Zoo Story



Zoo Story ****.* by Thomas French


I’m joining Jain with my Edible Review at Food for Thought, a delicious blog for readers with an appetite for the written word. 


I loved this book~  animal lover that I am, I found it heart warming and heart wrenching in equal measure. Written by Thomas French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, based on six years of research, French takes us behind the scenes at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. The characters are noteworthy:  Herman, a species-confused chimp with a preference for blondes; Enshalla, a Sumatran tiger who revels in Obsession perfume; and the egomaniacal and brilliant CEO, Lex Salisbury, who is the driving force behind the zoo’s growing pains, its triumphs and its tragedies.

 The characters I was most fascinated with were the elephants *sigh*. . .

The book begins with elephants onboard a 747 leaving their home in Swaziland, a country smaller than New Jersey in the southern tip of Africa. Survivors from annual culls, a reality that is practiced to control the country’s elephant population, they are stretching the parks’ resources and in need of a new home. These eleven elephants find themselves being relocated to zoos in San Diego and of course, Tampa where the controversy and story begins:  “Eleven elephants. One plane. Hurtling together across the sky.”

“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.”



“Anyone who has ever been squeezed into the middle seat of a passenger jet on a transatlantic flight has some notion of what it must have been like inside those crates. But to be confined for two full days without understanding where they were going or what was happening—lacking even the most basic notion of a plane—must have been disorienting almost beyond description.”


“Imagine the landing in Tampa. Begin with what it must have been like to descend through the clouds—that curious sensation of slowly sinking, the leveling of the wings, the cascading change in altitude. What would it have felt like to an elephant? Did their ears pop? Then came the buzz of the landing gears lowering beneath their feet and the shaking from outside as the air resistance increased. Then the bump of the landing and the sense of rushing forward on solid ground and a roar from outside as the plane slowed and finally stopped. Something opened, and a series of unrecognizable faces and scents approached their crates. Then the whirring of the forklift and a groaning from the crane, accompanied by the sensation of being lifted and lowered. A rush of fresh air, the patter of rain. Night, unfurling outside the metal box that had become their world. A mechanical growling as they were propelled forward on the trucks. A forest of flashing lights. The thunk-thunk of helicopter blades, rotating somewhere above.”



“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.”

“Beloved as they were, elephants tested a zoo’s limits. They were expensive to feed and house, they were extremely dangerous to work with, and their very nature—their independence and intelligence, their emotional sensitivity, their need to bond with other elephants and walk for miles a day—made it difficult to provide them with surroundings in which they would not lapse into misery.”

“One study showed that over a fifteen-year period, one elephant handler was killed in the United States every year—a fatality rate three times that of coal miners, the most deadly occupation tracked by the federal labor department. The job was especially hazardous when their human keepers worked side by side with the elephants under a protocol known as free contact. To survive under free contact, which called for them to enter the same space as the elephants, many keepers believed they had to not only join the herd but maintain dominance. Essentially they had to become a human version of the matriarch. This was never easy, given the differential in size and strength, but it became particularly hazardous when the lead handler was off-duty and a subordinate had to take over. As elephants maneuvered for position in the hierarchy, they would push or bump their handlers to test them. If the person wasn’t experienced enough or fell down in front of them or showed another sign of vulnerability, one of the elephants would sometimes see an opening and attack.”



“Elephants are 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.”

Food for Thought was not readily apparent in this book~ I decided to make Elephant Ears. . .which as they turned out, look more like Valentine hearts. (I have no doubt were this February, my attempt at hearts would look more like elephant ears :) You can find a recipe from the Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry website here.

“Elephants routinely communicate with one another through snorts, shrieks, roars, bellows, and trumpets. They also exchange information through low-frequency rumbles, most of which humans can’t hear. Sometimes people in the vicinity of elephants can feel these rumbles; the vibrations have been described as ‘a throbbing in the air’ similar to thunder. One researcher in Kenya, listening to the infrasonic calls on a specialized recorder that picked up low frequencies, reported that they sounded like soft purring, Elephants tune in to these rumbles not just with their ears, but also with their feet, they can detect low-frequency sounds as they ripple in seismic vibrations along the ground. Elephants use these infrasonic signals to attract mates, to assert dominance, and to find and rescue calves who have fallen into watering holes or gotten into other trouble and are calling for help.”


