A zoo is nothing but an illusion in which a patron can come and suspend disbelief. We must somehow believe that the animals are content in their "natural settings." We imagine boas cozily curled up in their glass showcases, the myna birds preferring their netted enclosures to open sky and the monkeys performing for us happily rather than displaying the neurotic behaviors of a caged primate.

And what about the lions, tigers and elephants? Well, that's one bit of sleight of hand that the architects of zoos have yet to perfect. How can we not feel bad for these animals?

The confluence of one domesticated American zoo and several wild African elephants is at the heart of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas French's "Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives." The book is expertly written, but it's not an easy read because it only adds to our conflicted attitudes toward zoos. A behind-the-curtain look at Florida's Tampa Lowry Park Zoo is at the heart of French's reporting.

The book opens with 11 South African elephants culled from a herd in Swaziland being flown from South Africa to Florida, caged in the cargo bay of a Boeing 747. They were well cared for during the flight, but the image that French paints is disturbing.

He writes, "Inside the hold, some of the elephants drifted in and out of sleep. Others were more alert, the effects of their Azaperone and Acuphases injections slowly wearing off."

Certainly PETA did not like the idea of flying pachyderms around the globe, either, and began a campaign to prevent the transport. The group took to calling the elephants "The Swazi Eleven."

The game reserve from which they were captured could no longer sustain them. There were too many elephants and not enough food in Africa. French reports that elephants are routinely slaughtered to keep the numbers down.

However, for Lowry Zoo the elephants were not being rescued so much as they were being acquired (for $12,000 apiece) to be the anchor species for its new expansion of exhibits showcasing African animals.

The mastermind of Lowry's expansion was its CEO, Lex Salisbury, who, in French's unflattering portrayal, drove his employees hard and would not tolerate dissent among the ranks. Yet he got results, as French writes. "Between 2003 and 2008, Lowry Park had become one of the fastest-growing zoos in America."

With rapid growth came problems. When a much beloved tiger named Enshalla escapes from the zoo and has to be killed, Salisbury, who was stocking his own private game reserve called Safari Wild, begins a quick descent from hosting elaborate fundraisers to a very public forced resignation.

French's focus on the elephants is the perfect springboard to perhaps the largest issue facing zoos. Now that extinction has accelerated as we continue to destroy habitat at an unprecedented rate, are zoos the best options for saving species? Sadly, French reports, the answer is yes, but even the best of efforts were probably too late.

"So many species were disappearing so quickly -- disappearing much faster than the mass extinctions that had wiped out the dinosaurs -- that there was no time to save even a sampling of them for all posterity. Many of these species would simply fade away."

Stephen J. Lyons' book on the Midwest flood of 2008, "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River," will be published this fall by Globe Pequot Press.