Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives

Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives

4.1 34
by Thomas French

See All Formats & Editions

“This story, told by a master teller of such things, does more than take you inside the cages, fences, and walls of a zoo. It takes you inside the human heart, and an elephant’s, and a primate’s, and on and on. Tom French did in this book what he always does. He took real life and wrote it down for us, with eloquence and feeling and aching detail.


“This story, told by a master teller of such things, does more than take you inside the cages, fences, and walls of a zoo. It takes you inside the human heart, and an elephant’s, and a primate’s, and on and on. Tom French did in this book what he always does. He took real life and wrote it down for us, with eloquence and feeling and aching detail.”
—Rick Bragg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author

“An insightful and detailed look at the complex life of a zoo and its denizens, both animal and human.”
—Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil

Welcome to the savage and surprising world of Zoo Story, an unprecedented account of the secret life of a zoo and its inhabitants. Based on six years of research, the book follows a handful of unforgettable characters at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo: an alpha chimp with a weakness for blondes, a ferocious tiger who revels in Obsession perfume, and a brilliant but tyrannical CEO known as El Diablo Blanco.

The sweeping narrative takes the reader from the African savannah to the forests of Panama and deep into the inner workings of a place some describe as a sanctuary and others condemn as a prison. Zoo Story shows us how these remarkable individuals live, how some die, and what their experiences reveal about the human desire to both exalt and control nature.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist French goes behind the scenes at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo in this absorbing and balanced account that reveals extinction, conservation, and captivity issues in all their moral complexities and featuring a very memorable cast. The author introduces readers to Herman, the lovable species-confused chimpanzee who has reigned at Lowry Park for three decades; Enshalla, whose “family history was like a Greek tragedy,” and her mate Eric, Sumatran tigers whose attempts at mating captivate the zoo staff; Ladybug, the black bear who likes oranges and peanut butter; Lex Salisbury, the ambitious CEO who holds the fate of the zoo animals and humans in his hands; and the trainers who witness the circle of life and death among their charges. We are forced to reconsider our notions of freedom and captivity when presented with such scenarios as 11 partially sedated wild South African elephants being moved to U.S. zoos to escape slaughter at home. A thoughtful and moving but unsentimental portrait of life in captivity and a broad introduction to some of its most salient—and intractable—dilemmas. (July)
From the Publisher
"The book captures the fascination humans have with animals, and vice versa, and raises questions about the purpose and management of zoos." ---Kirkus Starred Review
Kirkus Reviews
An in-depth look behind the gates of an American zoo. Former St. Petersburg Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter French (Journalism/Indiana Univ.) gained unusual access to zoo personnel to research this vivid account of the hidden workings of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo during a tumultuous six-year period. Dwarfed by Busch Gardens and Disney's Animal Kingdom, Lowry was headed by CEO Lex Salisbury, an ambitious visionary with grandiose expansion plans. In the first of many sharply rendered scenes, French opens with the remarkable air-lifting of 11 wild elephants from Africa to the United States, where four of the awesome creatures served as the foundation for Lowry's planned five-acre "Safari Africa" area. The author describes animal-rights groups' vehement protests to the uprooting of the elephants from their Swaziland game reserve and the legitimate concerns of many specialists that American zoos are not properly equipped to care for the animals. Nonetheless, the elephants-immensely popular with zoo-goers-were certain to boost attendance and revenue at Lowry. French explores the clash at Lowry and other zoos between a mission to conserve animals and a desire to entertain people. The author recounts aspects of life at the city-owned facility: the deaths of its stellar residents, a beautiful tiger and a playful chimp; staff drills in how to return escaped animals to exhibits; a black-tie fundraising gala; and the growing turnover among dedicated zookeepers, who feel overworked and underpaid while Lowry officials pursue increasingly glitzy plans, including a 258-acre game park. In 2008, the mass escape of 15 monkeys from the site of the planned game park prompted a city audit of the relationship between the nonprofit zoo and the for-profit game park that eventually led to Salisbury's forced resignation amid charges of conflict of interest. Based on articles that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times, the book captures the fascination humans have with animals, and vice versa, and raises questions about the purpose and management of zoos. A well-constructed, colorful read for animal lovers. Agent: Jane Dystel/Dystel & Goderich

Product Details

Hachette Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


Life in the Garden of Captives


Copyright © 2010 Thomas French
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4013-2346-2

Chapter One

The New World

Eleven elephants. One plane. Hurtling together across the sky.

