Month: July 2015

by Glenn Van Blaricom

A nice introduction to sea otters, this short book tells a lot about their biology, lifestyle and interactions with people, including the often negative consequences. How otters cope with living in the cold water, their diet, what is known about their breeding habits and life cycle, methods used to study them and so on. I didn\’t know there are two species of otter that use ocean waters- marine otters rest and breed on land and only the sea otter spends its entire life in the water. As a key predator otters influence their environment significantly- they must eat a lot to keep up body heat so they actually compete with shellfish harvesting. Ironically this wasn\’t even an industry until otter populations were decimated by fur hunters. On the other hand, otters keep down numbers of sea urchins which can consume so much plant and algae life they turn large areas of ocean floor into an aquatic desert. It\’s a complicated issue. I was surprised to learn that even though otter populations had recovered encouragingly since hunting them was banned in 1911, they had a seventy percent population decline in the decade prior to this book\’s publication. Their new threats are conflicts with fishing industries, pollution and oil spills, poaching for illegal fur trade, legal harvest by native tribal groups and a shift in feeding habits by orcas- which now often eat otters.

Sea otters are so charming, and the pictures in this book are very appealing. I learned why sea otters perform those amusing contortions in the water, rolling with their paws held up (seen in a lot of cute videos posted online)- they like to keep their paws dry when resting (keeps them warmer) but have to roll themselves to stay anchored in the kelp which gradually unravels as the wind and waves move.

I picked up this book at a discard sale. You might think from its length and numerous large pictures that it\’s juvenile non-fiction but the writing is quite sophisticated. An easy read in one sitting for me, however it might be a bit beyond my ten-year-old.Very educational, interesting reading and good quality photographs. I have a number of books from this WorldLife Library series published by Voyageur Press, and they\’re all good.

Rating: 4/5      72 pages, 2001

by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm

In 2001 a small killer whale was seen in Nootka Sound, separated from his family group. He hung around there for five years. Apparently skilled and outgoing for such a young orca- at four years old and living solo he had no trouble catching fish to eat. The whale was approaching boats and acted very interested in people. His friendliness won him a lot of fans- people started travelling from afar to go out on the water and see this little whale that would come up to the side of a boat, nudge the sides, roll at the surface to look at people, flip his fins around and lob his tail, spyhop and surf the boat\’s wave- you name it. But when the whale grew bigger and got bolder it became a serious problem. He interfered with the passage of vessels, frightened people by lifting their boats out of the water, broke a number of propellers and rudders. People worried about serious damage or injury when he played around seaplanes and approached kyakers. There was a lot of public conflict over the fate of this whale- many said he should be left alone, which was difficult to enforce when the whale deliberately approached people. Others thought it cruel to deny the whale contact when he obviously sought it out. First Nations groups saw the whale as an embodiment of their ancestor and felt honored by his presence in their waters, they actively thwarted capture efforts. Attempts to relocate the whale or lead him back to his migrating pod would cost a lot, with little promise of success. Many worried that if the whale was captured he would not actually be relocated but end up in an aquarium instead. The book is all written in a very matter-of-fact reporting style, with here and there some lovely descriptions of the moods of the ocean or the texture of the water\’s surface. I mainly read through the whole thing just to see where the orca ended up. I\’d never heard of this story before.

I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5      330 pages, 2013

from Endangered to Extinction
by Diane Brischke

This book is a call to action on behalf of endangered wild animals. It highlights twenty very recognizable species- cheetah, elephant, panda, manatee, wolf, iguana, parrot, rhinoceros, etc and tells briefly what kinds of threats they face from mankind including pollution, habitat loss, climate change, poaching and population decline due to the pet trade. Sadly, it is not a book I can recommend. I expected from the large format to find gorgeous photographs inside, but only a few are excellent in quality, the rest are just okay. I know the book is directed at younger readers, but still it seemed overly simplified and very repetitive. Not much real information was shared, mostly generalizations about animals loosing habitat and facing the end: extinction. Except- some of them aren\’t in that dire of a situation yetBlack bears are featured in this book, yet the IUCN lists this bear as being of \”least concern\” and National Geographic says \”this is the only bear species considered secure throughout its range\”. Sloths are also \”of least concern.\” Leopards are \”threatened\”. So why are they in this book? There are far more species seriously critically endangered that could have been included.

Aside from that, I found it annoying to read because of the numerous typos, odd punctuation, run-on sentences and awkward phrases that seemed to be missing words, so they made no sense. I often had to read a sentence two or three times. The book really needed a better editor. White text on various dark and colored backgrounds was a poor choice, it\’s a headache for my eyes. I can only imagine this would be frustrating and disappointing for kids to read, as it was for me.

