Friday, June 15, 2012

The Wild Side

Books on animals are perennial favorites at the library, from purely informative ones on pet care or how to raise goats and chickens, to heartwarming classics such as James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small or Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron.

Interest in these books is not surprising since animals often meet our needs for love, companionship and entertainment or can be useful to us in many ways. Lately, though, I’ve been learning more about animals that don’t fit these categories, especially wild animals that are not useful to us in an immediate sense and definitely are not our friends.

Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals by Gordon Grice is a fascinating but sobering look at the myriad ways in which most wild animals, from the smallest insects to the largest mammals, can wreak havoc on the human body. Hyenas and Komodo dragons are one thing, but surely that beautiful little fish, that cute little chimp, that puppy-faced otter are benign? Think again — and you might want to read what Mr. Grice says about that ferret you bought at the pet store and that pig in your barnyard. Domestication is not a foolproof defense against “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”

If you need further evidence of wildlife dangers, try Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army and Other Diabolical Insects by Amy Stewart. The author categorizes these repellent creatures as either “horrible,” “painful,” “deadly,” “dangerous,” or “destructive.” And then there are accounts of specific attacks on humans by wild animals, such as Twelve Days of Terror : A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks by Richard G. Fernicola, the episode that inspired the movie Jaws, or The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell’s Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears by Nick Jans which demonstrates how our tendency to romanticize and anthropomorphize wild animals can be a deadly mistake.

If you’ve never been much for outdoor pursuits such as hiking through the Rockies or swimming off the coast of Australia, these books will confirm your good judgment. Better to sit safely in your arm chair, leaf through books of gorgeous wildlife photography, and sample more titles of the heartwarming variety: A Lion Called Christian by Anthony Bourke and John Rendall, which describes a lion cub reared by the authors in London and his eventual rehabilitation to Africa; or Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer, about the bond between a circus elephant and her trainer. Though such relationships with humans are extraordinarily rare, they offer a glimpse into another, less disturbing side of wild animals. But all the books described above, among many others, will give you a greater appreciation for the animal kingdom in all its variety.

Beth @ Bealeton

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