Tag: Animals Nonfiction

by Ben K. Green

Sequel to Horse Tradin’, an old favorite of mine. Can’t believe I let this one sit so long on my shelf unread. Amusing and interesting stories about horse and mule trading in Texas, just before automobiles started to replace them for ranch and farming work. The main character in the book (I’m assuming it was the author, I get the impression these stories are semi-autobiographical if not outright fact) is a young man but knows livestock well and uses his smarts to get the better of most horse deals and sales he makes, although sometimes the tables are turned on him. Which only makes the reader chuckle, because he well deserved it- considering how many people he knowingly sold half-broken or problem horses. It really is clever the way he masked or avoided mentioning these issues when making a sale. But you have to feel bad for the folks on the receiving end. On the other hand, the times he was able to change an animal’s behavior really interested me, for what it revealed about both equine intelligence and how the man used that knowledge.

Unfortunately in a lot of cases his remedies sounded harsh. One reviewer elsewhere expressed their opinion that this book is “mean-spirited” and I know what they’re getting at. Getting a horse to quit lying down in a stream and roll on him by shoving its head underwater until it chokes, or curing a horse of pulling back on a rope by suddenly cutting the line and letting it fall backwards off a steep bank into a river, are just two examples. There was also a story about a little girl with legs weakened from a long case of illness in bed- the doctor confided to Ben that he felt the parents had overdone it in their care for the girl, not letting her get up and use her legs to strengthen them again. Ben put a mare in a pasture backing up on the girl’s yard- this horse had foundered and couldn’t walk well. He encouraged the girl to hobble on her crutches alongside the horse leading it to water and such, mighty pleased with himself to see the girl grow stronger and the horse slowly improve as well. Then weeks later he decides it’s finally time to trim the horse’s badly overgrown hooves. I was a bit taken aback at that. Why didn’t he fix the mare’s feet far sooner? I’m not that knowledgable about the animals- maybe it’s a case where they had to recover to a certain point before they could be trimmed? but I got the impression he just didn’t bother to do it yet. Anyway, most of the stories are good fun and plenty interesting if you like reading about animal behavior and what things were like about a hundred years ago.

Rating: 3/5
255 pages, 1970

the Homeless Donkey Who Taught Me about Life, Faith, and Second Chances

by Rachel Anne Ridge

Eh, I waffled between giving this book a 2 or a 3– I did like reading it and it kept me turning pages, but once done I find I have very little to say. I actually finished it several days ago, in between some of those Wings of Fire books. It’s a memoir about this author’s life full of work, kids, everyday stressors and insecurities etc- very familiar stuff. Coming home from a long tiring work day, she and her husband find a donkey blocking the road. They struggle (for hours) to get him into their pasture, hoping to find his owner the next day. Nobody ever claims the donkey. Eventually the family becomes attached to him and decides to keep him, even though he’s just there. He never works or is trained to do any tasks, but the family members find his presence comforting and take inspiration from things he does. Some of this seemed like a bit of a stretch, honestly. It was charming and sweet, but I wished there had been more about the donkey and less about the author’s struggles to expand her business. Plus her religious musings. Almost every chapter ends with scripture quotes, thoughts about God and faith, and little inspirational sayings the author extracted from something the donkey did. With encouragements for the reader to apply these “lessons” to their own life. It was just a bit much in that regard.

