For fans of apocalyptic thrillers, ‘Zoo’ has it all

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 23, 2012

“Zoo” by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge. Little, Brown and Co. 2012. 395 pp. $27.99.

By Bill Ward
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — “Zoo.” Its connotations are many, from warm and fuzzy, big and formidable, to sinister and deadly. As printed on the dust cover of the book, “Something bad is happening out there, something very bad.”
“Zoo” begins fittingly enough in Griffith Park, a 4,000-acre chunk of land that contains, among other things, the Los Angeles Zoo and the famous HOLLYWOOD sign. Two large lions occupy the enclosure set aside for big cats: Mosa, a female, and the older male, Dominick, an enormous specimen at 500 pounds, almost 9 feet long, and 4 1/2 feet tall at the shoulder.
Terrence Larson, assistant big-cat keeper, will be the first unlucky human to encounter the lions this morning as he brings them a breakfast of 25 pounds of shank bones and cubes of raw beef. Terence breaks several cardinal rules for caring for the lions, including entering their cage without backup. He would never break any rules again.
When the lions finish with Terence, they bound through the open gate and eventually find themselves on one of the two golf courses in the park. There they pick up a human scent, a young man playing nine holes of golf before going to work. They rip out his throat in one great bite.
On the other end of the country in New York, Jackson Oz, an erstwhile fast-track Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, a former Rhodes Scholar with ADD, thought of all he would be missing as the former golden boy of the ecology, evolution and environmental biology department. He had been so close he could practically smell the book contracts and cushy university appointments.
But Oz has something on his mind that obsesses him, a radical theory — at least radical to those who counted — that he couldn’t shake regardless of what it might cost him. He knew that something different was going on in the animal kingdom, and he knew that it was worldwide and had far more serious implications than theories about global warming.
For the first time in his life, Oz hopes he is wrong, hopes that his theory of a planetary paradigm shift was just that, theory and nothing more. But it appears to him that the whole world is becoming a zoo — a zoo without cages.
The theory Oz is working on is HAC: Human-Animal Conflict. He believes that throughout the world, animal behavior is changing, and not for the better, not even a little. With an elaborate TV and computer-monitor setup, Oz is able to see several news shows at once from around the world.
What he sees is that on every continent, multiple species are suddenly displaying hyper-aggressive behavior toward one particular animal. The enemy is Homo sapiens — humans. The Oz theory on the cause is an increase in pheromones in animals. But why? Pheromones are chemical substances secreted by animals that send information to and produce specific responses in other individuals of the same species.
As far as Oz is concerned, the facts are undeniable: From Romania to Colombia, from the Pyrenees to the Rockies, from St. Louis to Sri Lanka, the increase in animal attacks has been exponential — double the average of the previous 50 years. Oz also has stats on domestic animals showing the enormous increase of attacks and bites by dogs and cats.
Jackson’s pet is a chimpanzee named Attila: 5 years old, 4 feet tall and 100 pounds. Oz believes he “rescued” Attila from a laboratory on campus and brought him home to a more desirable environment. Attila’s diet consists of, among other things, deli meat and vegetables, applesauce with crushed vitamins and Zoloft. The antidepressant had been prescribed by a veterinarian friend, because when Oz first brought Attila home, the chimp had been overly anxious.
As the story begins to build, Oz goes to Africa. Other scientists want to observe unusual restlessness and aggressiveness among African lions. He leaves his former girlfriend, a very pretty med student, to care for Attila. Dangerous, if not sinister, things happen with his lion observation. He comes close to being trapped and killed with another scientist, a French woman with an international reputation. She decides to return to the U.S. with Oz.
When they arrive in New York at Oz’s apartment, they find the former girlfriend’s decomposing body in Attila’s room. And Attila is gone. Anticipation turns to panic for both scientists, as Oz attempts to enlist the help of other “friendly” colleagues.
Animals have begun to gather en masse with like species congregating in large numbers. Places like the Los Angeles freeways become jammed with animals coming from miles around. Reports come in from across the country and around the world of similar occurrences and attacks by animals on unwary humans.
The White House becomes aware of the enormity of the problem. Congressional hearings are called, and Oz goes to testify. That’s where his eccentricity and his erratic behavior almost kill his chances of expounding his theory of aberrant animal behavior.
A temporary solution is found, but then something else happens and all hell breaks loose….
James Patterson and Stephen King fans will devour this book…a great gruesome Christmas gift!
Bill Ward is an avid reader and a writer who lives in Salisbury.