The scene sounds like a dream conjured by Dalí. And yet there it was, playing out high above the Atlantic. Inside the belly of a Boeing 747, eleven young elephants were several hours into a marathon flight from South Africa to the United States. Nothing could have prepared them for what they were experiencing. These were not circus animals, accustomed to captivity. All of these elephants were wild, extracted at great expense and through staggering logistics from their herds inside game reserves in Swaziland. All were headed for zoos in San Diego and Tampa.

The date was August 21, 2003, a Thursday morning that stretched on and on. The elephants were confined in eleven metal crates inside the semidarkness of the freighter jet's cavernous hold. Before they were loaded into the plane, they had been sedated. Now they were woozy and not particularly hungry. Some lay on their sides, slumbering. A few stood and snaked their trunks toward a human who moved up and down the line of crates, replenishing their water, murmuring reassurance.

"Calm down," Mick Reilly told them. "It's not so bad."

Mick was thirty-two, with light brown hair and the permanent tan of someone who has grown up in the African bush. As usual, he was clad in his safari khakis and an air of quiet self-assurance. His arms and legs bore the faint scratches of acacia thorns. His weathered boots were powdered with the red dust of the veldt. Everything about him testified to a lifetime of wading through waist-high turpentine grass and thickets of aloe and leadwood trees, of tracking lions and buffalos and rhinos and carefully counting their young, of hunting poachers armed with AK-47s.

Mick and his father ran the two game reserves where the elephants had lived in Swaziland, a small landlocked kingdom nestled in the southern tip of Africa. Mick and these eleven elephants had come of age together in the parks. They recognized his scent and voice, the rhythms of his speech. He knew their names and histories and temperaments-which of them was excitable and which more serene, where each of them ranked in the hierarchies of their herds. Watching them in their crates, he could not help but wonder what they were thinking. Surely they could hear the thrum of the jet engines and feel the changes in altitude and air pressure. Through the pads of their feet, equipped with nerve endings highly attuned to seismic information, they would have had no trouble detecting the vibrations from the fuselage. But what could they decipher from this multitude of sensations? Did they have any notion that they were flying?

"It's OK," Mick told them. "You'll be fine."

Not everyone, he realized, agreed with his assessment. He was tired of the long and bitter debate that had raged on both sides of the Atlantic in the months before this flight. Tired of the petitions and the lawsuits and the denunciations from people who had never set foot in Swaziland, never seen for themselves what was happening inside the game reserves. There simply was not enough room for all of the elephants anymore, not without having the trees destroyed, the parks devastated, and other species threatened. Either some of the elephants had to be killed, or they could be sent to new homes in these two zoos. Mick saw no other way to save them. He had heard the protests from the animal-rights groups, insisting that for the elephants any fate would be preferable to a zoo, that it would be better for them to die free than live as captives.

Such logic made him shake his head. The righteous declarations. All this talk of freedom as if it were some pure and limitless river flowing through the wild, providing for every creature and allowing them all to live in harmony. On an overcrowded planet, where open land is disappearing and more species slip toward extinction every day, freedom is not so easily defined. Should one species-any species-have the right to multiply and consume at will, even as it nudges others toward oblivion?

As far as Mick could tell, nature cared about survival, not ideology. And on this plane, the elephants had been given a chance. Before his family had agreed to send them to the two zoos, he had visited the facilities where they would be housed and had talked with the keepers who would care for them. He was confident the elephants would be treated humanely and be given as much space to move as possible. Still, there was no telling how they would adjust to being taken from everything they knew. Wild elephants are accustomed to ranging through the bush for miles a day. They are intelligent, self-aware, emotional animals. They bond. They rage and grieve. True to their reputation, they remember.