Rating: 3/5

From Wolves to Our Best Friends

by Mark Derr

This book seemed right along with my interests- it’s about how wolves formed a partnership with ancient humans that morphed them into domestic dogs. There’s some interesting ideas in here, including criticism of what people think the fox fur-farm experiment tells us, and a repeated debunking of the idea that long-ago wolves tamed themselves by hanging around early settlement trash heaps. Unfortunately, I couldn’t finish reading this book. It speculates a lot, on very very long-ago events or circumstances, with such scant evidence even I was scratching my head. I started skimming and skipping those parts that went on and on about archaeology finds, but then found that the rest of the text really rambles in circles. It’s very repetitive, self-contradictory and confusing. I started just picking out the segments that were anecdotal examples of dog or wolf behavior, but even those parts often didn’t make much sense to me, or demonstrate what I suspect the author thought they did. I assumed it was just me, my thinking bogged down by illness, that I can’t comprehend this book right now. But then glanced at some reviews online, and found there’s a lot of readers who had a similar experience. And people with a lot more knowledge about prehistory and where extinct fauna lived at different time periods, poked a lot of holes in this text. Knocked it down completely, I’d say. So I don’t feel bad at all to just shrug and put it aside now. I’ve read much better (and more clearly written) books on this subject, though sadly can’t point directly to them at the moment. Will add links to other titles at a later date, when I can recall the other books better.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: Abandoned
287 pages, 2011

Our Intimate Connection

by Marah J. Hardt

The subtitle continues: with Sex-Changing Fish, Romatic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep. My eleven-year-old was appalled when she saw this book on my bedside stack: “Mom! Why are you reading that?” I had to laugh. It’s much better than Wild Sex which I read several years ago. I had no issues with the level of detail or type of humor here. Just enjoyed reading it and learned some new things. Life in the sea is so diverse, and so too are the many ways that ocean creatures procreate. From non-mobile corals and barnacles, to whales that cross the entire ocean. She describes first of all, how sea animals find each other in the ocean, how they coordinate their actions (some must congregate in large numbers for spawning to be successful), their differing means of flirtation (or outright coercion in some cases), and not surprisingly- how our actions are affecting their abilities to carry on reproducing. When I think of human influence on the ocean, things like beach erosion, pollution, microplastics, overfishing and sheer noise volume come to mind. But Hardt makes it clear that other things we do affect the viability of ocean life. Chemicals that leach off boat paint or wash into the sea from land fertilizers can change the hormone levels and sexual characteristics of some invertebrates, for example. Warming waters changes the ratio of male to female in other populations. Dwindling numbers due to myriad causes affect the spawning rates of things like urchins- if there’s not enough of them around, close enough to each other, they simple don’t. It might be another book that makes me feel dismal, except that it was written six years ago, so I’m glad that some things have gotten better by now.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
278 pages, 2016

A Journey Through the Passion, Profit, and Peril of Our Most Coveted Prehistoric Creatures

by Peter Laufer

Like the hummingbird one, this book is also by an author who traveled the world to see many different species- of turtles. In this case, it wasn’t just to view rare and endangered species, but also to meet and interview people involved in protecting or caring for turtles, and conversely, those who profit from catching or selling them. There’s turtle farms, turtle sanctuaries, turtles in zoos- and those languishing in bins under the counter of meat markets. He meets with conservationists, tour guides, volunteers who dig up and relocate turtle eggs from beaches, and those who are releasing the hatchlings again. He meets people in small street stalls who peddle elixirs from turtle bones (said to give people longevity) and interviews a man convicted of turtle smuggling, in a prison. He finds the fascination people have with acquiring rare turtles compelling, and gets his own pet turtle. Descriptions of his quiet moments spent observing “Fred” and wondering what his turtle is pondering are interspersed through the chapters. While I liked reading about the turtles, I found it sad how much of the book’s focus was about the negative impact humans have had on turtles worldwide. Habitat loss, demand for traditional medicine in Asia, collectors buying turtles just to say they own them, and ordinary folks in our southern states who catch turtles to eat them, all are reducing their numbers. Most of this book I found kept me on the page, the humor worked for me, the details were just right- but I did start to loose interest when it got more into the lives of criminals involved in turtle smuggling. That aside, I’m probably going to look for other books by this author.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
290 pages, 2018