I received a copy of this book for review.

Rating: 1/5      52 pages, 2014

by Eugene Linden

What, exactly, is the nature of intelligence? This book looks at a wide variety of animal behaviors that baffle or surprise people, because they display a level of intelligence and ingenuity that we like to reserve for ourselves. Most of the incidents described here are encounters wild animals have with people in captive settings, not in the kind of measured experiment scientists use for proof. So it\’s anecdotal evidence, things we can only surmise and guess at what they might really mean in terms of how much the animal actually understands. I was actually expecting a lot more stories, but appreciated what I got- the author takes pains to examine the background of each incident presented, and goes into depth considering all the implications and possible explanations. There are stories of animals using deception, offering comfort, using tools in new ways (at least not seen by humans before), communicating across species, hiding their intentions and negotiating for rewards. The discussion ranges all over- sometimes I got impatient when it seemed to veer off topic (away from the animals), but the author always had a point. Lots of ideas that I\’m still thinking about. Orangutans and octopuses are held up as key examples of intelligence but the book also features squirrels, orcas, elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, starlings, dogs, horses and more.

I found this book at a thrift shop.

Rating: 4/5      242 pages, 2002

Most of these book titles I came across as references listed in the back of The Soul of an Octopus; the rest of them I happened across while looking for the former in the library’s online catalog. Add to the list!

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms by Richard Fortey
Sex, Drugs and Sea Slime by Ellen Prager
Still Life with Chickens by Catherine Goldhammer
A Farm Dies Once a Year by Arlo Crawford
Fifty Acres and a Poodle by Jeanne Marie Laskas
One-Woman Farm by Jenna Woginrich
Growing a Farmer by Kurt Timmermeister

Octopus the Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate by Roland Anderson
Window to the Sea by John Grant
Super Suckers by James Cosgrove
Octopus and Squid: the Soft Intelligence by Jacques Yves Cousteau
The Outermost House by Henry Beston
The House of Paper by Carlos Maria Dominguez- So Many Books

by Sy Montgomery

The octopus is an alien intelligence, right here on earth. These creatures are fascinating. Sy Montgomery wowed me as usual. She\’s one of my favorite nature writers- always accessible, easy to get immersed in her stories, I can\’t put the book down. She tells about getting to know several octopuses in succession at a public aquarium behind the scenes, becoming a priveledged enough visitor to receive an access badge and herself answering questions about the animal for visitors. Ocotopuses have a very short lifespan in spite of all their smarts (three to four years at best) so the aquarium usually had a younger one adjusting to life in captivity behind the scenes when the current octopus on display began to age. They each had their own personality, some appearing to like the company and attention of humans, others not. They presented different challenges- a bored octopus will cause trouble by attempting to escape or eating its tankmates, so the aquarium staff have to find toys to amuse it or make food puzzles to keep it occupied. In between visits to the aquarium tanks, Montgomery took diving lessons and made forays into the ocean with guided groups, hoping to observe wild octopuses (they\’re hard to find). She also relates many interesting things about many other fish and invertebrates at the aquarium or that she encountered on the ocean dives, and talks about her developing friendships with other octopus fans, how contact with the octopus changed some of their lives. Mostly it is full of wonder for this strange, incredible animal and knowledge shared. And now I want to read more about octopus, must find more books. There\’s several on my list, but I haven\’t been able to find copies yet…

I borrowed this book from my public library.

Rating: 4/5       261 pages, 2015

by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

A book full of really odd and intriguing facts about animals. Lots of things I never heard of before. Made me constantly blurt out an astonished \”did you know-??\” to my husband if he happened to be in the room when I was reading, and jot things down to look up online later- yeah, they\’re true. It\’s organized in alphabetical order and tells about all kinds of interesting critters, from the unusual (naked mole rats, tardigrade aka \”water bears\”, quolls) to the more commonly known worms, rabbits, monkeys, fleas, you name it. Surprising bits of information on all of them. It reminded me a lot of those \”True Facts About the [insert animal name]\” videos you find on youtube with the deep voice narrating, because of the amount of crazy information about how animals mate. From anatomy to behavior, animals have more strange ways of doing it than I had ever imagined!

