Sep 17, 2019

The Eye of the Elephant

by Delia and Mark Owens

Many many years ago I read Cry of the Kalahari- the story of this couple's studies in an untracked African desert, and I was enthralled with the descriptions of close encounters with wildlife and rough living. Now I finally read their following book, and it was- not the same. Eye of the Elephant isn't as much about wildlife behavior as it is about human behavior. Poaching. After having to leave the Kalahari, the Owenses searched for a new wilderness to make their home, hoping to study lions and other animals again. They thought they had found the perfect spot in a remote valley in Zambia. It was rugged, difficult to navigate, sparsely populated, full of lions, rhino, crocs, antelope etc. But they were puzzled at the scarcity of elephants, until they started finding piles of bones. Dismayed and -on Mark's part- enraged at seeing the elephants killed in huge numbers, the Owenses took it upon themselves to stop the poaching. They tried to encourage game patrols, to teach local villagers that wildlife was worth more alive than dead (many other animals were killed in addition to elephants- for bush meat), to give the people jobs and support them in creating cottage industries- all to save the wildlife. Really it's amazing what they went through, literally bending over backwards to turn things around. Never having time to just sit and watch the animals. Doing things that threatened their own health, driving themselves to exhaustion, many close calls with wild animal encounters and flash floods, not to mention the dangers of facing down heavily armed poachers keen on protecting their habitual livelihood. There was a lot of corruption, they faced death threats, and several times were nearly trampled by buffalo. Some of Mark's tactics against the poachers surprised me, and his flying at night sounded hair-raising. At one point Delia couldn't condone the direct approach Mark was taking and set up her own separate camp. Not surprisingly, their relationship suffered somewhat. In the end they finally accomplished a sort of peace after a lot of difficulty, hardship and frustration. What descriptions of animals there are, I found intriguing, but because of all the focus on their efforts against poaching, this book reminded me far more of The White Bushman than of anything by the Adamsons. The parts Mark wrote about flying his plane made me recall Beryl Markham.

Rating: 3/5              306 pages, 1992

Sep 13, 2019

An Elephant's Life

An Intimate Portrait From Africa
by Caitlin O'Connell

The author spent some twenty years doing research in Etosha National Park in Nambia, and wrote this book about the social lives of elephants. It's really a grand photo essay. The observations were all done from a research station set up next to a water hole, and while some of the book is about how that was conducted, their daily activities and hardships living out in the bush, most of it is about the elephants. Their interactions, tender and threatening gestures, friendships and enmities, shifting relationships as they age and elephants move in and out of the herd. New births, mother's guidance, the matriarch protecting the group from other elephants that encroach on the water rights (as elephants perceive them). Also against predators- lions hanging around. Mostly, though, the focus is on the male elephants- how the young adult males start to show their independence, until their behavior becomes obnoxious and the females push them out of the herd. How they form alliances with other young males, or shadow adult bulls. How the bulls compete for water and access to females- but also surprisingly spend a lot of time just in each other's company or supporting one another. The final chapter details the fall of one older bull from power, when he sustained an injury that weakened him. It was all pretty interesting because I never read so much about the social interactions of male elephants before, always assumed them to be loners except when it came time to mate. I think the author put a lot of focus on the males to change these assumptions.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5               196 pages, 2012

Sep 12, 2019

Arctic Tale

Narration by Linda Woolverton, Mose Richards and Kristin Grove
Adapted by Donnali Fifield

Another book of striking photographs and brief paragraphs. I haven't seen the film this is based on, but it doesn't matter, it was a nice read by itself. It follows the lives of two predators in the Arctic- polar bear and walrus- from birth to independence. Shows a bit of family life, learning skills, social interactions, hunting attempts and so on. Mostly pictures, and the majority of those are good quality. There's images of other animals that live in the same region too, as their lives cross paths- arctic foxes, harp seals, caribou and various seabirds. Theme is on the struggle for survival- especially in the face of warming oceans which shrink the sea ice these animals depend on- the walrus as a secure resting spot, the polar bear as it gives access to food sources. I especially enjoyed reading the final chapter, where the filmmakers and photographers described how much work it took for this production, what they learned from it, their impressions and experiences of the arctic. Now I ought to get the DVD and watch it with my kids.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                 160 pages, 2007

The Mating Lives of Birds

by James Parry

Seems that this book has also been printed with a different title- The Mating Game: Bird Courtship and Display, which I find more descriptive. It's very accessible and general- an easy enough read, with a wide variety of examples from many species in different bird families. It's all about the interesting and curious behavior many birds use when trying to impress a mate or ward off rivals, as well as the beautiful plumage they grow during the breeding season. There's sections on how birds find and select mates, their often-stunning methods of showing off to each other, the varied types of relationships they form and maintain, territory defense and colonial living, nest building (presented in order from the simplest- a dry scrap on bare ground- to the most complex woven nests or mud-daubed structures), and how the eggs and young are cared for. Each section really only has a few pages of text, more space being taken up by large, striking photographs. Most of the birds mentioned in the text are shown in the pictures, which I definitely appreciated. Very nice book showing how birds manage one of the most intense events in their lives- finding partners and raising a family. Sample of the pictures- vivid throat feathers on a hummingbird:
Adult cuckoo:

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5             160 pages, 2012

