"Eleven elephants. One plane. Hurtling together across the sky." From these opening sentences, I was captivated by this account of the inner workings of zoos, in particular Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and currently a professor of journalism at Indiana University.
There are many elements that combine to make this such an absorbing narrative. Woven throughout the book is discussion of the issues surrounding the pros and cons of holding animals in captivity and the attendant political implications, local and international. The daily challenge of providing for the well-being of the zoo's residents as well as the safety of its human visitors falls on the shoulders of a largely young, poorly paid, and overworked, if dedicated staff. The author intersperses these considerations with the histories of two of the zoo's most celebrated residents: a chimp who has never fully recovered from his separation from the human family that raised him until adolesence, and a stunningly beautiful but ferocious Sumatran tiger. The ultimate fates of these two animals, the "king" and "queen" of the Lowry Park Zoo, are sadly reflective of the shortcomings of institutions housing animals. Finally, a lighter tone is introduced with an amusing comparison of the behavior of the two-legged power brokers of the Tampa area and the zoo's overreaching director with that of the four-legged denizens of the zoo.
This is as enjoyable a nonfiction title as I've read in a long time and I highly recommend it for its thoughtful examination of the complexities of human-animal interactions.
In discussing the dangers of working with animals, the author makes brief reference to the Christmas Day 2007 attack by an escaped tiger at the San Francisco Zoo, resulting in one human death and another serious mauling; and to the horrific killing, in view of a shocked audience, of a trainer by an orca at Orlando's SeaWorld in February, 2010. An excellent article on the SeaWorld tragedy, "The Killer in the Pool" is in the July 2010 issue of Outside magazine, available at Central and North Park libraries, and is also highly recommended.