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The 'Zoo Story,' Both Beguiling And Repellent

"All zoos are both beguiling and repellent," writes author Thomas French.

In Zoo Story, French goes behind the scenes at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla., to examine the paradox of zoos that draw in visitors with the beauty and wildness of animals, but also contain that wildness to make those animals accessible.

French defends both sides: the zoos themselves, where keepers and scientists are interested in helping and understanding different species; and the animal rights groups who argue that animals in cages, even expansive ones, are held captive against their will.

French says it's the animals that get caught in the middle of this struggle between protection and control.

"What's the reality of being inside a zoo, for the animals and for the people who love and care for those animals?" French asks NPR's Neal Conan. "There's a lot of joy, and there's a lot of loss."

That dichotomy plays out among zookeepers at Lowry Park, between the "bunny huggers" and the "non-bunny huggers."

French says a good portion of the staff are dubbed "bunny huggers," because they love their charges, remember their birthdays, talk sweetly to them, and "treat them in some ways like pets -- not in their care, but just in their attitude to them."

The "non-bunny huggers," he says, don't take the same sentimental view. That group is dominated by those in the herpetology department, who specialize in cold-blooded animals.

According to French, the divide has prompted a "low-grade form of guerrilla warfare," in which the non-bunny huggers leave the molts of emperor scorpions in the boots of one of the bunny huggers, who then retaliate with Barbie stickers.

But the debate just below the surface, both inside and outside the zoo, is still about how the animals should be treated.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.