How would the exiles react when they realized their days and nights were encircled as never before? When they understood, as much as they could, that they would not see Africa again? Either they had been rescued or enslaved. Or both.

The 747 raced westward, carrying its living cargo toward the new world.

The savanna, alive just after sunset. Anvil bats search for fruit in the falling light. A bush baby wails somewhere in the trees. Far off to the east, along the Mozambique border, the Lebombo Mountains stand shrouded in black velvet.

A fat moon, nearly full, shines down on a throng of elephants chewing their way through what's left of the umbrella acacias inside Mkhaya Game Reserve. A small patch of green in the center of Swaziland, Mkhaya is one of the parks the elephants on the 747 were taken from. This was their home. Before deciding what to think about the fate of the eleven headed for the zoos, it helps to see the wild place they came from. To know what their lives were like before they ended up on the plane and to understand the realities that pushed them toward that surreal journey.

An evening tour through Mkhaya is especially dramatic-climbing into a Land Rover at the end of a golden afternoon, then lurching along the park's winding dirt roads, searching for the elephants who remain. Mkhaya's herd is a good-sized group-sixteen in all, counting the calves-and even though they are the largest land mammals on earth, they are not always easy to find. Elephants, it turns out, are surprisingly stealthy.

As the sunlight fades, other species declare their presence. Throngs of zebras and wildebeests thunder by in the distance, trailing dust clouds. Cape buffalo snort and raise their horns and position themselves in front of their young. Giraffes stare over treetops, their huge brown eyes blinking, then lope away in seeming slow motion. But no elephants.

A couple of hours into the tour, the visitors begin to wonder if they will glimpse any of the hulking creatures tonight. Then suddenly the entire group seems to materialize from nowhere. The driver has unwittingly turned a corner into the center of the herd. On both sides of the road, elephants loom like great gray ghosts. They're in the middle of their evening feeding, knocking down trees, snapping branches and chewing on leaves and peeling bark with their tusks. As the Land Rover sputters to a stop in their midst, the elephants turn their massive heads toward the intruders. Two calves hurry toward their mothers and aunts. A towering bull, his tusks faintly glowing in the moonlight, moves from the shadows into a patch of red leopard grass only twenty feet away.

"Here's my big boy," says a woman in the back row of the vehicle. "Come over and say hello."

As if on cue, the bull steps into the road and lumbers toward the Land Rover. He doesn't appear angry. Just insistent. Behind the wheel, the tour guide quickly restarts the engine, then shifts into reverse. He's hurrying backward down the road when, in his mirror, he spies one of the females waiting beside a bushwillow. As the vehicle approaches, the cow bends the tree across the road and holds it there, directly in the humans' path. She makes it look easy.

Without slowing down, the guide spins the wheel, taking the Rover off the road-still in reverse-and maneuvering around both the elephant and her roadblock. He keeps his foot on the gas, tearing and bumping backward down a little hillside and across a dry riverbed until he's sure none of the herd is following.

The guests inside the Land Rover try to process what they've just witnessed. What was that elephant doing?

The guide smiles, shrugs. "She was just being naughty. They've got a sense of humor-more than people realize."


Another shrug. "She was definitely trying to block our way," says the guide. "It's just not good to drive through an elephant herd. They don't like you to drive through. They want you to listen to them."

Driving back to camp, he explains that elephants get irritated when they're not in control. He talks about how helicopter pilots, flying over herds, have seen elephants grab small trees and shake them, as if trying to swat the helicopters from the sky.