In Search of Hummingbirds

by Jon Dunn

Tiny, amazing, brilliantly colored hummingbirds. Birder Jon Dunn takes the reader along as he travels the Americas to see as many species as possible. From the northernmost range of rufous hummingbirds in Alaska, to the southern tip of Argentina to find the endangered firecrown. He’s especially keen on finding rare ones. The book is a seamless blend of travel narrative with vivid depictions of his bird sightings, and a little bit of everything about their physiology and history. I was fascinated by the description of how a hummingbird’s tongue works (it’s not like a straw). Intrigued by how many ancient cultures placed hummingbirds high in mythology and even numbered them among deities. In other places they were considered good-luck charms or curatives- so sadly there are many accounts in this book of how thousands and thousands of hummingbirds became tiny corpses for people to use as love charms. Or to decorate their hats, in the past. So dismaying. There’s also interesting stories about how scientists tried to sabotage each other’s work, to appear to be the first to discover an unknown species, or even made up new species that didn’t really exist (sewing together various parts of different birds to create fakes). In the present, it’s stories of wanton habitat destruction. But lovely, lovely to read about living birds the author saw in person. His writing in their praise is aptly full of wonder and beautiful words. And it’s encouraging to read of local and indigenous people in far-off lands who once took their local hummingbirds for granted, but now protect them, feed them and guide travelers to see them. He goes to Arizona, Mexico City, Cuba, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

Overall I liked this book. Though sometimes it seemed to veer too far into details on the sidelines (I didn’t really need the life history of half the people the author met). So many beautiful birds are shown in photographs in the center spread, but there were many more described vividly in the text I just to go look them up. Like the golden-tailed sapphire. Or any of the spatulae-tails. Just wow.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
332 pages, 2021

The Human History of the Most Fascinating Bird in the World

by Stephen J. Bodio

Wonderful book about the large and powerful birds of prey- eagles. I really like how this author writes, and thinks. I just wish there were more of his words on the pages for me (it wasn’t long enough to really satisfy). Surprising, how little is actually studied about eagle behavior, but this book informs the reader well with what there is (as far as I could tell). The first part is about eagles in body- their physiology, how they live, differences between the species and so on. More types of eagles than I knew existed. Majority of the book is about how humans have interacted with eagles. From pictographs and evidence in the fossil record (very scant), to ancient hunting techniques, to modern-day conservation efforts. I really enjoyed reading the chapters about eagles used in hunting- a long-standing tradition in Mongolia (there’s another film about a young person training his first eagle- after seeing and reading of Aisholpan, I have to try and find Kiran Over Mongolia) and also of the controversy face by modern eagle falconers in England, where it’s not as readily accepted. Lots about how eagles are revered in some cultures, and reviled or exterminated as dangerous predators in others- usually because they are accused of killing livestock, pet dogs or even children. The author even discussed the touchy topic of how many eagles have been killed by Native Americans for their feathers and bones used in religious practices. The author clearly thinks this is not in the best interest of eagles. What’s great about this book is the pictures- so many excellent photographs and fantastic artwork depicting eagles of many kinds, engaged in natural activities or alongside man. There are lots of quotes from other literature, about eagles or our opinions of them- sometimes this would bug me if I’d already read the sources myself, but in this case for the most part I hadn’t, so I appreciated instead.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
202 pages, 2012

by David Pratt

Based on the author’s real life experiences, this book is about a young man who returns to Africa after thirteen years away, to do conservation and volunteer work in wildlife parks. He travels down the Zulu river by canoe, assists at a wildlife rehabilitation center, and visits a game reserve in Kruger National Park. There are lots of encounters with wildlife- the larger and more dangerous ones like crocodiles, lions, hippos, rhinoceros, elephant, etc are particularly mentioned. Camraderie with his fellow volunteers is highlighted, while the narrator muses on how his first stay in Africa (those thirteen years ago) was soured by disagreements and teasing from his prior companions. Due to the awkwardness of his interactions and his near-encyclopaedic knowledge of animals, I did wonder if he was on the autism spectrum. The writing isn’t great. It feels flat, there’s lots of info dumping (though thankfully in short bursts) that feels like it’s supposed to be a part of conversations people naturally had, but is just a bit too forced. The dialog feels stiff and unnatural, it could easily be a record of what people actually said in real life, but it just doesn’t read well in a book. Too much is told, not shown- things I would love to see described in detail are simply mentioned in a single sentence and then the narrative quickly moves on.

