditions abroad? French asks. Or are they actually in a modern-day prison?

French travels from Florida to Swaziland and Panama to find out. Along the way he uncovers arrogant yet cunning executives (such as Lex Salisbury, the zoo’s charming yet volatile CEO), highly committed zoo employees who take on the role of surrogate mothers to many of the animals, and dozens of exotic species with distinct personalities all their own.

The animals often take center stage and make for many of French’s best stories — the Sumatran tiger that likes Obsession perfume, the 11 elephants that were flown to Tampa from Africa to increase the herd, and the chimps that become a large part of the Tampa zoo’s story.

Herman, the alpha chimp, in particular.

“He was attracted only to human females, preferably athletic blondes,” French writes. “(Herman) demonstrated his cross-species fixation every day … he had a thing for shoulders, which explained his fetish for tank tops.”

French’s narrative reads like a mystery novel. What will happen next? Will politics win out? Who will end up leading this zoo? What will happen to the chimps that escape?

There are more than a few surprises along the way. Not all of them are pleasant.

But by the end, French, and his readers, understand all too well what Simon & Garfunkel knew all along:

…It’s all happening at the zoo.

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