“Did Not Survive”
By Ann Littlewood
Some time back when I blogged much more frequently, I received dozens of requests to promote books, articles, news programs, television shows, and various special interest agendas. One request, however, warranted a second thought and that was to review “Did Not Survive” by Ann Littlewood. This effort is her second mystery novel in a zoo setting, the fictional Finley Memorial Zoo. The author’s first was book is titled “Night Kill” which I have not read to date.
“Did Not Survive” opens with veteran, and pregnant, zookeeper Iris Oakley trapped in a hopeless situation as she attempts to save Zoo Foreman, Kevin Wallace, from an apparent elephant attack. She is successful but Wallace soon dies in the hospital. The subsequent investigation of his death allows an introduction to a cast of characters including the zoo’s director, veterinarian, keepers, a police detective, a team from the National Association of Zoos, animal rights activists, and the two elephants, Damrey and Nakri. We follow Iris in her role as amateur sleuth as she works to convince the gruff Detective Quintana that one of the elephants was not Wallace’s killer.
Littlewood, a former keeper herself, does a credible job portraying the life of a zookeeper: the elation of an animal birth, the challenges of enriching the lives of animals outside the wild, the profound sense of loss when an animal dies, and the often tedious repetition of a keeper’s daily routine. The author’s zoo experience gives the novice reader some accurate insights into the zoo field. Keeper Iris, typically a carnivore keeper, must be moved to the bird area during her pregnancy as felines can carry toxoplasmosis which could be transferred to her baby. The reader also learns much about animal husbandry, translocations, vet care, and breeding programs.
As the story is told by Iris in the first person, we get glimpse into her life in and out of the zoo. Zookeeping is a fairly incestuous business. Keepers don’t have much in common with outsiders and tend to socialize within their ranks. Conversations about their animals, rumors, gossip, aging infrastructure, new exhibits, and their bosses is all spot on. As a former keeper myself I have lived that life. But I have also lived the life of middle management up to the role of Director. And that is one area where “Did Not Survive” falls short. By only seeing Finley Memorial Zoo through Iris’s eyes the reader is not privy to why Zoo Director Mr. Crandall or replacement Foreman Neal Humboldt do what they do and why. Escaping the standard “Staff vs Management” mentality would expand the overall complexity of running a zoo for the reader.
My only other critique is that, as the reader, I would like to see more character development. We have empathy for Iris and her challenges as a recent widow, soon to be single mom, and her effort to ferret out Wallace’s killer. Apparently, one has to read “Night Kill” to learn why Iris is a widow. Here we only know he was apparently killed by lions. Of the other characters in the story we learn too little about them other than passing conversations with Iris or their beer charged exchanges at their local watering hole, the “Vulture’s Roost.”
The author wisely weaves contemporary issues into the story. The birth of three endangered clouded leopard cubs, the disappearance of a tiger carcass, and a stolen pair of rare tortoises are used to educate the reader about Traditional Chinese Medicine and the disturbing measures that criminals will take to fuel the Asian demand for animal parts. “Did Not Survive” also tackles the motivations of the animal rights movement. Charismatic mega-fauna like elephants are a target of choice by such groups.
I would recommend “Did Not Survive” to both zoo professionals and the laymen. Overall, it is a good read and an accurate portrait of the zoo industry as told through the eyes and experience of keeper Iris Oakley.