Tag: Animals Nonfiction

Encounters in the Animal Kingdom

by Dr. Evan Antin

I never heard of this veterinarian before- apparently he’s got a television show and a huge following on social media. The book is about his travels all over the world, first just to see wildlife and film himself talking about it- giving little information snippets while he’s holding a creature- and later on, to offer his services as a vet in places that needed one. Sometimes he was a tourist, in other cases able to go places by volunteering- whether it was to clean out cages, do surgery on a primate’s abscessed tooth, or assist in catching wild giraffes for transport. The various locales include Australia, Tanzania, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, South Africa, Fiji, Tahiti, the Galapagos, Bahamas, Philipines, Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. He tells about getting up close to rhinos, elephants, minotor lizards, sharks, mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, tamanduas, river otters, sea lions, poison dart frogs, giant tortoises, scorpions, whale sharks, komodo dragons, many species of monkeys and most of all, snakes. This guy loves snakes. So many kinds of snakes I never heard of are described in enthusiastic detail. He always wanted to hold one- and obviously had the experience to do so, though I momentarily held my breath when I read about the fer-de-lance. I vividly recall how incredibly dangerous that one is from reading an incident in Jaguar! I really admire the work this man does, and his excitement at seeing wild animals in their natural habitat is unmistakable. As is his respect for the individual animals, and his desire to help them. He does talk a lot about conservation and why wildlife needs protection. However I was a little put off by the casual tone -the narrative is peppered with words like bro and gnarly. It covers a lot of ground in relatively few pages, letting you know how difficult and tedious it was to reach far-flung locales to see the animals, without much actual descriptive detail on that. It’s the kind of book that will appeal to a wider audience. Rather like Last Chance To See in my mind. Also the author doesn’t fail to mention how fit he is, he’s certainly very self-confident. I kept wondering if I would appreciate his videos or not, but I haven’t felt like watching any yet to find out.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
235 pages, 2020

An African Journey Home

by Boyd Varty

Author tells of growing up in South Africa, on a wildlife reserve his family established. The land was originally bought from farmers that degraded it, and earlier generations had then used it for hunting. Boyd’s parents wanted to restore the land to bring back wildlife and run tourist safaris. At the time this was a new idea and they struggled to make it work. His heartfelt memoir tells what it was like growing up in such a place- surrounded by wildlife, baboons and warthogs on the lawn, going on drives with his crazy uncle to make wildlife films, learning tracking skills from local men and frequently running into lions, leopards, elephants, etc. Many narrow escapes (on rivers, in small aircraft, deadly snakes, crocodiles, you name it) and a healthy respect for the wild animals. Humorous stories about their visitors- lots of ordinary people and occasionally someone famous, once even member of royalty. He met Nelson Mandela as a young boy (and didn’t realize the significance of that until much later). Tells about his family, his stays at boarding school (frustrating as so completely different from life in the bush) and above all, how the lessons he learned from the land stood him well later on: to stay calm in a dangerous situation, to always have an escape route in mind, to study things carefully and make calculated decisions. Later he tells of grief and terror his family went through- especially an incident when they lived in Johannesburg, had their lives threatened and sense of security violated. It took him years to get over the trauma of that night, and he travelled widely across the world seeking out gurus in India, a shaman, various kinds of healers, and finally a Navajo sweat lodge in Arizona (often honestly skeptical about how these things would help). In the end, he returned home to his family’s reserve in Africa, finding his place where he had always belonged, settling the fear and stress out of his mind. The final chapters of the book explore spirituality quite a bit, but never veer far from the solace he felt rooted in nature.

I enjoyed this book so much. Incredible stories, amazing surroundings, riveting wild animals, a quirky family. Above all one young man’s search for meaning and sense of self, when tragedy and violence strain his equilibrium. It was at turns exciting, funny, and very thoughtful. He mentions meeting Peter Beard! and of differences of opinion with a nearby reserve that held elephants (I felt sure I’d read a book about Kruger National Park but couldn’t place it). Near the end he also tells of meeting Martha Beck, which took me completely by surprise. I was reminded of many other books I’ve read about Africa, or wildlife conservation: The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn, Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

I do have to note, one part made me feel put off- when he mentions going to Australia and how he’d been reading this book with his teacher and his sister. And how they absorbed the message of “the Aboriginal Australians’ plea to save the planet.” Well, I admired that book’s idea of harmony with nature too, but was upset to discover it was actually fiction. Dismayed to see it praised here. I assume he didn’t know.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
281 pages, 2014

