ÃŠTalk about an unscheduled change of plans: Four and a half years ago, Alan Green set out to explore the possibility of writing a behind-the-scenes book about the new incarnation of zoos how they had begun to transform themselves from concrete-and-steel menageries to education-oriented bioparks. For Green, a veteran journalist based in Washington, D.C., the proposed investigation seemed like a natural: A few years earlier, he had worked as a volunteer in the Great Ape House at the National Zoo, and had actually twice considered chucking his writing career for a job as an orangutan keeper.
But when Green began examining box-loads of legal documents chronicling the affairs of a local petting zoo, he found something startling: paperwork showing that the National Zoo had sent some of its surplus animals to this same roadside zoo a practice that's supposedly a no-no for reputable zoological parks. Thus began a four-year investigation of the domestic exotic-animal industry, an all-encompassing odyssey whose scope kept broadening until it not only included high-profile metropolitan zoos and low-rent roadside attractions, but also an elaborate network of breeders, dealers, and middlemen, as well as Harvard University Medical School and other prestigious schools. What Green found was that all these institutions seemed to be linked as trading partners, moving their unwanted animals from place to place, as if involved in an elaborate shell game. In the end, however, it seemed that the paper trails invariably grew cold and the animals simply disappeared.
In an effort to get at the truth, Green began a manic search for records that took him to 27 state capitals and had him hiring researchers elsewhere. With the backing of The Center for Public Integrity, a research organization known for its investigative reporting, Green culled through a few million documents until he was able to finally start piecing together those elusive paper trails. In the process, he unearthed startling often troubling revelations about the exotic-animal business and the self-appointed guardians of rare and endangered species. Bottom line, he discovered: While these caretakers of exotic creatures publicly trumpet their accomplishments about saving the species, they're privately offloading other animals that land in basement cages, auction-house rings, and even so-called canned hunts. This is no animal-rights manifesto. It is rather painstaking and evenhanded investigative reporting in the grand tradition of the early 20th-century muckrakers a compelling behind-the-scenes look at a business whose operators have, until now, managed to conduct their seamy affairs entirely in secret. The reporting is so comprehensive that the revelations sometimes unfold in one sentence after another; reading some chapters can feel like being continuously pummeled in a boxing ring, as the you've-got-to-be-kidding-me stories keep getting hurled your way. It is often troubling reading, but it's too gripping to abandon. And hopefully, it will be acatalyst for dramatic change. Because as the book makes abundantly clear, change is certainly needed.
Lorraine Rose is a writer and psychotherapist in Washington, D.C.