My friend and I have a longstanding debate over whether kangaroos run or hop. Regardless of who is correct (I am), it’s true that many urban dwellers develop a curious understanding of the natural world. Here’s a small sampling of how some people, city folk and others, relate to animals or view the animal kingdom.
Marina Belozerskaya’s The Medici Giraffe: and other tales of exotic animals and power (Little Brown, 2006) has a truly striking cover, I even had someone on the train comment on what an attractive book it is. This book is more about the political climates that encouraged the exploitation and slaughter of exotic breeds for power, amusement and misguided curiosity than some of the accounts of animal caretaking that I will discuss here. A really thorough account of zoos and the use of animals by leaders such as Alexander the Great.
Recommended for bird-watching enthusiasts, or by those who love accounts of the truly obsessed is Club George by Bob Levy (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). Levy feeds (!) his way into the heart of a red wing blackbird in Central Park and keeps a detailed diary about it and other birds and mammals in the park. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to what binoculars to get for optimum bird-watching… need I say more?
With the same friend I have the kangaroo debate with, I watched a show on Animal Planet about animal surrogates, that is, people who adopted Tasmanian devils or wombats and raised them in pouches until they were old enough and healthy enough to be released into the wild. Interestingly enough, this practice has an antecedent in the literary world, in Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I think I was introduced to this idea in The Medici Giraffe, my apologies if I’m not attributing the story to the right book. Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept a wombat as a pet, among a cadre of other animals, and it purportedly slept on a silver platter on his dining table. The British Museum has a copy of a pen drawing and verse lamenting the death of his beloved wombat.
In Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger (Random House, 2005, A NYPL Book for the Teen Age 2006, under Fur, Feathers and Scales), two New York Times authors, Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson, visit Tasmania with their pot-smoking artist friend in search of sightings of the Tasmanian “tiger”, a marsupial last seen in the 1920s and widely believed to be extinct. Along their quest, they report on the exotic and unusual creatures both thriving and threatened in Tasmania, recent attempts to clone the tiger, and the threat of logging on the old-growth eucalyptus forests. www.carnivorousnights.com.
The variety of animals on our planet never ceases to amaze me. A recent New York Times article by Natalie Angier focused on the echidna, found in New Guinea, a mammal worthy of that amazement and a potential, IMHO, topic for Mittelbach and Crewdson’s next book.
Another NYPL Book for the Teen Age 2006, under Fur, Feathers and Scales, is Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s Raising the Peaceable Kingdom (Ballantine Books, 2005). Mr. Moussaieff Masson, no stranger to writing (When Elephants Weep and Dogs Never Lie About Love) about animals and a former psychoanalyst, decides to conduct an experiment in his New Zealand home wherein he adopts several baby animals: chickens, cats, dogs, a rabbit and two rats, and sees if he can build his own “peaceable kingdom”. This book raises lots of interesting questions about nature vs. nurture, the process of socialization and animalistic characteristics vs. humanistic characteristics. More recently, in his newer book, The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Your Food and in a New York Times profile on him, he applies his findings to advocate for veganism.
Sy Montgomery’s The Good Good Pig (Ballantine Books, 2006) employs a similar hands-on approach to experiencing the emotional lives of animals firsthand. Her book chronicles the life of “Christopher Hogwood”, a black and white pig on her small farm in New Hampshire who grows from an undersized runt to a 500 lb attraction. It’s a beautifully told story by an author who has also covered dolphins and Southeast Asian bears. This book is sure to appeal to fans of Jon Katz’s dog books.