Here in Mkhaya, encounters between elephants and humans tend to be more relaxed. Every day, the herd indulges the curiosity of the tourists who approach in Land Rovers with their camcorders. Usually the elephants seem curious as well, walking within a few feet of the humans, calmly reaching forward with their trunks. Still, whenever the two species meet, anything can happen. Once, a park employee was bicycling to work when he accidentally pedaled into the middle of a herd. The rattling of his bike spooked a mother with her calf, and the cow attacked, chasing down the man and then picking him up and throwing him several times. He survived-barely.

In Swaziland, as in other parts of Africa, elephants have struggled to hold their own against humans. Americans tend to think of Africa as a continent of vast, unclaimed spaces, where species can roam to the horizon and beyond. In reality, humans have occupied so much of the continent that many animals are confined inside game parks. Although these parks are often huge-sometimes stretching across hundreds of miles-the animals increasingly find their movement restricted by human boundaries, human considerations, human priorities.

As our species paves over the planet, squeezing other species out of existence, we seek solace in the myth of unlimited freedom. Inside our subdivisions, we sit with our kids and watch The Lion King, singing along as Simba and Pumbaa and Timon parade across the endless veldt and majestically celebrate the circle of life. But the truth is, the circle of life is constantly shrinking. If you're going to see a lion, even in Africa, it will almost certainly be on a tour inside a fenced park.

The conflict unfolds in miniature inside Swaziland, a country smaller than New Jersey. Although elephants once thrived here, the only two places where they can be found today are inside Mkhaya and at another fenced reserve, Hlane Royal National Park. Compared with the mammoth game parks in South Africa and other neighboring countries, Mkhaya and Hlane are tiny. Only a few dozen elephants live inside the two parks.

Fifty years ago, not a single member of their species could be found in Swaziland. They had all long since died off or been killed by hunters. Then Ted Reilly, Mick's father, stepped in. Ted was born and raised in Swaziland and spent his childhood in the bush, watching antelope graze in the distance, studying how kingfishers bore holes into the dirt to make their nests. As a young man he left home to study conservation, working as a ranger in game reserves in nearby South Africa and Zimbabwe. When he returned to Swaziland in 1960 to help run his family's farm, he discovered that during his years away almost all of the country's wildlife had been wiped out. Traveling through regions that had once teemed with dozens of species, he found them all gone.

Reilly decided to bring the animals back. First he turned the family farm in Mlilwane into a wildlife sanctuary. He planted trees and savanna grasses, built dams to create wetlands, then stocked the new habitat with species he had imported from other countries or had captured himself. His adventures bestowed him with a larger-than-life reputation. He tore through the bush in an old jeep named Jezebel, pursuing impala and warthogs and any poachers foolish enough to venture inside the sanctuary. He scoured the Swazi countryside, gathering scorpions and frogs and lizards. He had a female hippo from a London zoo flown in, then ferried a male from the same zoo across the English Channel and had it flown in from Paris. His rangers captured a nine-foot crocodile on the banks of the Nkomati River, then drove the thrashing reptile to Mlilwane in a pickup truck.

One harrowing day, Reilly and a crew of thirty were transporting a white rhino that they'd tranquilized and then hoisted onto a flatbed truck. The men, seated around the sleeping prize, were startled when the rhino awoke enough to snap through his ropes and stand up beside them on the back of the moving vehicle. Their armored captive was groggy, but no less fearsome. Some of the men jumped off. Others yelled until the driver stopped and the rhino could be restrained again.

The campaign to restore the country's wildlife inevitably drew the attention of King Sobhuza II. The Swazi monarch, one of the last kings to reign over an African country, was famous for having fifty wives, some of whom he chose at the annual Reed Dance, a great tribal celebration where thousands of bare-breasted virgins undulated in public and paid homage to his majesty and the queen mother. As a national symbol of fertility, the king was expected to have many wives and produce many children. In nearby South Africa, where Swaziland was often viewed as a backwater, mention of the dance and the king's topless maidens prompted eye-rolling. The jibes of outsiders were of little consequence to Reilly. A royalist through and through, he dismissed these naysayers as ignorant of his country's ancient traditions. Besides, his battles against hunters and poachers had earned him more than a few foes in the Swazi parliament. If he was to prevail, he needed the king's support.

