The Zookeeper's Wife

by Diane Ackerman

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In The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman, the zoo becomes a safe haven for many people during the Holocaust and it also houses many animals. What role does the zoo play in the story? What does it represent or symbolize?

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In The Zookeeper's Wife, the zoo is both a hiding place for those escaping persecution during the Holocaust and a symbol used to communicate various ideas throughout the story. In a sense, the zoo takes on a life of its own and could be considered a character as well as a setting because it is so heavily described. Because of his role as zookeeper, Jan is able to manipulate authority figures with an interest in evolution, zoology and the rare creatures he houses. These connections allow him to develop a stronger cover for the people he helps escape Nazi persecution.

Symbolism of the Zoo

Ackerman is a naturalist writer who places much emphasis on describing the many species of animals found in the zoo. She uses the behavior of the animals and her understanding of nature as metaphors for human behavior. For example, the Nazis are compared to a pack of wolves preying upon the innocent population of Warsaw, Poland. Like wolves, they rampage and consume mercilessly. Jan also observes that people and animals both have their "strategies of deceit" that allow them to move more freely under the threat of lurking predators. For the Jewish occupants of Warsaw, this strategy of deceit comes into play in the covers they use to leave the ghettos the Nazis have confined them in. Antonia's maternal instincts are also compared to those found in nature. She not only protects her own children but all those who come to the zoo for sanctuary.

In a broader sense, Ackerman uses the zoo to symbolize the complex relationship between freedom and captivity. The animals they keep in the zoo were meant to thrive in the wild, yet most of them would not survive if they were released because they have been in captivity for too long. Ackerman draws parallels here to the human desire to thrive and be free in the face of crippling captivity and oppression. Even as the zoo represents a place of physical confinement for the animals the Żabiński family keeps, it is a sanctuary to humans. The zoo is also the only place that many of the escapees can move and act freely. In this sense, Ackerman subverts the symbolism of the zoo as a place of isolation.

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