Fiction and fear led Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom French into a series of articles for the St. Petersburg Times that would grow into his book Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives.
The fiction was Yann Martel's 2001 Life of Pi. "I loved that novel," French says. Its narrator grew up on the grounds of a zoo, and there is a passage "that becomes a kind of essay on what zoos are really like, and an essay on the nature of freedom.
"I found it very provocative, although I didn't necessarily agree with all of it. So I sent it to Lowry Park, and they responded that it was really a lot more complicated than that." That would be Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, which became the setting and subject of Zoo Story.
The fear was French's own: "Before I did this, I was really kind of afraid of animals. I had some bad experiences as a paperboy with dogs, and I wanted to try to get past that.
"I was amazed at how much I totally fell in love with the animals. I didn't just get past the fear. I felt a real, true bond with Herman, with Enshalla, with some of the elephants."
That bond helped him bring them to life in the book: Herman, the alpha chimpanzee and Lowry Park Zoo's longest-term resident; Enshalla, the most ferocious and fascinating of tigers; and the animals that open the book: "Eleven elephants. One plane. Hurtling together across the sky."
To tell their stories, and those of the human beings who cared for them, French spent countless hours at the zoo over four years reporting the story, traveling to Central America and Africa as well. Acclaimed as a reporter and writer of long-form narrative journalism — he won the Pulitzer in 1998 for "Angels and Demons," a series about a triple murder — French got "by news standards, the great luxury of time" to report this story.
The zoo's administration and staff, he says, "were extraordinarily generous with their support and their time. I can't thank them enough."
Eventually, though, they tired of being under the microscope, and after the traumatic deaths of several animals in 2006, he says, "they had had enough of the headlines."
In December 2007, the Times published French's nine-part series, Zoo Story. The animals' deaths provided "a sad climax" to that version of the story, but as he began expanding it into a book two other forces altered its shape.
One was the downfall of the zoo's charismatic, ambitious CEO, Lex Salisbury. "That arc was already unfolding — his ambition was the driving force of the story" behind many of the changes Lowry Park Zoo underwent in a decade, French says. "He's a very, very complex, multidimensional guy. His friends can talk about his flaws, and his enemies can talk about his good points. That's an interesting character."
The other force that affected the book was French's own extensive research into zoos — their history, culture and many variations — and into scientific research on animals, particularly elephants.
Zoos have become controversial, with some animal advocates arguing for their abolition. But the history of zoos stretches back to ancient Mesopotamia and crosses centuries and cultures. "I don't think they're going away," French says. "You might as well tell people they can't keep pets.
"The question shouldn't be whether zoos should exist. The question should be what we can do to make them better."
In an age of mass extinctions, he says, zoos can play a vital role. "Look at Lowry Park's manatee program, which is doing great things. Everyone is proud of it. There's no ambivalence there."
French left the Times in 2008, after almost three decades on staff. (His wife, Kelley Benham, is a deputy Floridian editor at the Times.) In 2009 he joined the journalism faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington. "I grew up there, was an undergraduate there, so my 23-year-old self and my 53-year-old self have conversations walking around campus."
He has been impressed with the students he teaches. "I knew they'd be smart, but I didn't expect the depth of their passion." They understand, he says, that journalism is undergoing "an evolutionary shift" but believe they can help shape its future. "Reporting across different platforms is second nature to them. They had it piped into the womb."
French says his students rarely ask him whether journalism is dying, but other people do. "Of course not. News organizations may be going down, and a lot of people dear to me are dealing with that. But we've been painting the news about the latest antelope hunt on the walls of the cave since long before paper was invented.
"I believe the human desire for story is hard-wired. We'll always need stories, and some of them will be true stories, and that's journalism."