Sharing Our Urban World

by Ann Downer

I didn’t realize when I picked this book from a recommended list, that it was juvenile non-fiction. I liked it anyway. It’s about wildlife in cities. Why wild animals are becoming more common in urban areas, why that’s a problem, and what people are doing about it. The book tells about raccoons, black bears, cougars, sea turtles, crows, bats, coyotes and alligators in particular, but also mentions some other species. Details why exactly certain animals start to inundate cities. Some are very adaptable, having a broad diet, ease in finding their way around or making do with different kinds of living space. Some have developed a very short flight distance, being unafraid of people. And others are simply forced into close contact with people because of habitat overlapping or being lost- in particular the flying foxes in Sydney Australia and loggerhead turtles in Florida. I thought that most of the animals mentioned would be numerous- and that’s the case for many, but not all. Deer, raccoons and coyotes are in no danger of disappearing soon. But the flying foxes and sea turtles are. It’s troubling to read about how difficult we’ve made it for animals to live in the world, but also encouraging to see how people are solving the issues in many places. Making greener spaces. Discouraging animals from living off garbage, while leaving them alone to live their lives otherwise. Building wildlife bridges or tunnels so they can safely cross highways. I learned quite a few new things- didn’t know before that jungle crows are such a problem in Tokyo (one stopped a bullet train for several hours when its nest on a power station caused an electrical shortage!) I didn’t know that crows are afraid of bees- the city encouraged urban beekeeping as a way to discourage crow numbers. I had no idea that some bat guano is purple- I’m guessing from the fruit they eat. Fun read with a lot of information, and just the right balance of detail for kids (I think).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
64 pages, 2014

The Woman Who Redefined Man

by Dale Peterson

I just finished this hefty, very thorough biography on Dr. Jane Goodall. It could have felt like a burdensome read, except that a) I recently bashed my toe on the concrete garden edging and so wanted to keep it propped up for several days which gave me a nice excuse to put in some good, long reading hours. And b) I’ve admired Dr. Goodall for a very long time, so reading this was for the most part delightful- a lot of it was so familiar to me, but with new details and background info I’d had no idea about. Decades ago, as a teenager, I was idly browsing shelves in a thrift store and saw a paperback titled In the Shadow of Man. I picked it up thinking it must be a thriller or spy novel! What was my delight to read, for the first time ever in my life, narrative nonfiction- a popular science book about field studies on wild animals. I didn’t know such a thing existed before. It is by far still my favorite kind of book to read. I was fascinated and awed by what this amazing woman had done with her life, and the things she discovered about our closest living relative, chimpanzees.

The biography brings that all back to me- I’ve read a few other of Jane Goodall’s books since, but not nearly as much as I want to! In case you don’t know, she was born in England, grew up in a nice family, always had an interest in animals from a young age. There’s a much-repeated story where she went missing as a young child and there was a frantic search going on when she emerged, hours later, from the hen house- where she’d been sitting in the dark patiently waiting to see how a chicken laid an egg. This book tells a lot about her years growing up, her early secretarial jobs, and the many young men who tried to gain her favor. It tells how she met the famed anthropologist Louis Leakey, who wanted someone to study great apes in the wild, thinking they would give us glimpses into how early man had lived and behaved. He thought women would be better at this than men, having more focus and being less threatening than men. I’d had the impression that Jane Goodall went very suddenly to Gombe to study the chimpanzees, but in reality she worked for Leakey several years while he sought funding for the project. When she finally got there, she spent months trying to habituate the chimpanzees to her presence, and it finally paid off. She was able to observe them closely, doing all their normal everyday activities, and made the shocking (for that time) discoveries that chimpanzees make and use rudimentary tools, and hunt and eat meat on occasion. Her methods were unheard of at the time- and her habit of giving the animals names and describing their behavior in a manner anyone could understand, made her material accessible to the public. In fact, while Jane Goodall was struggling to learn to report her findings in a way the scientific world would take seriously, her main supporter National Geographic, was encouraging her to write in a more storytelling manner to engage the public audience.

There’s a lot of details in this book about supporting people in Jane Goodall’s life- her family and friends, Louis Leakey, the Nat Geo photographer Hugo van Lawick who became her first husband, the many many people who came and went from Gombe as the project grew. Eventually Jane Goodall had assistants trained to also follow the chimpanzees and make observations, resulting in one of the longest sustained study on a group of animals in the wild, ever. Many graduate students came to Gombe to do their own research projects on different aspects of chimpanzee behavior. Jane Goodall found herself as the years went on doing more of the administrative work and less of the studies herself. She travelled all over the world giving lectures and attending conferences (I think in one chapter the author used the word peripatetic three times in a half dozen pages!) at first to share her findings about chimpanzees, then to advocate protecting them and preserving the wild habitat. Near the end of the book her focus shifted again to urge world peace, to encourage young people in finding ways to better the world around them, and to improve the lives of chimpanzees and other simian species that live in zoos or were used in research. Some of the saddest passages in the book describe when she visited research facilities or saw chimps mistreated in captivity. As far as I know, Dr. Goodall is still working tirelessly to further the causes she believes in so deeply.

