In 1961, a young animal keeper employed by the East Berlin zoo shipped himself West in a moose crate. His name was Gerd Morgen and, because the zoo served as a kind of way station for animals being transported from the East to the West, he saw a lot of movement. Unfortunately, most of the transported animals were bears; for obvious reasons, “it was best not to stow away in a crate with a bear.” When a moose came through, Morgen seized his chance. He accompanied the crate to the railway station, climbed in, and settled down in the hay, “feeling the moose’s warm breath on his face.”

This anecdote comes from an unusual new book called “The Zookeepers’ War,” by German journalist J.W. Mohnhaupt (in a translation by Shelley Frisch). Mohnhaupt traces the history of two zoos — the West Berlin Zoological Garden and the East Berlin Tierpark (“animal park”) — from, roughly, the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Mohnhaupt’s stated intention is clear: During the Cold War, the head zookeepers on either side of Berlin competed to acquire the most spectacular animals, facilities and guests. “If one of them buys a miniature donkey,” an aquarium director observes, “the other buys a mammoth donkey.”

The book purports to be an account of their feud, in which Mohnhaupt claims to trace a microcosm of the Cold War itself. “Both became symbols of their half of the city,” he writes, “and embodied its political system.”

But the book Mohnhaupt actually wrote is even stranger, and wider ranging, than he apparently intended. He does describe the lives and work of those two feuding zookeepers — Heinz-Georg Klös in the West, Heinrich Dathe in the East — but he also describes the lives and work of many, many other, more minor characters. Often, as with Gerd Morgen’s moosecapades, the result is delicious, but the book also begins to feel diffuse. It can’t quite contain everything.

Mohnhaupt spends considerable time on not entirely consequential details, like where each young animal keeper acquired his university degrees, while skimping on larger ethical questions. Dathe, he acknowledges, became a member of the Nazi Party in 1932, at 21. Later, when the war ended, his career nearly ended with it, as former Nazis were barred from many high-level public positions. But Dathe managed to squeak by and, Mohnhaupt writes, he “arrived at a decision: never again would he belong to any political party. Doing so had practically cost him his career, and he valued his career above all else.” Mohnhaupt repeats this line a few times throughout the book; it never grows more convincing.

Likewise, it would have been nice to see Mohnhaupt engage with the ethics of animal trapping, trading and zookeeping in general. Both Klös and Dathe, he writes, had a habit of acquiring animals at a rate that exceeded their ability to properly house them. Dathe kept crocodiles in glass tanks so small the crocodiles grew into warped shapes. “Several of their snouts had actually grown vertically,” Mohnhaupt writes, “making it impossible for them to eat on their own; they had to be hand-fed.”

It’s a horrifying detail and, unfortunately, Mohnhaupt doesn’t elaborate on it further. His book is a crucial account of the way that human institutions — political, cultural, educational — are bound up with each other, but his unwillingness to acknowledge the cruelty and ugliness these institutions conceal is a regrettable flaw. Still, the liveliness of his storytelling and the wonderful eccentricity of his subject matter make this book well worth a read.

Natalia Holtzman has written for the Millions, Bookforum, the Rumpus and other publications.

The Zookeepers' War
By: J.W. Mohnhaupt, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 261 pages, $26