“From the argus pheasants to the goliath bird-eating spiders, each of Lowry Park’s sixteen hundred animals offered living proof of nature’s endless gift for invention. In the curves of their skulls, in the muscles of their wings, in their blood and bones and twisting nucleotides of their DNA, each carried millions of years of the planet’s biological history. But their presence inside these walls also testified to the epic self-regard of the species that had seen fit to build the zoo and so many others like it around the world.”

Lowry Park’s very existence declared our presumption of supremacy, the ancient belief that we have been granted dominion over other creatures and have the right to do with them as we please. The zoo was a living catalogue of our fears and obsessions, the ways we see animals and see ourselves, all the things we prefer not to see at all. Every corner of the grounds revealed our appetite for amusement and diversion, no matter what the cost. Our longing for the wildness we have lost inside ourselves. Our instinct to both exalt nature and control it. Our deepest wish to love and protect other species even as we scorch their forests and poison their rivers and shove them toward oblivion. All of it was on display in the garden of captives.”

“Inside our subdivisions, we sit with our kids and watch The Lion King, singing along as 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.”



Herman the zoo’s most famous resident for three decades:


“By now the years were catching up with him. His chin hairs had gone gray. He grew winded more easily in the past. Still, he seemed to miss nothing. If one of the other chimps in his group was upset, he offered comfort. If a dispute erupted, he stepped in. Often, though he held himself apart from the others and stayed on his stony perch. Tired of standing, he lay down on the rock shelf, studied the black nails of his fingers.”

“His early years, with a human family who had clothed him and diapered him and taught him to sit at the dinner table, had left him in profound confusion, and his years of isolation in the cage had increased this confusion and imbued him with an unceasing need for human attention. Though his alpha status conferred upon him sexual privileges, he never tried to breed with the three female chimps available to him. Instead he was attracted only to human females, preferably athletic blondes.”


“At times, Herman seemed uncannily human, understanding things that eluded the other chimps. His unusual relationship with Dr. Murphy was a good example. Like many of the animals at Lowry Park, most of the chimps disliked the veterinarian because they associated him with the sting of a tranquilizer dart and other indignities required for their medical care. One day, Murphy appeared in the chimp night house with a tranquilizer gun so he could attend Herman, Murphy was a good shot and almost never missed. But this time, his aim was off. The other chimps would have run and hid. Herman just picked up the dart, walked over to the mesh, and handed it back to Murphy so he could try again.”


Monkey Bread, in honor of Herman~ even though he is Chimp not a Monkey :)


A recipe for Chimp or Monkey Bread, can be found here.

“In the zoo world, orangutans are known as escape artists. Typically much calmer and quieter than chimps, they are inquisitive and love to spend hours figuring out how to put things together or take them apart. Their species practices these engineering skills high in the jungle canopies of Indonesia, where they have been observed tying branches and vines together and manipulating the tension of saplings to move more easily through the trees. In zoos, they are famed for their ability to devise ingenious ways from slipping from their enclosures.”


Zebra Cake Trifle~ layers of chocolate pudding, whipped cream and of course, Little Debbie Zebra Cakes.

“All zoos, even the most enlightened, are built upon the idea both beguiling and repellent—the notion that we can seek out the wildness of the world and behold its beauty, but that we must first contain that wildness. Zoos argue that they are fighting for the conservation of the Earth, that they educate the public and provide refuge and support for vanishing species. And they are right. Animal-rights groups argue that zoos traffic in living creatures, exploiting them for financial gain and amusement. And they are right. Caught inside this contradiction are the animals themselves, and the humans charged with their well-being.”



“Despite all their flaws, zoos wake us up. They invite us to step outside our most basic assumptions. Offered for our contemplation, the animals remind us of nature’s impossibly varied schemes for survival, all the strategies that species rely upon for courtship and mating and protecting the young and establishing dominance and hunting for something to eat and avoiding being eaten. On a good day, zoos shake people into recognizing the manifold possibilities of existence, what it’s like to walk across the Earth, or swim in its oceans of fly above its forests—even though most animals on display will never have the chance to do any of those things again, at least not in the wild.”


“New life insists. It does not debate. It simply appears, trembling and hungry, and will not be denied.”