There’s so much in this book I have barely touched on any of it. Her work at Cambridge University to earn a Ph.D. (so she would have credentials to get published in scientific circles) even though she hadn’t done any undergraduate work. An early job she had at the London Zoo assisting the filmmaker who produced a popular television show about wildlife. Her mother Vanne wrote a romantic fiction book set in a rain forest! How her son Hugo nicknamed Grub, grew up more or less in the research camp. The many mishaps, frustrations and dangerous moments during fieldwork in Africa- especially when political situations made it unsafe. Glimpses into the lives of the chimpanzees. Why she and Hugo didn’t write the sequel to Innocent Killers (another book I loved- it was about hyenas, jackals and wild dogs in the Serengeti. The sequel was supposed to be on studies of leopards, lions and cheetahs). Her second marriage to Derek Bryceson (and how both marriages eventually ended in divorce). The many many famous people she has met. Her lively, humorous and energetic writing style- as numerous passages are quoted from letters, diaries and field journals. Normally I might feel distracted and annoyed at so much being presented in a biography about other people- Louis Leakey’s childhood for example- but in this case I was already familiar enough with the main person that I found all the secondary stories interesting and insightful. Even the brief ones about people who cooked in her camp, or worked as her secretaries, or helped her care for her pets (small wild animals when she was younger, lots of different dogs later on).

Maybe this is rambling, and it sure is a lot, but that’s my grand impression of this long and detailed book on the life of an awe-inspiring person. Sure did revive my desire to read her other books on chimpanzees, conservation work, etc. And the book her mother wrote might be interesting, too.

Rating: 4/5
740 pages, 2006

A Year of Birdwatching in the West

by Frances Wood

I read this book off my shelf for the hobby interest part of a summer reading challenge. I enjoy seeing birds in my garden or on walks in natural areas, and am pleased when I can identify them, but have never felt compelled to keep lists or travel to see a certain species. I liked that the author shared the sighting that got her husband into birdwatching. the stunningly colorful painted bunting, and the captivating charm of pigeon guillemots that instantly became her personal favorite. This book is part introduction to birdwatching- explaining how to find birds, learn to recognize their songs, markings, habitat use, etc.- and part personal stories about her experiences observing birds. I think I liked the essay parts a little better. Also included are some legends on birds, and a lovely selection of quotes head the chapters- poems by Emily Dickinson, lines by John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, etc. It’s arranged by the seasons, with lists of bird species typically seen where she lives- on an island in Puget Sound- both resident birds and those that pass through on migration routes. The lists have lines to take notes on (I don’t think I’ll be making use of that). Charming ink drawings accompany the text.

My favorite parts were reading the factual details and behavioral accounts on hummingbirds, great blue herons, kingfishers and woodpeckers. There are a ton more species named and described- sometimes in brief, others with more detail. Most were familiar to me because I grew up in that area. A few I had to go look up pictures of them. When I thumbed back through the book to see what I’d like to mention in my post, very little jumped out at me. Not as compelling as some other books I’ve read on birds, but it’s nice enough.

Rating: 3/5
247 pages, 2004

365 Days

by Anup and Manoj Shah

Brought this book home from a thrift store just last week, and instead of it sitting for years on my shelf like so many others, I started thumbing through it. Read it in between chapters of two other books, the last stretch in a long afternoon outside by the garden, when for once it was cool enough and breezy so the mosquitoes weren’t bad. Hearing birds and watching them bustle about while reading about wildlife and the change of seasons in a very different, also very hot, part of the world- was nice.

African Odyssey is a book of photographs, taken each one day of the year and presented in sequence as a photography team followed the great migration around the Serengeti plains and the Maasai Mara. They go from the rainy season into dry weather and back into rain. They follow the animals as the herds in turn follow the grass- traversing different types of terrain and river obstacles. Each photograph has a bit of text on a facing page- sometimes a description of the animal depicted, or of the weather they experienced that day, or of an interaction they observed between some species. So there are little stories and glimpses into the lives of the animals, which I liked. Reminded me somewhat of The Long African Day. Most of the photos are of familiar, iconic animals- lions and zebra, wildebeest and vultures, hippos, hyenas, giraffe and leopards. There’s also pictures of many birds I’m not familiar with, and one each of a striped hyena and an aardwolf, rarely seen. I learned a few facts I didn’t know before- such as, that giraffes often suffer heavily from parasites, and many of them die from it. But a lot of the info tidbits were repeated- I didn’t need to read twice that wildebeest are so physically efficient it takes them the same energy output to run as to walk. And while I appreciate that the photos didn’t avoid showing the unpleasant or brutal side of nature- prey animals being killed, predators feeding, young abandoned by their mothers or lost, etc- phrases like sudden death is no stranger on the plains felt a bit overused after a while.

My only other quibble is that the book itself is difficult to hold- it’s very thick and heavy, but has such a short spine, my hands got tired unless I propped it up on something and I didn’t want to torque the binding too much. Visually, the photographs are rich and lively, and I feel like I got a broad picture of what life is like for animals in that area of the world, how their struggles for survival depend on each other and intersect, with a nice amount of detail on individual incidents.

Rating: 3/5
744 pages, 2007

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


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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