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George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Professor's new book, 'Zoo Story,' takes readers behind the scenes to meet the animals and the keepers

Aug. 18, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Tom French got to see the stories at the zoo that most of us never see.

In his new book, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives (Hyperion), he introduces readers to Herman, an alpha male chimp with a thing for human blondes, "especially blondes in tank tops." We also meet Enshalla, a Sumatran Tiger who prefers Obsession perfume but who has been unlucky in efforts to reproduce more of what is one of the most endangered subspecies of tiger.

Then there's "El Diablo Blanco" -- a tragically ambitious zoo chief executive named Lex Salisbury.

French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist now teaching at the Indiana University School of Journalism, was fortunate to be at Lowry Park Zoo in 2003 when Salisbury and others set out to turn the respected mid-sized zoo into a destination. After producing a series of stories about the zoo for the St. Petersburg Times, he was encouraged to expand his project into a book.

"The lives of all the animals at the zoo and the people who were working at the zoo really got caught up in what some would say an ambitious, some would say an arrogant decision," French said. "Zoos are filled with these beautiful species, but they're filled with beautiful species that are an inversion of nature. There's species next to one another in different exhibits that would never in life, in the wild, come within a thousand miles of one another."

His book opens with a spectacular tale of bringing 11 wild African elephants across the Atlantic Ocean in a cargo jet.

"There's nothing more spectacular or unnatural and a little hubristic than making elephants fly," French said. "So I thought it was a really powerful thing that not only took us straight to the heart of the story, but it's also the heart of the theme of the book, which is about how zoos represent this deep-seated desire that we have as a species to both exalt and control nature."

It is a story that also has resonated with readers across the country. Zoo Story recently made the New York Times' best-seller list, and tonight (Aug. 18) French will appear on the popular program "The Colbert Report." Other interest in the book has come from National Public Radio, Sirius Satellite Radio, People and Parade magazines and newspapers and online journals nationwide.

"I was hopeful that people would really respond to it, because the issues in the book are global," said French, a graduate of Pike High School in Indianapolis as well as IU. "The book is really about extinction and the role that zoos can play in dealing with extinction. It's about our species' relationship with other species on this overcrowded planet. It's about the intersection of commerce and conservation.

"But more than that, it has a really powerful story with great characters, some of whom walk on four legs and some who walk on two."

French spent six years researching and reporting intensively at Lowry Park Zoo, following the keepers and getting to know all of the animals. As a result, he believes he was able to tell the stories of everyone, including the animals.

Tom French

Photo by Cherie Diez

Tom French

Print-Quality Photo

"Scientists are learning a tremendous amount about how different species communicate," he said. "If you spend time at the zoo, you don't have to anthropomorphize. That temptation is always there, but you don't have to do that because there's actually quite a bit of very hard evidence about what is happening with the animals and inside them.

"That's one of the things that was so interesting about reporting on this project -- You could report out this behavior and personalities. It wasn't something that you had to guess at or imagine. By watching the animals, by observing their behavior, by interviewing keepers who had worked with them for years and sometimes for decades, I really was able to report out much more than I would have thought initially."

For example, French chronicles a coup attempt by the other chimps against Herman at a time when the zoo was at the breaking point when it came to resources and staff. "It was really a remarkable instance of what primatologists called 'Machiavellian intelligence,' and there were some people who felt that Lex's never-ending push to the top had a role in that," he observed.

"Even people who didn't like Lex called him a visionary, and there were a lot of people who didn't like him -- very charming, very passionate, but also very tough," French said. "He pushed that zoo into a new era and he pushed hard."

French tells how Salisbury's ambition, included in his decision making, ultimately led to his downfall. He reports on an escape attempt by Enshalla, the Sumatran Tiger, who took advantage of a situation where all of the experienced tiger keepers had either been fired or quit, leaving a rookie keeper behind who had never worked with carnivores.

He also reports in detail about Salisbury's decision to bring in a troupe of 15 patas monkeys -- the world's fastest land monkey and one of the most elusive of the species. Believing that the monkeys could not swim, he placed them on a man-made island surrounded by a wide moat. Within 15 minutes, all of them swam across the moat and escaped into the surrounding ranches and swampland.

"It was one of those stories that journalists and the public really can't resist," French said, "because it was a bunch of monkeys making a fool out of the zoo director."

Eventually the journalists began asking many more questions about Salisbury's management of the zoo and his involvement in a for-profit nature preserve, and "ultimately, the other alphas of Tampa decided to take Lex down."

French returned to teach at IU a year ago, and taught narrative storytelling while wrapping up work on the book.

"My students were very excited and supportive of the book as I was finishing it. Several of them called me the day that it came out," he said. "One of the things that they got to see was that it was a process . . . where you have to work at it, step by step, and have a plan, keep at it and stay focused."