How does a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter overcome a lifelong fear of animals? By writing a captivating newspaper series about Tampa Bay’s Lowry Park Zoo, to begin with. Then by transforming that series into a remarkable book about life and work inside a zoo and the difficult questions zoos raise about how humans relate to nature.
“I had some bad experiences as a paperboy and I never really got over them,” says Thomas French, discussing the origins of his animal angst. “But I had to get over them because to do this project I was going to be spending a lot of time around a lot of animals. The animals were so interesting and their keepers were so wonderfully open in allowing me into this world that I really grew. This project was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had as a journalist.”
That’s saying a lot. French spent three decades as a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, winning his Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1997, and a host of other awards along the way. He recently accepted a buyout offer and now teaches at the journalism school at Indiana University, flying to Bloomington to teach classes in narrative journalism midweek, then returning home to “St. Pete” for the weekends. “I empathize with the George Clooney character in Up in the Air,” French says. “Not with his disengagement from humanity, but with his tips on how to like working on a plane and how to deal with all the travel.” French’s wife, Kelley Benham, is enterprise editor at the St. Petersburg Times and part of a team that was a Pulitzer finalist this year. French’s sons, a high school senior and a college junior, are both interested in playwriting. “Yeah,” French says, “we’re a family of writers.”
And it is a writer, rather than some therapeutic urge, that French credits with inspiring what became his marvelous book Zoo Story. “I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in the summer of 2003, and I was totally enchanted by that book. I was drawn as a reporter to a passage where the narrator talks about the misconceptions people have about life inside a zoo. It wasn’t the heart of what the book was about, but it drew me because as a narrative reporter I’ve spent a lot of time reporting inside other institutions— courthouses, police stations, public schools—and when I read that passage, I realized I’d never read a detailed, in-depth look inside the institution of the zoo. I sent the passage to Lowry Park Zoo and asked if that is what it’s really like. They emailed me saying it was actually more complicated than that.”
Complicated indeed. French began his reporting as Lowry Park Zoo was embroiled in a controversial effort to import 11 elephants from Swaziland. Elephants, as French shows so clearly, are remarkable animals, intelligent, highly sensitive to their environs and perhaps even self-aware. But their habitat is shrinking and, like humans, they “have the ability to alter their surrounding ecosystem.” This leaves Africa’s nature parks and game reserves with hard choices—cull the herds or transport the animals elsewhere. But moving elephants, especially long distances, has its own complex set of issues. In French’s remarkable narration, the story of moving and settling these elephants—one of the through lines of Zoo Story—is filled with drama and surprise.
“That’s what narrative reporting is,” French says. “You look for what a friend of mine calls fault lines, where good intentions clash with other aspects of reality. Or where the need to make a profit runs up against other questions, such as the issue of conservation. This is really a story that takes place at the intersection of conservation and commerce.”
Thus another side of French’s Zoo Story is the tale of the zoo as an organization of management and staff. Management in this case is Lex Salisbury, Lowry Park’s CEO and an alpha among alphas. “Lex is an interesting guy to write about,” French says. “He’s very admirable in many ways. He’s a visionary. He brings a lot of joy and passion to this enterprise. But he’s very, very complicated. The arc of his ambition and his passion gets tangled up with his leadership style. There are a lot of people who do not like him.”
Some of the people who do not like Salisbury are current and former staff. “Lowry Park for a long time has not paid their keepers very much money,” French says. “Part of the calculus is that this is a job that many, many people long to do. People love to work with animals. So realistically, they don’t have to pay their keepers very much money. No zoo does. But it’s a physically demanding job, it requires a lot of expertise, and it is dangerous.”
The conflict between a passionate, knowledgeable, underpaid staff and an equally passionate, dictatorial boss creates an explosive situation. And it is a drama that continued to unfold beyond the printing of the book’s first galleys. “I’ve been reporting on that and revising until much later than is healthy, just trying to keep up with the story,” French says.
Still, the primary focus of Zoo Story is on the animals. French has done a considerable amount of research and writes interestingly on animals ranging from orangutans to dart frogs and on issues ranging from the Machiavellian behavior of chimpanzees to Lowry Park’s groundbreaking efforts to save endangered manatees. He writes with passion and sympathy about a regal Sumatran tiger called Enshalla and a tragically mixed-up chimpanzee named Herman. But in writing so well about these animals in the zoo, French raises fundamental questions.
“From the very beginning I had in mind this question of freedom. What does freedom mean to humans? What does it mean to other species? What are the limits of freedom in a world that is so crowded that many species are becoming extinct every year?” French says. “A zoo is one of the frontiers where we confront these issues . . . where we see the fault line between wildness and civilization. Just watch people standing in front of tigers, the way they behave confronting an animal with such lethal potential. It’s stunning. It brings something out in people.
“Zoos are here,” French says. “They’ve been a part of human culture for centuries. A zoo is a laboratory not just for the study of animals but for the study of the human animal. As time went on, I felt I was learning as much about people as about any other species.”
In Zoo Story, French opens a window on the inner workings of a zoo, and it turns out to be a mirror in which we see something new about ourselves.