a Year in the Life of America\’s Oldest Zoo
by John Sedgwick
A reporter spent a year at the Philadelphia Zoo and then wrote this book about it. He talks just as much about the keepers, administrators, construction, repairs, management problems and so on as he does about the animals- getting a lot of behind-the-scenes look at how the zoo operates. For me, these details about how the people and politics in running the zoo weren\’t nearly as interesting as the animals- so I ended up skimming quite a lot, especially in the beginning. I even skipped an entire chapter (two pages) that was all about the budget. That, and the fact that much of the humor missed the mark with me, is why this book rated low for me. On the other hand, I did enjoy reading about all the wildlife- attempts to breed a rhino, raising baby animals rejected by their parents- kangaroo, binturong, marmoset- veterinary procedures, moving gorillas from old bare cages into new outdoor habitats, tricky work with dangerously strong elephants, bringing in a new zebra to replace one that had died, making a stubborn camel move into its shelter from the winter weather (it didn\’t want to go indoors), watching interactions among the group of wolves. There was a koala on loan that was a star attraction for weeks- even though it slept ninety percent of the time on exhibit. Some of the descriptions are very brief, others- the wolves, elephants, rhino and gorilla in particular- are longer or revisited through the book. You might want to know there\’s a several-page very detailed account of the rhinocerouses mating. The author seems to take delight in nonchalantly describing the animals\’ sexual endeavors, including the tiger, the gorilla, and a tortoise (who kept mounting boulders). He also keeps mentioning how dangerous certain animals are, or how stupid others, without much attempt to see beyond this sensational or disparaging attitude. This was the era when zoos were just starting to recognize the importance of conservation and captive breeding as a means to preserve species, rather than just have more lion cubs to show off to the public. There\’s a bit of history and side stories about collectors (but with none of Durrell\’s charm) which unfortunately only detracted from the main narrative for me. It\’s certainly a piece of its time, an honest look at what a zoo was like in the 1980\’s. Rather sad how ineffective most of the veterinary attempts were- there seems to be more mention of animals getting ill or dying than of new births and successful treatments- but maybe they just stood out to me more.
Rating: 2/5 299 pages, 1988