I love animals. From elephants and panda bears to manatees and gorillas, you name an animal and the chances are high that I’m completely fascinated. (As long as they have legs. I don’t deal well with reptiles of the no-leg variety.)
So it’s logical that I am completely obsessed with zoos. I want to see them all! One of the few things I love with the same intensity as a good book is a leisurely afternoon at my local zoological garden. There is nothing more peaceful than sitting inside a darkened aquarium, watching the myriad of tropical fish and sea turtles mosey around their coral home, nothing more fascinating than observing a family of bonobos playfully harass one another, nothing as awe-inspiring as watching a tigress stalk around, waiting for her lunch, or as fun as seeing a troop of otters gleefully dive and run and chatter.
So, naturally, when my husband presented me with Betty White’s newest book, Betty and Friends: My Life at the Zoo, I promptly lost my mind.
Betty has been deeply involved with the Los Angeles Zoo and the cause of animal conservation for over 30 years. This book is a collection of antidotes and stunning photographs of the animal friends she has made over the years. It’s “her personal love letter to zoo’s and the animals in them.” The photographs are beautiful, and her stories are touching though brief. This reads more like a coffee table book, and is really best for the hardcore animal lover who won’t care that the photo-to-word ratio is rather high.
Of course if you’re looking for a more story-intensive offering (and most people spending upwards of $26 on a new hardback are), there are a few surprisingly good zoological tales out there.
Zoo Story: Life In the Garden of Captives, by Thomas French, gives a rare glimpse into the nehind-the-scenae workings of a zoo.
French spent six years researching in and reporting on Tampa Bay’s Lowry Park Zoo, and what resulted is an absolutely fascinating and touching account of the life of a zoo and it’s animal and human inhabitants. From the quirky (an alpha chimp with a fetish for blond women) to the painful (should we keep animals captive? Do zoos help accomplish or ultimately defeat their own conservation goals?), French, true to his journalistic heritage, does not shy away from any issue, nor does he seek to answer the questions or ease the tensions. What is left is a raw but beautiful account of the interdependent relationship of man and the lesser animals, and the stickier questions of our responsibility towards them. Both animal lovers and lovers of masterfully crafted nonfiction will be delighted by this fantastic book.
For a more warm, homespun tale, Benjamin Mee’s memoir, We Bought A Zoo, is just the ticket.
This is literally my dream. If I am ever independently wealthy, I plan to purchase two things: a book store and a zoo. (Side note: the chances of a housewife from San Diego who has problems saving money because she buys too many books and also really likes shoes becoming independently wealthy are slim. I know this. But even a housewife is allowed her dreams. What else am I supposed to do while scrubbing out the bathtub?)
Mee and his family- mother, Amelia, wife, Katherine, and a smattering of siblings- decide to use the inheritance left to them by their late father and husband to purchase the small, rundown Dartmoor Wildlife Park. They hope to renovate the dilapidated park and reopen it as not just a tourist attraction but a viable zoo that aids in the conservation and breeding of endangered animals.
Along the way, they run into their fair share of troubles: lack of funds, their own amateur naivety about the needs of a zoo, escaped jaguars and wolves, contentions between new and old employees, and Katherine’s reoccurring brain tumor all threaten to derail the dream. But the crux of the story is that through grief, overwhelming odds, and a steep learning curve, sometimes zoo dreams do come true. The Dartmoor Zoological Park, as it is now known, is a thriving, accredited zoo, and this little memoir is now a Matt Damon blockbuster movie that opened last week, just before Christmas. I haven’t seen it yet, but if it has as much gumption as the book it’s based on, I’m sure I’ll love it.
What about you, friends? Have you read any of these books, or any other good animal books that a zoophile such as myself shod check out? Or do you prefer your animals to be of the domesticated variety? If so, I have that too! Cambria has recently started working on her own memoir. The working title is: “The Story of Cambria: How A Stray Ally Cat Came to Rule the World.” Or something like that.