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Saturday, October 5, 2013

Book Review: You Belong In A Zoo!

"In fact, the whole thing sounded like a flawed plan.  I could either be bitten in the face by an enraged king cobra, fall from the top of a ladder into the jaws of an equally enraged Cuban crocodile, or be shot dead by an overly zealous curator."

As a kid, no one seemed to expect much of Peter Brazaitis.  He never did very well in school, and never seemed to show much promise.  Worst of all, he liked snakes – something that, to his families and teachers, smacked of childishness.  When his step-mother, exasperated with his antics, declared, “You belong in a zoo!”, he did the unthinkable.  He took her up on her jab and got a job at the Bronx Zoo.

Over the next several decades, Brazaitis went on to rise up through the ranks of the Bronx Zoo’s Reptile House, eventually becoming curator of the newly reopened Central Park Zoo.  You don’t work in the zoo profession for that long without collecting a treasury of exciting, unique stories, and Brazaitis has some of the best.  He’s traveled to Cameroon in search of giant frogs, captured snakes for the New York Police Department, and been bitten by an Okinawa habu.  In one chapter, he matches wits with thieves who burglarize the Reptile House at night.  In another, he details one of the most thrilling zoo escape stories I’ve ever read – a manhunt for an escaped king cobra.

What makes this book so exciting to me is watching how the zookeeping profession has changed over the years.  When Brazaitis starts off as an eighteen-year old keeper, he describes a zoo staffed with uneducated, uninterested, and unmotivated keepers, doing their job mostly by trial and error.  Though he never did well in school, Brazaitis earned himself a reputation as a problem solver. He developed ingenious solutions to many previously unsolvable challenges.  He learned to identify crocodilian skins, enabling customs agents to determine the legality of skins being traded.  He devised a method of keeping Titicaca frogs in captivity.  Most significantly, he discovered the means of sexing crocodilians, making breeding in captivity far simpler. 

You Belong In A Zoo is a fun, enjoyable story about crocodiles, cobras, and other reptiles.  But it is much more than that.  In the words of Brazaitis himself, “it is really the story of a city kid who found determination and strength and realized that being different was just fine.”  Many a child who is interested in animals and nature is told that there is no future down that road, except for maybe becoming a vet.  Brazaitis shows his readers that following one’s dreams can lead to a life of happiness, fulfillment, and adventure.

You Belong In A Zoo!  at

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