Some things that really jumped out at me: polar bears will eat toothpaste. Apparently they find the smell of it irresistible. There is a moth that smells like goats (and another one that smells like chocolate). The area of an echidna\’s brain that has to do with reasoning and personality is very large in proportion to the rest of it- even bigger than that in \”higher\” mammals. No one\’s figured out why. Female ferrets actually get sick if they\’re not mated when in heat. Also: ferrets have been used to thread cables through long tunnels or pipes, and Boeing used them to run cables through inaccessible parts of airplanes- until apparently the ferrets started getting bored and taking naps halfway through finishing their task! Some frogs will vomit by turning their stomach inside out and cleaning it with their hands before swallowing it again! (I think that\’s nearly as gross as the sea cucumber\’s defensive mechanism of vomiting up its guts). The giraffe\’s tongue is dark blue to keep it from getting sunburned (it is used so much to pluck leaves off trees). Echidnas may appear brainy for their size, koalas are not. Their brain is so small it floats in the cranial cavity, surrounded by twice as much empty space! There is a calculator made from the neurons of leeches?? I don\’t understand this one, really. There is a specific species of louse that infects almost every animal- except for bats, echidnas and the platypus (why?) The Romans used to eat parrots, when their novelty as pets wore off. There is a species of rabbit that has stripes- it is extremely rare. The tuatara (primitive reptile related to lizards) has a third eye. An earthworm has ten hearts!

Very interesting article this book lead me to look up: Humboldt\’s Parrot: Endangered species and endangered languages. Want to know more crazy stuff about animals? Read the book!

Rating: 3/5      241 pages, 2007

I think this is the first time I\’ve posted a TBR list where every title on it is actually available at my local library.


Cat Sense by John Brandshaw- Opinions of a Wolf
Working Stiff by Judy Melinek- Shannon’s Book Bag
The World’s Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarne- Caroline Bookbinder
Jennie alternate title The Abandoned by Paul Gallico
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks- seen on library shelf
Aquarium by David Vann- Bermudaonion’s Weblog
The God Species by Mark Lynas- So Many Books
Help! I’m a prisoner in the library by Eth Clifford- Melody’s Reading Corner
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson- Things Mean a Lot
Living in Denial by Kari Marie Norgaard- So Many Books

by Russell Freedman

A juvenile non-fiction book, this is pretty good for its intended audience but won\’t be a keeper for me. It relates what life was probably like for kids during the mid- to late 1800\’s in America. Pioneer children travelling west in wagon trains and native american children living in their various tribes. Mostly it just details daily life, occasionally touches on some deeper topics such as how native american children were often taken from their homes and put into white schools, taught new occupations. (Some of the most compelling images were side-by-side pictures of groups of native girls and boys, depicted when they first arrived at a school dressed in their traditional attire, and again a year or so later in stiff western clothing. They look miserable- but its hard to tell really when you remember how still they had to keep their faces for a clear photograph back then). The book also tells how young children had to work on farms and homesteads, in town jobs such as running messages or typesetting, riding horses on ranches and even acting as travelling performers. Their typical daily chores. What kinds of games and amusements they had. Schooling in one-room buildings (that often doubled as a church on sunday), the hardships of frontier schoolteachers. I did not find a lot here that was new to me, but the photographs are excellent for their time, it is quite something to peer at their solemn, often indistinct faces and wonder what it was really like for them. The book also details how early photography was done, the difficulties of travelling photographers who presented their skill as a novelty item to the hardworking people in frontier and mining towns.

Rating: 3/5        104 pages, 1983

by Barry Holstun Lopez

The last book I read sparked my interest to read another one about wolves off my shelf. This book introduces the biology and behavior of the wolf, but mostly it is an examination about the different aspects relationships between mankind and wolves have taken on through the centuries, up to the present day. It looks at fairy tales, myths, folklore and misconceptions alike (presenting a nice distinction between fable and fairy tale by the way). It is not exactly linear in nature, discussing firstly the close parallel lives of native americans and other peoples who lived a hunting lifestyle had with wolves (and how this affected their view and esteem of wolves), then the warfare and extermination programs run against wolves in North America- all the various methods and justifications people had for killing wolves and the devastating effects this had. Then it examines the medieval view of wolves, which was mostly fanciful and moralizing. Wolves were presented as the embodiment of evil and religious powers only strengthened this idea, which persisted for a very long time. Then there\’s the completely opposite idea of the wolf as a nurturing mother that would raise human children in the wild- I came across a lot of familiar material in this chapter. Lopez shows how eventually science tried to look at real wolves and understand them, but how difficult it remains to break from old ideas, to see past what we\’ve always believed to be true. The final epilogue is all too short, a glimpse of the time the author spent raising two wolves- I want to read more about that. I suspect he did not write much about it because he realized it is a bad idea and didn\’t want others to be encouraged to copy the experiment. Throughout it all, some fascinating history and intriguing ideas about how human minds from the depths of the past have shaped what we see and understand today. The overall idea I came away with was that no matter which way we look at the animal, we only see a part of it, what we think of it, never completely what the wolf truly is in and of himself. Some part of the animal will always remain a mystery to us, and Lopez seems content to leave it that way.

Rating: 3/5      308 pages, 1978


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it


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