By presenting the actions that a few individuals took during a prolonged period of military conflict, Diane Ackerman encourages the reader to reflect on questions of conscience and courage. One avenue to pursue in an essay would center on the reasons that people who are ostensibly not involved in such a conflict decide to take risks and become more deeply involved. In such extreme situations, how do people reshape their ideas about community, belonging, and loyalty?
The zookeepers use many subversive strategies and tactics to try to turn the Nazis’s own strengths against them, such as the preoccupation with breeding and purity. An essay could further explore the differences between overt resistance and this sort of behind-the-scenes manipulation: Are there absolute reasons for engaging in either type of behavior? Or are people’s choices primarily dependent on the situation? While the author writes extensively about commonalities between humans and other animals, it may be that the matters of conscience and free will that apparently distinguish humans are of greater concern in her analysis.
This is a rich and compelling novel which presents a number of excellent themes for discussion. Ultimately, it concerns two people's journey from looking after animals in a zoo to looking after Jews bound for destruction—people who were treated as no more than animals by the Nazis. There is much room for discussion in this comparison and in how the zookeepers approached their Jewish "guests." Some more interesting topics might include:
1. The zoo itself and how Ackerman describes it both before the war and during the war. What is the significance of her descriptive passages? How is the zoo affected by war, and what effect do these changes have on the people who live there? What is the impact on the resident Jews and zookeepers alike of living in that environment?
2. Occasionally, Ackerman makes diversions to discuss other historical figures. Why does she do this, and what is the significance of the people she chooses? How do they reflect upon Antonina and the other residents?
One essay topic you could write about is how Ackerman draws parallels between animals and people. Her argument is that Jews in the Holocaust are like defenseless animals and that by understanding the ways and emotions of animals, Jan and Antonina Żabiński are in a unique position to help the Jews in Warsaw.
For example, Jan, a zoologist, studies the strategies of disguise and deception that animals use and adopts them to shelter and hide Jews during the Holocaust. Ackerman writes:
"As a zoologist, Jan had spent years studying the minutiae of animal behavior...Extrapolating from their behaviors to those of humans came naturally to such a diligent zoologist, especially strategies of deceit" (page 147).
Jan's gift of using new personalities helps him in the Underground army. He uses his ability to create loyalties and facades, as well as his willingness to sacrifice--all behaviors he has seen in animals--to aid his deceit and help those fleeing the Warsaw Ghetto. His understanding of animal behavior makes him better at providing assistance for victims of the Nazis.
Another example of the parallels between people and animals in Ackerman's book is the way in which the animals in the zoo are slaughtered by the Nazi shelling of Warsaw, just as the people are. Ackerman writes about the animals during the Nazi shelling, "Some animals, hiding in their cages and basins, became engulfed in flame" (page 61). As Antonina heads to the zoo to try to save the animals during the shelling, she thinks, "This is how a hunted animal feels" (page 60). Like the animals who are defenselessly resting in their cages during the shelling, the victims of the Holocaust are also without power to stop their aggressors. Similar to the zoo animals who are shelled and burned while they are locked in their cages, the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto are locked inside the ghetto walls without defenses against their aggressors. Jan and Antonina try to sneak food to Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto (page 103) and later provide an escape route for some them, understanding that the Jews in Warsaw are like innocent animals locked in their cages.