American Zoo: A Sociological Safari by David Grazian

Everyone loves a trip to the zoo. The animals are wild. The experience is beautiful. A day of fun-filled educational exhibits.


Well, actually, not everyone agrees that zoos are a wonderful place to spend the day.

In David Grazian’s American Zoo: A Sociological Safari, you’ll read about the pros and cons of the American zoo system. It’s an inside look at the daily operations and the systemic problems that turn away visitors and create protestors.

Learn what the keepers really think about their jobs and how they react to rude zoogoers.

A Day at an American Zoo

The sun is shining, the birds are singing. You and your family have just walked into one of America’s over 300 zoos. You plan to spend the day viewing over a thousand species of wild animals from all over the world.

You want to learn about what they eat, where they live, and how they make their homes. Maybe you’ll grab some lunch at the forest-themed restaurant and get a stuffed polar bear at the souvenir shop.

But what if you learned what went on behind the scenes? Would you still enjoy your trip to the zoo?

American Zoo had me questioning every zoo and aquarium I’ve ever gone to. And they named quite a few real zoos that I’ve personally visited.

I personally have mixed feelings about zoos.

On the one hand, I hate to see animals confined in a captive environment. But on the other, as a scientist, I can understand that many of the animals in today’s zoos would not be alive if they were in the wild. They can also act as ambassador animals in order to help protect their families in the wild.

Reading this book helped me understand some of the zoos and aquariums’ issues.

People in the U.S. feel that some animals are worthy of saving and others are food. Some are meant to be wild, while others deserve homes. It’s an incredibly complex debate about what is best for the animals.

I think a lot of the misconception comes from a lack of education. A guest might think an exhibit is too small, but a keeper knows that that particular animal keeps a small home territory and is most secure within a small, private space. A guest might think a sleeping animal is bored, but really, only happy and safe animals will sleep so peacefully in their enclosures.

Grazian reveals some issues with the low pay and poor treatment of the mostly female workforce in the zoo system. He also touches on the differences between the current generation of keepers versus the more old school staff.

My favorite part of the book was the interviews with real zoo keepers. They have such a passion for their profession. They truly love the animals in their care and it was eye-opening to hear first-hand what they go through to keep the animals healthy and well. Grazian chooses a few keepers and other zoo staff. They all have unique experiences within the zoo system, but they all radiate kindness. He also volunteered at a few zoos to get experience himself.

The worst part was reading about some of the awful things that unfortunately happen in the less well-run zoos. It’s heartbreaking to hear that some owners are only in it for profit; that they see the animals as assets and property. I was uncomfortable reading how someone released animals that then had to be killed for the safety of humans. Or how keepers have to euthanize animals that are too sick to be healed.

I recommend reading American Zoo if you want to learn more about the inner workings of the zoo system. Just know that some animal fans might find some things too hard to read. Not all animal lovers will enjoy this book.

Overall, American Zoo by David Grazian is a well-researched and entertaining read. It is educational and controversial.

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