First aired on Q
How did the elephants get to the zoo?
It's not a knock-knock joke. It was a real-life dilemma that sparked the idea for Thomas French's new book, Zoo Story.
The elephants in question — 11 in total — were being transferred from their home in the wilds of Swaziland to a new life in captivity in Florida. There was only one way to get them there. The animals flew, highly tranquilized and strapped in tight, in a 747.
It's a vivid scene — one that's irresistible for a journalist like Thomas French. It grabs the reader's imagination at the same time as it works as an allegory for a larger point. In this case, the paradox that is the modern zoo.
On the one hand, the elephants were part of a herd that had overgrown its nature reserve and would have been culled had the Florida zoos not stepped in. On the other, their survival meant a lifetime of captivity — something PETA said was a fate worse than death.
If you're looking for French to take a side in this argument, you can expect to be disappointed. He goes to great lengths to avoid supporting what he calls the "false dichotomy" of the wonder of freedom and the drudgery of captivity. Instead, he's more interested in exploring both sides in an attempt to pull back the curtain to reveal what's going on.
"Freedom is a human concept," French said in a recent interview on Q. "We have these very romanticized, sentimentalized notions of freedom. And for species — monkeys and other creatures — freedom is a pretty risky, complex proposition that's not always for their benefit. In fact, animals that escape anywhere near humans stand a very good chance of being killed."
As to whether zoos can position themselves as great protectors of animals and biodiversity, however, French still isn't convinced either way — even after spending six years researching the book. As the planet faces a rate of animal extinction that is approaching apocalyptic proportions, it's tempting to see zoos as modern-day arks. The only problem, according to French, is expecting zoos to pull off such a feat on their own.
Subscribe to the podcast.