I really struggled to finish this one. I wanted so much to like the content, but the execution was dull. There’s a slow love story in here, but I felt nothing about it at all. There are several chapters about a dangerous close encounter with man-eating lions, but it didn’t feel dramatic, tense or emotional to me, even though people were in fear for their lives. Doesn’t help to find a few typos, which always leap out at me. I did appreciate that as the book is very recent, some of the animal facts were new to me, all felt relevant especially the warnings on how many species are threatened or endangered, and the very real struggles of local and native people in South Africa to make a living and better their lives, while the wildlife eats their livestock or ruins their crops.

I received my copy from the Early Reviewers program on LibraryThing, as an e-book.

Rating: 2/5
182 pages, 2022

The Story of Man's Discovery of the Animal Kingdom

by Herbert Wendt

Translated from the German by Michael Bullock

This book is full of accounts on how Europeans first discovered unfamiliar animals- with accompanying feelings of shock, disbelief and wonder. There are stories of explorers who searched for years following rumors of strange creatures, and other stories of people who stumbled across species long-thought extinct, or completely unknown to science, purely by happenchance. Of course while all the tales are of “new” and “unknown” species, the natives of the lands they come from, were usually very familiar with said animals. Sometimes they were surrounded by myths and fearful superstitions, other times names or accounts of two different creatures were confused, so that for a long time the Europeans had a muddled picture. Overall it’s a book solidly set in its viewpoint, and also its own timeframe- published in the fifties, it bemoans the fact that newly-discovered pandas (called “bamboo bears”) would likely soon be extinct for example, and surmised that other animals which were rumored of would soon be found (lots of those turned out to be pure fabrication, so for once I made pencil notes in the margin, because looking up those animals landed me on cryptozoology pages!) So much like Wild Heritage it’s now very outdated but was captivating regardless.

I read about many curious yet (to me) somewhat familiar animals- the takin, komodo dragon, giant squid, kiwi bird, coelacanth and kakapo (a flightless parrot). There’s wonder at others that are such common knowledge now- penguins, giraffes, elephants, gorillas, even the pygmy hippo. First encounters with lemurs, kangaroos, armadillos and tapirs. Some animals just get mentioned in a few sentences or a paragraph, others are given much more detailed accounts, though it’s usually more about the people who first described them, or battles between explorers and scientists to control data and knowledge! (Did you know that Audubon couldn’t publish his work for years, because a rival smeared his reputation? There’s stuff in here about Wallace and Darwin too, though not nearly as detailed as what I’ve read in Song of the Dodo). The duckbill platypus, okapi and hummingbirds in particular. Discoveries of tiny single celled organism when rudimentary microscopes were first invented, and of some deep-sea creatures like the siphonophore and anglerfish, when diving apparatus were made. There are pages in here about how vague accounts and tall tales about animals from distant lands became mythological creatures- the rhinocerous, oryx and narwhal contributed to ideas of unicorns, and the dugong, manatee and stellar’s sea cow to mermaids, respectively. In another account, it was outright fraud perpetuated for years, that kept people in the dark- bird of paradise skins were first sold as rarities to wondering Europeans, who thought the species actually had no feet and spent their entire lives “in the heavens” (hence the common name). (It was just the way the skins were prepared. When the natives realized what huge sums people would pay for them, of course they kept the ruse going as long as they could).

