It's not easy being an elephant. For one thing, if you're a pachyderm, there are all those people chasing around after you with guns, aiming to turn your feet into umbrella stands and your tusks and bones into potency potions.
Even if you're lucky enough not to be shot dead where you stand, you're likely to be hungry and stressed — for, as Pulitzer Prize winner and former St. Petersburg Times reporter Thomas French writes, even inside the large game parks that have been set aside for elephants in southern Africa, "the animals increasingly find their movement restricted by human boundaries, human considerations, human priorities."
As French's Zoo Story (based on a series he wrote for the Times) opens, the elephants in a corner of tiny Swaziland, in southern Africa, have had an odd turn of luck: They have flourished in the sliver of land that has been made safe for them, flourished to the point that they have exhausted the resources available to them. As French points out, elephants are "voracious eaters that feed for up to eighteen hours a day," and they seem to have human-sized capacities for grinding up habitats in the cause of keeping their bellies full.
Put too many of them in a confined area, and bad things are likely to happen. Given that, some of the elephants simply had to go. So it was that, in summer 2003, 11 of them found themselves winging their way across the ocean in the cargo hold of a wide-body Boeing 747, bound for a new life in Tampa.
There they would take up residence in one of the country's best elephant exhibits, at Lowry Park Zoo, itself one of the country's best zoos. It had not always been so. As French recounts, it began life as a "tiny menagerie" in the 1930s and declined to what a city council member referred to as "a rat hole" by the 1980s.
Thereafter, after a "long, steady climb from shame to redemption," the zoo had become an international leader in animal conservation and research. It had done so through careful conservation of its own limited resources, with only a dime of every dollar coming in through the largess of the city and its taxpayers.
Yet, for all its eminence, Lowry Park Zoo was often overlooked by the visitors who were meant to provide the rest of that dollar, vastly overshadowed by nearby, far flashier attractions such as Disney's Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens. The task for the zoo's management was to foster growth in the face of that competition, drawing on a sterling collection of "charismatic megafauna" — crowd-pleasing chimps, rabbit-devouring pythons and other critters — to draw in visitors and coax dollars from them.
Which is just where the elephants come into the picture, one that, as French limns it, quickly becomes complicated by all too human issues of money and power.
In telling their story, and that of all the other creatures that inhabit Lowry Park Zoo, French moves fluently from topic to topic, from the mechanics of culling an elephant herd (not a subject for the squeamish, that) to the innermost workings of the boardroom.
As to the former matter, unpleasant though it may be, elephants die, sometimes by the thousands, if always with careful planning and as a last resort. As to the latter — well, there's no method yet known to contain the carnage that human politics inside a nonprofit organization can wreak.
Some of the best moments in Zoo Story concern the alpha struggles for power and influence that raged behind the scenes. Those battles were usually won by former Lowry Park CEO Lex Salisbury, whom French describes as "a tall man with light blond hair and the swagger of a silverback gorilla." Now, silverbacks don't have expense accounts and executive assistants, but they have been known to throw their weight around.
French admits that "Lex got results," one reason that Lowry Park was in better shape than many another municipal zoo — or at least seemed to be. Charismatic megafauna need charismatic champions to make their world safe, and Salisbury was certainly that. Yet he finally exhausted the resources within his own habitat and was made extinct himself, another tale that is not for the faint of heart, and one that French ably spins.
If you are at all like me, you feel uncomfortable seeing animals imprisoned. And yet, and yet: Without zoos, many species of animals that now live might have gone extinct long ago. Zoos are increasingly the last place on Earth that many creatures can now be found, a story that informs French's own.
If you've ever wanted to know how zoo animals wind up crawling on the shoulders of uncomfortable-looking talk show hosts, how an injured manatee is nursed back to health, or how an enterprising chimp engineers an escape from captivity, Zoo Story satisfies very nicely. As a fly-on-the-wall study in how nonprofit cultural institutions work and who works them, it fits on the shelf alongside Danny Danziger's Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a glimpse into organizational politics, it recalls bits of The Prince, and perhaps Lord of the Flies as well.
One thing seems sure: No one who reads French's lively book is likely to view a zoo in quite the same way ever again.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to Encyclopaedia Britannica and its blog on britannica.com, for which he often writes on scientific and environmental issues.