Still, stage-designing an imagined state of nature and charging admission is a viable business strategy; in “Zoo Story,” French portrays Lowry’s “hard-charging” CEO Lex Salisbury as a flimflam man obsessed with making it pay. Half Dr. Doolittle, half Bernie Madoff, Salisbury hatched a dubious plan in the 2000s to make Lowry Park the world’s flagship zoo by importing African elephants – emotionally complex animals expensive to house and dangerous to care for – while opening Safari Wild, his own for-profit nature park that shared the zoo’s animals and charged the city of Tampa to house them. “He seemed to view the zoo’s animals and those on his ranch and at the game park as part of one big traveling collection,” French writes, ably synthesizing six years of his own reporting for the St. Petersburg Times. When things go wrong – 15 patas monkeys stage a hilarious escape from Safari Wild and elude Florida authorities for months, spotlighting Salisbury’s mismanagement as well as the incestuous finances of his two zoos – French deploys his favorite device: playing “field anthropologist” to write about humans as an exotic species roaming an urban savannah.
“Only a few months before the scandal, the rich and powerful had treated Lex like a prince of the city,” French writes. “Now that he was wounded and trailing blood through the turpentine grass, the pride was ready to finish him off.” Salisbury, a fallen “alpha” stripped of his animal kingdom, proves an easy takedown for the media when his wife is caught leaving the couple’s dogs in their car on a hot Florida afternoon. “Here was a man allegedly incapable of protecting his own pets,” French writes of the former zookeeper. “Lex is our prey, bleeding in the water.”
As muckraking, “Zoo Story” is a blast; even an, ahem, cub reporter knows “Zoo Administrator Leaves Pooches Out to Roast” is a great headline. But French really shines when articulating the philosophical quandary presented by zoos’ mere existence.