Book Review: ‘Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator’ by Annette Libeskind Berkovits

It might seem surprising that the former Senior Vice President at the Wildlife Conservation Society grew up without any animals and in her early career had actually been rather timid at handling certain species, but that was entirely the case for conservation expert Annette Libeskind Berkovits, author of this rather splendid memoir entitled Confession of an Accidental Zoo Curator. Berkovits began working at one of New York’s most famous institutions: The Bronx Zoo in 1972, working in their very nouveau education department. She rose through the ranks to eventually lead the department and can certainly be called a pioneer when it comes to environmental education, both in the United States and across the world, as she helped to establish environmental education programmes in countries as diverse as China and Kenya.

The writing style in this book is engaging and Berkovits succeeds in that oh so important facet of any memoir: honesty. As readers we are offered a tour of her life, and given insights to her family, friendships, accidents, emergencies, worries and day to day successes, trials and tribulations at the Bronx Zoo. I have never been to New York. Despite this, I was able to picture the structure and exhibits of the zoo, as well as understand New York’s transport infrastructure. In a particularly humorous anecdote she relays a journey through the city in a cab with a Boa Constrictor!

Berkovits was born in Kyrgyzstan and grew up in post-war Poland as well as the young state of Israel before she settled in the United States with her family from the age of 16. This diverse background enhanced her life, as well as the book itself, and there are plenty of references to her Jewish background, as well as to the diversity of the city of New York.

I fostered a warm glow inside as I realised that Confessions was doing that wonderful and necessary thing of encouraging a concern for conservation whilst not slamming it down people’s throats, which is so often a danger in these kinds of books. I would say that Confessions is more about life and humanity (as well as animality) than it is about strict conservation. Berkovits is successful in keeping her conservation message subtle, yet poignant.

At times I felt that the book was a little disjointed in its structure. It is largely chronological, and yet nearer the end of the book it is not always clear at what stage of her career Berkovits has taken us to. This is a very minor quibble though and should certainly not hold readers back from reading her work. I for one enjoyed it throughout, even if it took me longer to read than some similar titles.

Annette Libeskind Berkovits is a very special lady who has done enormous amounts of public good in terms of global conservation. Conservation is a joint effort between multiple disciplines, including education, and each is vying for funding under the same umbrella. She notes this in the book, but also explains why each area is vital to the overall conservation project. People have strong views when it comes to zoos and their ethics, but don’t let this put you off reading Confessions if you fall into the ‘anti-zoo’ camp. Annette’s life, rather than zoos, is the focus here. She is an inspiration to all young women (and men) who want to be a force for good in their lives and careers.

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