Sobhuza, who longed for the return of wild creatures, proved a dedicated ally. The sanctuary at Mlilwane was only the beginning. Working closely with the king and his successor, his son Mswati III, Reilly went on to create the country's first national park at Hlane and then opened Mkhaya, a reserve designated for the protection of endangered species such as black rhinos and Nguni cattle. A nonprofit trust was formed to operate the three parks. Reilly trained more rangers, including his son Mick, and stocked the land with more species-lions, sable antelopes, buffalos, cheetahs.

The elephants began to arrive in 1987, when Mick was still a teenager. From the start, they were controversial. There were a dozen of them, all trucked in from South Africa, all of them calves only a few years old. They were survivors of the annual culls carried out to control the country's elephant population. Though the calves had been spared, they had witnessed the slaughter of their families. Not everyone was sure it made sense to bring them into Swaziland. How would they survive without their mothers? Even if they did make it, would they be haunted by memories from the culls?

Ted Reilly brushed away the questions. He agreed that the calves would be happier roaming the bush beside their mothers. But their mothers were dead. Weren't they better off, Reilly said, starting new lives in Mkhaya and Hlane?

The elephants survived. They did so well, in fact, that within a few years of their arrival, they exceeded the parks' resources. Elephants are among the most beloved animals on the planet. But they are also voracious eaters that feed for up to eighteen hours a day. They have a remarkable ability, unrivalled by any species except for Homo sapiens, to alter their surrounding ecosystems. The elephants inside Mkhaya and Hlane were tearing the bark off so many trees and knocking down so many other trees that they were systematically deforesting entire sections. The destruction threatened the future of the eagles and owls and vultures that nested in those trees. It also posed a serious challenge for the black rhinos, one of Africa's most endangered species, which depended on similar vegetation for their diet.


Excerpted from ZOO STORY by THOMAS FRENCH Copyright © 2010 by Thomas French. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"The book captures the fascination humans have with animals, and vice versa, and raises questions about the purpose and management of zoos." —-Kirkus Starred Review

Meet the Author

Thomas French was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and many other honors for his writing during three decades as a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times.

John Allen Nelson's critically acclaimed roles on television's 24 and Vanished are among the highlights of his twenty-five-plus years as an actor, screenwriter, and film producer. As a narrator, he won an AudioFile Earphones Award for his reading of Zoo Story by Thomas French.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Zoo Story 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! It was a very interesting story of what goes on behind the scenes at a zoo with the animals, the people, and the politics of it all. Though written very objectively the book tells of all the little interesting stories of the individual animals and thier histories. It also chronicles the rise and fall of the zoo'z CEO Lex Salisbury, his successes and some of his shortcomings. Also, the devoted people that work as zookeepers and thier triumphs and tragedies. i give it 2 thumbs up!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Amazing book. A must read
Kat Capocasale More than 1 year ago
This book is great! its a great look at the inner workings of a zoo. it really shows how much keepers love their animals and how hard they work to have guests experience a connection with animals!
Toni Blessing More than 1 year ago
Don't miss this book. If you care about animals and zoos you can't miss it. It reads like a novel. Loved it!
ladyhawke28 More than 1 year ago
For anyone interested in a small example of what goes on in zoos on a day to day basis: the thoughts from keepers on having animals in captivity and the reasons for why zoos are what they are, and why they do what they do. This book is not long and isn't going to go into great detail on all the complications at a zoo, but it gives you a glimpse into what it is today (compared to what it was in the past) and the challenging decisions zoos have to make for the animals whose world is shrinking across the globe. This book is real and honest,shows that no zoo is perfect, and one can decide for themselves if zoos really should be seen so negatively.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great job of tracing the under current of a modern zoo. Well worth the read! My thanks to the author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
They are so exciting but i feel sorry for the animals and this book has given me alot more information on zoos than before!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago