Tag: Animals Nonfiction

His Manners and Morals

by Brian Curtis

Subtitle of this book really makes me chuckle. It’s an old book, claiming to be a comprehenisve compilation of all the knowledge about fishes that previously was only to be found in academic journals so not really accessible to the common reader. So of interest, but of course somewhat dated. Like most books I’ve read about fish, it describes their body plan, physical functions, senses and lifestyle. Sounds basic but I did learn some things I hadn’t known before (or had forgotten). Things about how the fish senses function, details their scales can tell you, differences between what are considered primitive and or advanced species. (I rather liked this part: “while some of the fish-fancier’s favorites are in the advanced category, like the bettas, the gouramis, the scalares, and the rest of the cichlids, the majority rank lower in the scale: for characins, danios, barbs, guppies, swordtails and platies are all among the more primitive fish.” I have kept all the species/types mentioned- and the first three are literally my favorite aquarium fishes: bettas, paradise fish and angelfish. I always though my preference was due to the fact those three are among the predators- they are more intelligent and seem more aware of what goes on outside the aquarium- they look at you. Others just kind of flit around doing their own thing, more or less. Beautiful, yes. Intriguingly interactive, not really). Also liked seeing the very simplified diagram comparing brains- shark to fish to dog. The largest area in the shark brain was for smelling, in the fish brain for sight, in the dog brain for reasoning. Some of the more interesting breeding habits from several species are briefly noted- the male seahorse, mouth-brooding cichlids, bubble-nesting siamese fighting fish. There’s more extensive chapters on the trouts and salmonids, as a lot more study was done on those fish to increase efficiency of fishing industries. I found interesting the details about exactly why certain methods in trout hatcheries aren’t in the long run successful, or not worth the cost and effort. Trying to recall from that other book I read on trout, if this has changed much in the meantime. Probably. When this book shifts focus from straightforward information to things more applicable to real-life, it’s mostly about what sports fishermen would want to know, not aquarium keepers. Still I felt it was worth reading.

Rating: 3/5
284 pages, 1949

by Herbert R. Axelrod and Warren E. Burgess

I actually quite enjoyed reading this book, but it’s not at all what it seems. Or what everyone else assumes it to be- most places I saw it listed online had for the description something along the lines of “a complete care guide for angelfishes” etc. Um, not really. It’s actually a collection of articles from early days of Tropical Fish Hobbyist magazine, all on the subject of angelfish of course, published together in this book. Written by two prominent men in the hobby who early on studied, collected and bred angelfishes. Back in the days when tapwater was simply “aged” before using in the tank because dechlorinator wasn’t invented yet, When live foods were collected from ponds or raised regularly, because the only other thing you could feed your fish was scrapings of raw beef heart- flake not yet being manufactured. The first chapter jumps straight into a personal narrative about how Dr. Axelrod got his first pair of angelfish and started a breeding operation. Then there are chapters describing collecting trips to the Amazon and Rio Negro in Brazil, and another about a visit to a large fish farm in Singapore. All quite engaging and full of interesting little details. There’s a chapter on how different angelfish varieties were developed, and some details on the scientific names and identification of species which I kind of glossed over. Next a section on angelfish genetics, and finally one on how to choose good specimens, breed them and raise the fry. Ending is abrupt. Of interest for what it is, but I’d not really consider this a care manual. The photographs of different angelfish types are really good quality, considering how old the book is.

Rating: 3/5
92 pages, 1979

Your Happy Healthy Pet

by Betsy Sikora Siino

Of the three hamster care books I recently got, this was the best one. It has all the same range of info- history, details on different species, how to pick a healthy animal, needed supplies, what to feed it, proper handling, keeping the habitat clean, health concerns and ways to have fun! but in far more detail. The writing is more sophisticated, too- aimed at adults who are learning in order to oversee a child’s pet ownership (or keeping a hamster themselves). I appreciated that, though, as it made the read enjoyable rather than just something to breeze through. The only thing in here that I questioned was the inclusion of oranges on fresh foods you can give hamsters. I thought citrus was not good for them. Other than that, solid advice and good information. Nice pictures, too.

Edit add: Just realized I read this book before! Last time around we were preparing for a hamster in the house. Our new pet is here, btw. She’s black with a white tummy, and my ten-year-old is so thrilled. Her name is Niki.

Rating: 4/5
128 pages, 2007

by Debbie Stowe

I had no good reason to bring this book home from the thrift store, but I did. Thumbed through it in the aisle- the pictures are very nice, some beautiful, and the text appeared to be of interest, so I thought it could make a nice read when I needed something relaxing. What’s more relaxing than looking at adorable young animals with their mothers? Well, it was disappointing, even annoying, instead. It’s a large format book with very attractive, large photographs, featuring twenty-five animal species, though some are specific and others more general- for example, there’s a section on cheetahs, one on lions, and another on tigers, but the part about baby whales covers all the whale species. Other animals include: bears, cats (domestic), chicks, cows, deer, dogs, dolphins, donkeys, ducks, elephants, geese, guinea pigs, horses, monkeys, penguins, pigs, polar bears, rabbits, seals, sheep and zebras. The text is kind of a mix, varying between information about the various baby animals- how precocious or helpless they are at birth, what they eat at first, how fast they grow, how they are cared for (or not) by their mothers, etc. It tells about threats they face, both from predators and other perils (such as bad weather or food scarcity) in their natural environment, or from hand of mankind- either directly or from habitat destruction and global warming. Lots of references to how adored baby animals are in popular culture, with nods to books like Winnie the Pooh and Make Way for Ducklings, famed pieces of art, or more commonly- Disney movies. I did learn a few tidbits- I’d never heard of Chessie the cat who popularized a railway line in the 1930’s- and I finally learned why the Easter bunny is associated with eggs. If I can trust the source, that is.

Because this book has inaccuracies. There are photos showing the wrong animals, which really bothered me. The page about cheetahs has a large picture of a leopard cub nursing from a baby bottle, the section on monkeys shows photos of chimpanzees and orangutans, and there’s a sea lion pup on the page about seals. Moreover, the text is full of errors, too. No spelling typos, although the phrasing is sometimes a bit awkward, slightly melodramatic perhaps- but things like this: Camouflage is one of the fawn’s major survival strategies, particularly on its mother’s hunting forays . . . Um, I don’t think of deer as going hunting for food- foraging, maybe. Browsing, certainly. Hunting? This section also stated that a doe licks its fawn to remove all odor, so predators can’t smell it, but then said that mother deer can’t recognize their fawn’s voices, and identify them by their scent. Or this: The one time a mallard, or mother duck, will seek solitude is when she’s about to give birth. Ducks don’t give birth! And the book repeatedly referred to all mother ducks as mallards. That’s a species. Mother ducks are hens. There was also a page that called a young zebra a cub, but in the next sentence properly called it a foal. Seal pups were called cubs on one page, too. Sigh.

I can’t help it, these things just leaped off the page at me, and irked me to no end. Also, the words often felt crammed on the page to my eyes, and I finally figured out why- over and over, there were instances where a sentence had no space between its ending period and the next capitalized word. Sorry, but in spite of its charms and many endearing pictures, this book is going straight on my discard shelf.

Rating: 2/5
160 pages, 2007

the Ultimate Pocket Pet

by Virginia Parker Guidry

No issues at all with this book, compared to the last one! It has all the same basic info- how to pick a healthy hamster, what to feed it, keeping the cage clean, safe and proper handling, when to call a vet, etc. Very much about encouraging kids to be responsible pet owners. There’s far less on the breeding aspect- with admonitions to be sure you would only breed hamsters for a good reason, and to have homes lined up for the young beforehand. Way more in this book is about simply having fun with a pet hamster, joining hamster clubs or organizations that have hamster shows. It’s written in a very friendly, easy-to-read style and I had my doubts about the other book confirmed. Well, the two agree on foods: dog biscuits, occasional milk and cooked meat is okay. This book only mentions that it’s possible to build your own cage, but there’s no instructions for that and it recommends buying something prefabricated, and why. Open water dishes are discouraged (baths in them are a no), and yes the hamster should be held on the palm of one hand, with the other gently securing it, not grasped from above. There’s no mention of how hamsters have been used in research at all, but there are a few pages about wild hamsters, how some first became pets, and the different species that are now kept. I liked this little book and yes I hope my kid actually reads it.

Rating: 3/5
120 pages, 2004

by edited by G. Edgar Folk, Jr.

I ordered a few books online for my kid, about hamster care. They’ve all arrived promptly so I have time to look them over myself- and decided I’d better read this one, the oldest of the lot, before giving it to my almost-ten-year-old. Glad I did, and here’s why.

The book is outdated. It has good basic information, but also some questionable advice. We’ve kept hamsters before (and read other books on their care) so a few things raised my eyebrows. For starters, the book has a lot of information on breeding hamsters. Setups, how to tell when the female is in heat, how to track which hamsters you’ve bred, basics on genetics and how to fix desirable traits, care for the pregnant female and her young when they’re born, how to find buyers, etc. There’s pictures of the naked babies and drawings of hamster undersides so you can sex them- which I am pretty sure my kid will find squicky. And not kidding, the sections on breeding are at least half the book.

The rest is for the most part pretty good, except what I’ll mention. There’s a few pages on the origins and history of hamsters. There’s info about their habits, with some interesting facts about their ability to hibernate, if kept in an area under 40° (why would you keep a hamster cage outdoors? but this book suggests that if you do, provide plenty of warm bedding so they can survive cold temperatures- with the unpleasant note that if they’re in a colony group, non-hibernating hamsters may eat the hibernating ones!) There’s info on how to choose a healthy hamster (including consideration of good qualities for breeding and show), and instructions on how to build different types of housing yourself (but I was surprised that one of the suggested building materials was asbestos shingles!) Next is info on how to keep the habitat clean, and what to feed a hamster. This book says they can be quite happy eating dry dog food or pelleted rabbit feed and fresh greens, with occasional things like banana peels, meat or milk (for nursing mothers). Hm. Never heard of giving a hamster dog food, although dog treats like biscuits might be okay- this I figured with a quick online search. Banana peels okay if they’re organic, but meat? The book doesn’t get more specific, but I would think that means something like mealworms- although a quick online search told me some people feed their hamsters bits of cooked chicken. Moving on- the book explains how to handle your hamster- suggesting picking it up by the scruff or closing your hand over it from the top, never holding it from underneath. This is the exact opposite of all advice I see online or in other books about how to pick up a hamster. It also says that if your hamster decides to bathe in its water dish, you won’t be able to make it stop so just give it a second one for drinking water. What? I thought most people used those water bottles, because otherwise the water gets dirty. Also, never heard of hamster taking a water bath. Next, the book says hamsters have “no known diseases of their own” but can catch colds from humans, and suffer from paralysis or digestive issues. I am pretty sure hamsters suffer more ailments than just headcolds and constipation, but moving on- this is what I really objected to- in the section on what are hamsters useful for it mentions that hamster make nice pets but are also important in things like research or, well-

I don’t want my kid reading that. So this book is getting tucked onto my own shelf, I might pull it out for some additional reference if needed. It’s kind of like the Golden Book of Wild Animal Pets– interesting for what it is, but simply not the way we do things anymore.

On the flip side, this picture might give my kid grand ideas:


No, I don’t want a hamster village in my house. One will be enough!

Rating: 3/5
80 pages, 1984

the Life and the Legend

by Susan Orlean

In World War I, a young soldier named Lee Duncan found a litter of puppies in a ruined kennel on a battlefield in France. Lee managed to bring two of the puppies home, and one of them grew up to become the famed movie-star dog Rin Tin Tin. I had heard the name before, but knew nothing else about him. This book depicts pretty clearly what was so remarkable about the dog and how he became so famous. Coming from a rather lonely childhood, Lee bonded closely with Rin Tin Tin and trained him to follow detailed commands. The author does a great job at noting how different society and the role of dogs in America was back then- most dogs were working animals, didn’t live in the house, and were not trained- not even to the basic “sit”, “come” or “heel”. Rin Tin Tin was not only well-trained but had a very expressive face, this combined with his intelligence and aptitude for physical feats- leaping long distances, clearing obstacles, pulling items, etc- made him a star in silent films where his roles were central, just as much as the human actors. Apparently he embodied the values of bravery and loyalty to the public, caused german shepherd dogs to become wildly popular, and even led to the obedience training of household dogs to become common. Lee was enraptured with his dog and worked to breed Rin Tin Tin, selling the puppies then selecting and training a suitable inheritor for the dog’s role. Because of course the dog got old and eventually died, but one of his offspring took his place.

A lot of the book is about the show business, how the dog’s popularity waxed and waned, how it went from being one particular famed dog to a famous character portrayed by many dogs, about the people who took care of him, trained him, wrote scripts for him, and fought over rights to his image. How the character portrayal and management of dogs acting for Rin Tin Tin diverged from the actual canine descendants that were bred. The clash between Rin Tin Tin and Lassie for popularity, and how Rin Tin Tin the movie dog differed from the TV show. About people who collected Rin Tin Tin memorabilia, or longed for one of the german shepherds descended from him, and on and on. At times I thought I would get tired of this book because it was so much about the people and circumstances surrounding the dog, more than Rin Tin Tin himself. But in all it was pretty darn interesting, especially the cultural aspects, I learned things about American history I didn’t know before, especially in regards to the filmmaking industry, dog breed clubs and shows.

After reading the book I looked for some clips of Rin Tin Tin online- not the 1950’s TV show (which is easy to find) but the older black-and-white footage with the original dog. I found one, and even though the acting seemed a bit melodramatic I could see how this dog awed the public. Especially if you remember that the original dog did all the acting- he didn’t have any stunt doubles, there were no special effects. That was him actually running and leaping across a gap, or picking up a rope to guide a horse to lift a car off a man after an accident. Would be nice to watch one of the old silent feature-length films, if I could find any. Just for curiosity sake.

Rating: 3/5
324 pages, 2011

more opinions:
Vulpes Libris
the Literary Lioness
anyone else?

by David and Ann James Premack

Language studies done with chimpanzees in the sixties. It’s very specific and detailed about how the studies were performed, what they aimed to find out, and how they drew their conclusions- namely that while apes can learn to communicate to a limited degree, they will never actually use language as we know it- they can’t make proper sentences or use abstractions. By the end I found this book really interesting, but I admit it was hard to get into and I almost ditched it fifty pages in after mostly skimming. The writing can be very dry. What’s intriguing is that the scientists did not teach these chimpanzees sign language, or to recognize written words, but instead totally arbitrary symbols for words and objects. The chimps learned to use the symbols to label familiar things like apple, pencil, cup- and individuals- themselves and people who tested them. They learned symbols for colors and certain actions and prepositions- give, cut, on, etc. They were tested to see if they could follow directions, identify objects, make comparisons between objects, draw conclusions about actions performed on objects, solve problems, and transfer learned information to new situations. Children at different ages were also presented with the same kind of tests to see how they did compared to the chimps. What’s really fascinating is to see where the chimps showed their abilities and understanding outside of the testing parameters, and how they preformed on double-blind tests. They also gave chimps that had not had any language training with symbols some of the same tests, and it was obvious the untrained chimps didn’t have the same kind of understanding about cause-and-effect or comparisons. What I found really amusing was when they gave a human one of the tests- he had been part of the double-blind study- giving the chimp questions without himself knowing what the symbols represented (so he couldn’t inadvertently cue the chimp with his body language). Later they tested the man, to see if he’d picked up what any of the symbols meant by watching how the chimp used them. (He figured out many of them, but not all). There’s also comparison of the chimp studies with those done using rats and pigeons. Also comparing what they learned about ape intelligence to how bees convey information with their waggle dance.

The cover image is from part of the study where they tried to teach the chimps abstraction using maps- if they showed the chimp a picture or video of a room it was familiar with, and hidden food, would the chimp find the food when taken to the real room? nope. So then they made a tiny model of the room, showed the chimp hidden food in the model, and took it to the real room. It still failed to find the food. Only when the model was actual size compared to the real room, did the chimp immediately move to the hidden food. Then they worked backwards, using smaller and smaller models and then finally flat representations on paper, and now the chimp was able to transfer the information and find the hidden reward- but not, interestingly, if they rotated the map.

I feel like I should read this again someday to understand it all better, particularly as I didn’t really grasp some of the conclusions but not sure if I can see where there might be a flaw in deducing what the tests showed. For sure later language and intelligence studies with chimps and gorillas has already done this.

Rating: 3/5
165 pages, 1983

by Kenneth Oppel

This novel is of an early language experiment done with chimpanzees, in the seventies. It’s told from the viewpoint of a teenager whose parents work at a university. They bring home an infant chimp to raise in their home- to see if it can learn to communicate with sign language. Ben is annoyed at first, jealous of how much attention the chimpanzee demands. He’s also not happy having to attend a new school, dealing with pressure from his parents to get better grades, navigating an intense new interest in girls and trying to figure all that out while making new friends. Gradually he becomes more involved with Zan, the chimp, and starts to relate things he’s learned from his mother’s books (Jane Goodall!) with Zan’s behavior, also comparing to humans. He decides to be methodical in his efforts to win a girl’s attention- keeping notes on things she likes in a logbook similar to how his parents keep notes on Zan, and starts interpreting how kids behave at school- constantly shifting social status and all- with “alpha” chimp behavior. That was both funny and interesting. The family is eager to see how Zan starts picking up sign language and using it, but they come under scrutiny from the university department who brings in an expert challenging their ideas- is Zan really learning language? or is he just cleverly imitating signs to get rewards? There’s issues renewing their grant, and it becomes harder to manage keeping Zan- while he can be cute and endearing, at barely two years old he’s already stronger than any one human, can become aggressive without much notice and makes horrendous messes. This all leads to Ben’s parents deciding the chimpanzee must go- probably to a research facility where he can live with other chimps. Ben protests- he’s become fond of Zan and feels like the chimp is his little brother now- and he feels it’s unfair to treat the chimp as part of a human family and then ditch him in a new environment- will he be able to adjust? Ben’s outrage spurs him to some hasty, questionable actions- and while the ending was satisfying I felt it concluded a bit too quickly.

Overall I liked this book- I’ve read quite a few in the past about language experiments like this that were actually done with chimpanzees and gorillas, and I think this was a very well-rounded look at that for teens. It touches on all the issues without really diving deeply into any one thing- is the chimpanzee a family member or just an experimental subject? what is he really learning from them? what’s the best way to treat him fairly? At the end there are glimpses of different ways chimps are treated in other facilities- some quite grim and others more benign. Reading this made me look to see if I have other nonfiction books on similar topics on my shelf.

Rating: 3/5
375 pages, 2010

the Mountain Goat Observed

by Douglas H. Chadwick

This is one book I will always recall vividly- still remember how I came across it at the public library as a high school student (several decades ago) when I had just discovered that narrative accounts about wildlife field studies was a thing. I think the first one I actually read was Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, which I’d found at a thrift shop. The section of the library (adult books!) that had nonfiction about wildlife became my favorite spot to browse. This book remained top in my mind, and now finally reading it again so many years later, I still find it excellent. I mentioned it once here before, but can now give a clearer picture.

The author spent seven years studying mountain goats, mainly in Glacier National Park. He camped on the slopes and followed them closely, collaring and tagging some but also learning to identify others by slight individual differences, and to tell males/females apart at different ages, which sounds particularly difficult. He describes the animal in all regards- its physical shape which is so perfectly adapted to living on steep slopes, its eating habits, survival strategies and social structure. The terrain it favors and why, the other animals that share its habitat, how it has avoided competition from most other species and also most predators, but is particularly vulnerable to hunting and distubances caused by man. There is a chapter about how mountain goats evolved (they are more closely related to chamois and serow than to bighorn sheep or any kind of actual goat), and another about why their behavior is so different from sheep. The book explains why they are so belligerent to their own kind and how this actually facilitates their survival. There are diagrams and explanations of their distribution across mountain ranges and what happened when they were introduced to new areas. On a more personal bent, there are passages where the author describes his experiences climbing the mountains to follow the goats, his first sighting of a newly-born mountain goat kid, the harshness of winter storms, many examples of how the goats lead their day-to-day lives and how he was finally able to approach a few mountain goat herds closely enough to sit among them and be part of their social interactions (literally- he knew enough of the goats’ body language to maintain dominance among them until one larger male threatened him a few times when he was too close, and then his social standing among the others gradually slipped!) It’s very apparent that the author greatly admired these animals and enjoyed spending time with them in spite of the hardships during his study. His writing about the wildlife and the surrounding landscape is beautifully done. Constant references to the mountain goats as “the white beasts” or “the bearded ones” did get a bit repetitive! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book again.

Rating: 5/5
208 pages, 1983

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