Scientists and professors got a bit wiser and more skeptical over the years, so when the first platypus specimen came to light, it was initially dismissed as a hoax and examined for stitches! Much in here is about how findings of strange animals led to new understandings of evolution, filling it gaps as it were (though now some of that information is now deemed wrong). Other parts tell sadly of how animals were found, and just as quickly erased from the Earth- the dodo, great auk, thylacine, moa and so on. And then there’s animals I never heard of before- the pacarana which is a South American rodent, and the giant rail or takahe from New Zealand. This book can feel a bit jumbled as it does jump from one account to the next without much apparent organization, but it was a much more engaging and entertaining read than I expected.

Rating: 3/5
464 pages, 1956

Island Biogeography in An Age of Extinctions

by David Quammen

This is a hefty doorstopper of a book that I’d given up on twice before- my last attempt I remember putting it aside thinking it was a pretentious slog. Now I wonder what was I thinking? So glad I reshelved it. Now it feels vivid and lively (as lively as a science book can get while still being very serious). All the asides felt relevant, the dashes of humor actually made me laugh, and the personal stories about the author’s travels to do research or view the animals in question, were a delight to read. It took me about three weeks to get through, reading off and on since I started the latest Maugham collection and then a dozen more. It’s dense material, but also so intriguing, the kind that stretches your brain and fills you with both wonder and gloom (at the end).

Song of the Dodo is about (as it neatly states on the cover) island biogeography- a discipline of study that examines why certain animal species are only found on certain islands. Quammen goes into this in meticulous detail. From the very beginnings of island discoveries, when Darwin and Wallace were figuring out that evolution was real, through later scientists who put together how it actually works, and then the people who studied the flip side of that phenomenon- extinctions. There’s so much in here I hardly know how to tell you about it all- and it’s written so well, crafted so methodically, it all makes sense in a way that fills you with dread. This book is very firmly alongside The Ancestor’s Tale in my mind, with how clearly it helps me understand things. How things fit together. How incredibly complex the nautral world is, and how dismaying that just as we are beginning to understand its complexity, it’s starting to fall apart. Because of us.

The book looks at islands. How islands are populated by plants and animals, why those isolated animals take such strange forms. How other species arrive and fit in. Why some animals become smaller on islands than their mainland counterparts (or larger), loose certain abilities (like flight) and so on. Why their existence can be so precarious. What the tipping points are for them to disappear- and it’s not the same in every case, though many things are now measurable. Minimal population size to keep a healthy gene pool, distance between isolated groups that still allows for animals to move between, how environmental changes or disease outbreaks or other random events can push already-tenuous species over the edge into oblivion. But this book doesn’t just describe how these things are, it explains how we came to understand them, with viewpoints from before they were concepts anyone talked about. I found this fascinating, although the data, formulas and descriptions of scientists arguing ideas via journal articles was a tad tedious (and the author assures us, that reading those original sources- articles, papers and journals themselves is even more so!)

I loved reading all the details about animals, odd and curious and terribly unique species such as the tenrec, indri, komodo dragon, thylacine, bird of paradise, Mauritius kestrel (and the amazing sleight-of-hand performed by researchers to save it). More well-known creatures such as giant tortise, passenger pigeon, grizzly bear, red fox, etc. And of course the dodo. All of it to show how untenable the existence of so many animals has become, or will become in the future- because human destruction and encroachment on habitat has turned many wildlife populations into essentially, island populations. They are separated from each other by obstacles they will or cannot cross, and as the author detailed so painstakingly in the first few hundred pages of the book, animals in populations that have no individuals moving in and out, are eventually doomed to fail. One final section of the book is called World in Pieces, because it really is. It makes me so sad. But I’m glad it closes on a final, partly hopeful note, that some people are working hard to make a difference, with examples of places where those efforts have actually mattered, with animals kept from disappearing altogether, even when their numbers were so low statistics would say they’re doomed. Not always though! After turning the final pages, I looked a few things up. Twenty-five years ago, this author opined that the chuckwalla (a lizard) on Isla Ángel de la Guarda would go extinct. It’s still here!

But still, such a fantastic book and it made me feel glum.

Rating: 4/5
702 pages, 1996

More opinions: Shelf Love
anybody else?


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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