Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds tells the remarkable tale of how the intensification of agriculture allowed much land in the US to become available once again for trees, how people moved to live in the suburbs, amongst the trees, and how the animals that enjoy living amongst the trees are clashing with the people. Since suburbanites have developed a soft heart towards nature and won’t countenance shooting the nuisance animals (certainly not pressing the trigger themselves, and often not allowing others to do it to), we have a perfect storm of sentimentality versus real life.
The book is neatly organized in chapters that focus around various animals, from geese to deer to bears, and after a while the (well documented) stories become a bit repetitive, and I would have liked to see some ideas on how to turn the situation around, but it’s interesting to see how protecting animals can be ridiculous and anti-productive when applied to animals that are proliferating rather than rarer species.
It’s too bad that The Song of the Ape: Understanding the Languages of Chimpanzees tries unsuccessfully to blend two stories that just don’t work well together, one of chimps in the wild (re-invented by the author, which makes it sound not quite sincere) and one of chimps in a nature park, lovingly observed and related — and which, in my mind, could have and should have been the focus of the book. For the author sets out to record, classify, and analyze the sounds that various chimp families use, and along the way tells the stories of the various groups of chimps he and his fellow zookeepers look after, in a natural setting where they essentially allow the animals to interact in the sometimes rough and violent ways they choose.
The intelligence of chimps is well-known and the stories tell many stories of their tricking each other and, with sometimes hilarious results, the keepers. All the intrigues of politics and gossip are on those chimp islands.
Deadly Kingdom is a rather strange book, a catalog of all the various ways animals can hurt us. The first chapters are gruesome as the author, gleefully, it seems, details maulings by wolves, bears, and big cats in exquisite, grim, and surely unnecessary detail. He then moves on to the ocean, then assiduously continues with snakes, insects, and so on, always providing horrible details of the manner of death and seeming to regret when a particular species just isn’t that dangerous. Come on, birds, you’ve got to step it up!
Not to say that the book doesn’t have more interesting moments, in particular when the author points out the un-mediatic but very real damage caused by various parasites, or the devastation of the Great Plague (curiously cataloged under rodents rather than fleas). My favorite parts of the book were the ones in which the author recalls his own encounters with dangerous animals, starting with the cougar wandering by the farmhouse where he lived as a child.
Not a good book to read before taking off in the wilderness!
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a keen, patient observer of nature and the first chapters of The Hidden Life of Deer describe in beautiful detail the herd of deer she fed during a particularly harsh New Hampshire winter (and the flock of turkeys that started the feeding in the first place) along all kinds of wildlife details including a very didactic discussion of coyote scat.
And then, she plunges into her differences with the forest service, and many of her neighbors, on how to treat deer and other wildlife and she loses me entirely. How does she know what animals want? It’s fine to criticize the policies of the forest service, or the behaviors of her neighbors, but surely they, too, can disagree with her feeding wildlife, even if it’s on her land and her land is posted, as she repeatedly reminds us. Why rant when one can describe so beautifully and powerfully?
Crow Planet is a strange book. It’s a book about crow behavior, but it’s also (mostly?) a book about the author’s tortured life as a depressed would-be country girl living in a large city.
The bits about the crows are interesting. Crows (which I don’t like now any more than I did before reading the book) are very intelligent who do well amongst humans. The only thing I did know before reading this book was that they recognize faces, as proven through a hilarious experiment in which researchers donned masks of cavemen (the villains) and Dick Cheney (the good guys!) and proved that crows would retaliate reliably against the villains. But the book describes many minute behaviors observed by the author, who is a patient and careful observer, including a funny passage on nest construction, with female decorators vs. male builders. Occasionally she lapses into non-science. For instance she claims that unlike robins crows cannot get drunk. Based on what?
The bits about her inner travails are not that interesting. And there are many of them (travails and bits.)
A Lion Called Christian is a slim book with an equally slim, almost incredible but very sweet story: two young Australians on their world trip in the late sixties buy a cub lion at Harrod’s in London. They raise him for several months in a London apartment (they provide funny descriptions of the damage he does indoors and of the difficulties they encounter finding adequate outdoor space for him to exercise) and then realize that they need a long-term solution. Duh! Not wanting to condemn the lion to a zoo or a circus, they contrive to send him to Ethiopia, to be rehabilitated in the wild and apparently they succeed.
The story is told very simply and avoids both preaching and overdone excuses for what must have been, even at the time, rather uninformed decisions. Fun to read!
Animals Make Us Human is the latest book by Temple Grandin, the autistic author and animal specialist of Animals in Translation‘s fame. While I must say I enjoyed Animals in Translation better than this one, which focuses more on pets, and is naturally less fresh than the first one, I continue to admire the author’s perceptiveness of what makes animals react the way they do — and how to improve their treatment regardless of whether they are treated as beloved pets or destined for food factories. She excels as explaining how more humane treatment does not need to be expensive and may even bring financial rewards by preserving the quality of the meat.
Don’t look for lovely prose: even with the help of a ghost writer the text is quite wooden — but interesting.
Nick Trout is a vet surgeon and Tell Me Where It Hurts is organized as a “typical” day for him — except that it’s not, since it starts at 3am and ends at 10pm and despite the sanctimonious “we work so hard” statements no one would last long with this kind of schedule. The typical day is also filled with thrilling, unlikely diagnoses and not one boring appointment, whether on the part of the animal or its owner. It’s hard to believe that each patient would be that interesting. All that to say the book might work better if organized around vignettes than with the one-day format.
The best parts of the book are the ones where the author shows his sense of humor and his personal side, and in particular the description he makes of his day as a teenaged intern to a vet in his native England after he discovered that he did not have the visual acuity needed to be a pilot and his dad arranged for him to tag along a countryside vet. What a great teacher he had that day! The rest of the book is occasionally tedious (in particular the aforementioned long dissertations on the sanctity of the profession) and somewhat disturbing when he shows the intensity of owners’ (or, as he says, parents’) feelings for their pets. It seems inappropriate to put an animal through intense medical care when it will bring only temporary relief and when the money could be used more constructively.
This could be a great book to share with a teenager who wants to explore a career as a vet.