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.