Review: Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives by Thomas French


Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives (2010) by Thomas French is one of our favorite books on Species Spectrum’s book shelves. As humanity stays at home during the pandemic and we approach Earth Day, Zoo Story crafts a thought provoking starting point in the world of conservation.

French beautifully illustrates the pros and cons of modern Zoos. Zoos are an imperfect course correction of humanity’s environmental mistakes, obliviousness or economic need and greed. Simultaneously, Zoos offer urban dwellers an eye to eye view with the natural world and it is this eye contact between species that propels the next generation of humanity to care.

Not everyone will be able to go Scuba Diving or on a Safari. Zoos are accessible and an exciting experience for all ages. Yet, the awe of seeing a Sun Bear at the Zoo is followed by the nagging sense that this bear doesn’t have enough space. The boulders are human manufactured, the habitat only emulates the grandness of untouched wilderness. How can one appreciate a Sun Bear if s/he can’t see a real one?

Zoo Story touches on the blatant paradox of preserving threatened animal populations through captive breeding programs in the hope that there will be a swatch of wilderness in which to release a recovery population.

French immediately engages readers in the opening chapter concerning elephants being relocated from an African preserve to an American Zoo. The casual conservationist morally bristles at a magnificent animal being removed from the wild.  Why wasn’t the preserve working to expand wilderness footprints so elephants weren’t forced to board a one way transatlantic flight or face being culled?

Human society has moved well beyond “awareness campaigns.” Awareness was easy. The smell of an old National Geographic magazine proves the timelessness of global curiosity. It’s now about removing bowel obstructions to streamline funding and actions that actually benefit the concept we had in the first place.

How does one instill the value of conservation on a planet with billions of people? Conceptualizing vs first hand experience often provides different levels of motivation to act. In recent decades the idea was that by getting people into nature, everyone would know the pertinence of all species. The world opened to eco tourism until too many people were traveling and throwing banana peels into the winds of nature.

In days past, the outdoorsy crowd never contemplated the aftermath of slinging a banana peel off into the bushes. Wasn’t that better than adding something biodegradable to the trash? During the Lewis and Clark expedition contemplating proper banana peel disposal was never contemplated. It was the dawn of #adventurer that paved the path of millions of weekend warriors to venture onto wooded trails in the name of loving nature over say, cigar clubs.

Where do unwanted grown animals from the exotic pet trade go when profits wane and resources for rescue non-profits are thin? The current reality is that there is no place for all the creatures living in a no man’s land between former pet and native habitat. The current uncertainties of human economies often mean conservation falls from the priorities list.

There is stress inherent in captivity or too much togetherness. For the first time in modern history, millions of humans across all cultures are experiencing weeks of staying home. Sequestered to indoor habitats, devoid of usual extracurricular activities, we are faced with spending more time with ourselves and each other.

Amongst the coronavirus crisis people immediately sought community and connection via #inthistogether. We find bright spots in that our temporarily limited human movement is a boon for the natural world. It would seem each individual’s self-quarantine is far more beneficial to the planet than an Earth Day parade. The true paradox of saving the planet is in our stillness not our activist campaigns.

I’ve ebbed and flowed in my own journey of what it means to be a naturalist or conservationist today. Zoo Story crafts a compelling narrative on conservation education. Read Zoo Story as a family, or with your spouse or pet. Ask your kids how they would address human activity and economy alongside conservation.

Bravo to author Thomas French. Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives is just as relevant now as it was when it was published a decade earlier. Read it and share your thoughts.


For younger kids please check out Species Spectrum’s kids activities books for some screen free entertainment! And More animals in Volume 2 here!