 All the wonderful animal photos are courtesy of the NC Zoo~  where you can see new life in the form of a baby chimp born August 2nd :)


Thank you for your visit, I’m joining:


  24 comments for “Zoo Story

  1. September 11, 2010 at 4:05 am

    I truly enjoyed this post and felt like I was reading the book right along with you! What a story about the elephants. I could feel their fear. My favorite picture though…is of the zebra…love the Zebra Cakes Dessert! Love it Mary!! Thank you ever so much for sharing your stories and your home and your ability to write such wonderful stories!

  2. September 11, 2010 at 9:51 am

    omg that was soooooooooooo delightful! normally i write comments as i scan your review, but this time i was so mesmerized i read straight thru, plus i was dying to know if you took all those pics! super job with the elephant hearts ;-) for the record i knew what they were before you even mentioned them! and the monkey bread was an adorable tie is and was the zebra pudding, cute cute cute! loved it all! i used to hate zoos, thought they were cruel, but since living in the country and seeing how hard nature is on the animals, i am happy they are well cared for now… wonderful post, again, thank for sharing an enlightening!

  3. September 11, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    I so love this…the big mama cat & babies & of course, Herman. A

  4. yvonne
    September 11, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    The elephants brought to San Diego have had 8 babies since their arrival. Seems like they like their new environment. You can check them out at sandiegozoo.org and click on safari park and then the elephant cam.

  5. September 11, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Speaking of animals, your two furbabies are PRESH. US. I had a Bichon named Vaidaya when I lived in the states who now lives with my parents and their two poodles (couldn’t bring her to the UK). I miss her dearly. She’s the most wonderful dog in the world.

    Just wanted to share. :)

  6. Ann
    September 12, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Another beautiful post. Loved the zebra trifle!!!

  7. September 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Mary, what a feast for the eyes. The photos are amazing. Once could almost reach out and pet these amazing creatures. Your FFT was spot on! Elephant ears, monkey bread, and zebra trifle ~ all looks delicious. I’m now craving a bit of something sweet. Thanks for the review of this book. It looks most interesting. I’m going to check out the web site that Yvonne suggested. I want to meet these sweet creatures. ;-)

  8. September 18, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    Nice animal/zoo pictures. I’ve heard good things about the book, Zoo Story. Thanks.

    Allen Nyhuis, Coauthor: America’s Best Zoos

  9. September 11, 2011 at 12:35 am

    Zebra cake trifle?! That is ingenious! Great pics too!

  10. Lola
    October 12, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Great story about the elephants – and great images too!

    Happy A-Thursday!

  11. October 12, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    How interesting! Thank you for this post.

  12. October 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    As always, a feast for the eyes and intellect! I love all those beautiful animal pictures.

  13. H
    October 12, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    I had no idea that elephants were so interesting! The idea of the zoo does open up a whole barrel of ethical questions, but some of the conservation work they do is outstanding. It’s a sadness that we can’t be more responsible with our planet so that animals like these would not need to be confined.

  14. October 12, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    wonderful zoo collection! i feel you love elephants like me :)

  15. October 12, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    This was such fun!

  16. October 12, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    What a fantastic post for “Z”.
    Very informative. Awesome photos.
    Of course the baked goods look delicious…my favorite has to be the Zebra Cake Trifle with all that chocolate!

    Thanks for sharing.

    The Evening Zephyr

  17. October 12, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    I like the great apes. But your post was so wonderful. I truly love wild life and I like all these gorgeous photos you share alogn with the story. Hugs Anne

  18. October 13, 2011 at 12:18 am

    My favorite photo is of the zebra and the Giraffes–a great contrast in patterns!!

  19. Karen S.
    October 13, 2011 at 12:30 am

    Zoomendous! thanks for the visit!…awesome shots of what must have been a beautiful day!

  20. October 13, 2011 at 8:55 am

    I should have brought a snack into the computer area to have while reading this post. Now I am craving one.

  21. October 13, 2011 at 10:31 am

    I will have to read this one, it’s right up my alley (animal dork that I am)

  22. October 13, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    Nobody, but nobody, does a review like you!


  23. Pondside
    October 15, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Jane Goodall was here to give a talk this week – what an inspiring person. She challenges us to make the world a better place – I wonder how many will take up the challenge?

  24. October 19, 2011 at 6:29 pm



    What an inspiring, gorgeous, lovely, jaw-dropping, SUPERB! post!

    This was glorious start to finish.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    I’m sending the link to my daughter-in-law for my Grandlittles to enjoy!

    Just fabulous!

    Hope to Z you again soon!


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