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! 


SPECIES STORIES: A Black Bear’s Life Experience (Koshari, Wildlife West)

Koshari at Wildlife West. Read the True Stories of All the Animals shared on our Greeting Cards one design at a time! Follow the Species Spectrum Blog

Koshari the black bear is lounging in a semi winter’s hibernation when I visit him. Sitting on his rump with furry back legs stretched out, he is in that pleasant place between sleep and dreams. His head is held heavy, dozing and snacking away a chilly morning. Looking at him makes me want to curl up for a long winter’s nap too.

Koshari makes his permanent home at Wildlife West in Edgewood, New Mexico. Wildlife West provides refuge to native wildlife of New Mexico that, for one reason or another cannot be returned to the wild.

From a distance, Koshari doesn’t look much bigger than a Newfoundland, yet he holds a mighty and majestic presence. When a mass of black brown fur greets me at the fence, I see up close, how a black bear is as captivating as the wilds he inhabits. Koshari’s head is enormous and his ears look surprisingly similar to a child’s teddy bear. His long snout faces me with the soft gaze of a bear that just woke up.

Koshari arrived at Wildlife West as a yearling bear, now he was one beautiful, big bear. As a youth in northern New Mexico foraging near Navajo Lake he learned about the groceries and goodies kept on the area’s boats. Such curious bear minds naturally see no harm in claiming an easy meal.

Before he was called Koshari (which means “Clown” in Navajo) his reputation was “nuisance bear”. Without a bear’s natural fear and avoidance of humans, Koshari was now considered a threat to campers. For some bears caught between the wild and human encroachment, this has meant a sad fate for what is one of the most spectacular large mammals of North America.

Living in northern New Mexico a bear similar to Koshari once visited my house; a gangly yearling enjoying the fruit trees in the yard. When in drought, food is more challenging to find and the young bear drifted out of the foot hills beyond the mountains.

I made the mistake of telling my British grandma about the bear in the yard. It wasn’t a mistake. I told her because she was forever fascinated with wildlife stories of bears mauling people in the forests, sharks lacerating people in the sea and hikers stumbling onto poisonous snakes.

For years after the bear sighting Grandma called and our conversation would begin: “Any bears on the patio?”

Her British voice was enthralled, delighted by the prospect, the fear, the close encounter, the possibility of a huge wooly bear hovering outside my window.

“No Grandma, no more bears on the patio”.

I am certain that if my Grandma were still alive, she would enjoy watching History Channel’s ‘Alone’. When the night cam reflects the glowing eyes in the trees, I imagine she would shriek in fascinated horror. “Hey, Bear!” the survivalists yell. In the beginning the survivalists speak of their own strength and how “Any bear is gonna have to fight me off”. Then sequestered in their tent, the sound of tree branches cracking in the darkness, all that bravado evaporates.

Venturing into the backcountry the majority of wilderness seekers respect that they are entering the bear’s wilderness. Then again humans can make questionable choices. Consider Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man” as an example.

jes-yellowstone-speciesAs a little kid who earned my hiking legs in Yellowstone National Park, I was privy to watch other visitor’s behavior. There were the occasional tourists who would get out of their car or step off the trail and approach a bear, an elk or a wild bison. Somewhere I have a vintage snapshot photo juxtaposing the Yellowstone roadside and a shaggy bear in the same frame. There are the more dramatic vintage photos of bears in Yellowstone climbing onto tourist’s cars looking to be fed. This is really no different than the obese (and probably diabetic) marmots that live off the boardwalks of Yellowstone. The only difference is that a marmot isn’t going to come find you in your tent later that night.

If you are exploring Yellowstone (or another National Park) please do not attempt to pet the wildlife or get closer and definitely do not feed the wildlife. You’re putting not only your life at risk, but the animal’s life as well.

Also when visiting Yellowstone, do not step off the boardwalk and put your hand in one of the geysers to see “if the water really is hot”. I must have been seven years old, but I still remember the tourists who did this.

I digress.


In short, these are examples of how a nuisance bear is formed in relationship to our behaviors in the wilderness. There is always the possibility of a bear encounter, this is the beauty of the wild. It is our duty to keep bears and other wildlife in the wilderness. When that doesn’t happen, we need to be aware of the animals that end up in a captive environment or worse. Oddly, money plays a part in the survival of a large wild mammal because the question becomes, if this animal is a nuisance bear, where does he go now? Who pays for that?

While Koshari the black bear doesn’t get to live out his days in the wild due to his comfort level around people, he does live in a place that offers him the chance to live as closely to his natural wild home as possible at Wildlife West.

Educate yourselves about the magnificent world of bears. Be prepared. When visiting bear country do everything you can to allow a bear the opportunity to go deeper into the wild undisturbed.

The opportunity to learn about Koshari opens my heart and represents the stories of what I want Species Spectrum to express. This is the story of one bear’s life experience.


I appreciate the wonderful volunteer who took me around one cold morning taking care of all the animals. She was enthusiastic, passionate and ready to get her hands dirty.

I am grateful for having met Roger Alink, founder of Wildlife West, he is truly dedicated to the well being of all wildlife. Please make a visit sometime or send a donation.