Sep 11, 2019

The Genius of Birds

by Jennifer Ackerman

Birds are smart. They can be resourceful, curious, inventive and opportunistic. It is true that many show limited responses to novel situations, or avoid them altogether- living in a narrow band of specific habitat where their needs are met, following set behavior patterns. But other birds can vary widely in their habitat use, discovering new food sources, solving problems and inventing new ways of doing things. Like the blue tits in Britian that learned to skim cream off milk bottles on porches- and the behavior spread as birds learned it from each other. This book looks into things like exactly how birds learn to do things like that- what parts of the brain are used, what kinds of behaviors do they copy from each other. Which species of birds learn by mimicry, or by being actively coached (some parent birds give their offspring practice and guidance in learning certain skills). It discusses a ton of other stuff too- the complexity and variety of birdsong- in some cases akin to language. The ability of some birds to navigate hundreds of complex social relationships in colonies. How they can steal, cheat, deceive and conversely, console one another. How they can remember thousands of locations where they hid food. Recent findings that poke holes in many long-held notions about birds: many monogamous pairs (including swans) actually perform myriad "extra-pair copulations on the side" (and speculations on why they do this). How they perform astonishing feats of navigation- the details of this are still not understood. From the angle of the sun, position of the stars, magnetic field of the earth, visual landmarks and even olfactory memory- it appears to be a combination of it all. The intricacies of nest-building. The artistry of the bower birds. And the astonishing ability of some birds to make tools for specific uses- the New Caledonian crow will even save a tool it has made, and carry it around to use again later. The book doesn't just describe observed behavior about all these things, but specific studies done to investigate what types of skills birds could learn and how they managed to solve problems. Points out that scientists have discovered that birds' brains are organized very similarly to humans', and in some cases their intelligence level is on par with that of great apes. Pretty amazing.

Except that I've read a lot of it before: see Bird Brain by Nathan Emery. And it took me a while to get through this one because I found the writing a bit uneven. The introduction, in particular, is very redundant and it almost put me off reading the rest of the book. I was also sometimes dismayed to read how the experiments were done. Some simply presented wild birds -caught and kept in aviaries for a short time- with problems to solve and then released them to see what they did back in their natural environment, with their new skill. Fascinating. Others used birds in a lab, studying what parts of the brain lit up when certain behaviors or emotions were active - not hard to imagine what that really entailed. More disturbing was when researchers trapped birds during migration, cut a nerve that communicated a certain sense or organ with the brain, and then released them to see if they could still navigate. I guess that's a way to see what the bird relies on most to find its way, but I couldn't help feeling bad for all those individual birds lost and wandering because of their inflicted disability. They never found their way home.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5               340 pages, 2016

Sep 4, 2019

Fresh Eggs

by Rob Levandoski

Kind of a modern fable. It's fiction, with all the horrors of factory farming, and the tenderness of a young girl's heart. The main characters in the story are father and daughter- Calvin Cassowary has an abrupt career change when his father suddenly dies, leaving the family farm in sad state. Calvin doesn't want to sell the farm to developers to be turned into housing, as some of his neighbors have done. But he can't keep it running the way his forefathers did, there's no profit. Instead of growing multiple crops and raising a variety of animals, he signs a contract with a huge corporation that produces eggs, and builds layer sheds on his land. His young wife keeps a small flock of hens in the yard and sells eggs to the local customers, while the confined company hens - literally a million of them- keep the farm afloat. Until they don't . . . Meanwhile, Calvin's daughter Rhea loves tending her mother's chickens, but is horrified by what she sees in the layer sheds. As her father starts to sink under growing debt, falling egg prices and strict company rules that never allow him to get ahead, Rhea becomes more involved with the chickens and more determined to do something about those million layer hens locked up in the sheds, forced to produce for a mere eighteen months before they are turned into pet food . . . Calvin's wife passes away, and Rhea carries on her memory with the small backyard flock, and then something very strange happens which draws the attention of local media. There's lawsuits and drama galore. I can't say what or it would spoil the story for any of you. It's disturbing and intriguing and by the way it all has a very tidy ending. Unrealistic maybe, but nice- and why not, for such a quirky story.

The tone of the book kind of reminds me of Jane Smiley. There's a slight mix of fantasy and reality akin to Tender Morsels (although this book doesn't  have such heavy topics). There's a part that takes place at the county fair, reminding me a lot of Geek Love. It's also a story of young first love, and a lot of it is about how the daughter's relationship with her father changes over the years, and how she finds acceptance with who she is.

Side note- one interesting detail is that Calvin's second wife suffers from multiple allergies and sensitivity to chemicals in the environment. Basically everything makes her sneeze or itch or both and she's always miserable except when having sex- it's the only time when her allergic symptoms abate. Oddly, there was another character in the story who had an unusual physical affliction, which only started to go away after the loss of virginity. I keep trying to figure out what the author meant by this, if there's some symbolism to it.

Found this one at a used book sale.

Rating: 3/5                  252 pages, 2002

Sep 1, 2019

Winging It

a Memoir of Caring for a Vengeful Parrot Who's Determined to Kill Me
by Jenny Gardiner

Story of family life with an african grey parrot. When the author was newly married, she and her husband had always wanted a parrot. They couldn't afford a captive-bred bird, and felt dubious about acquiring a wild-caught one. So they got a dog. Who turned out to have tons of health problems- allergic to everything, including dog food. The family was advised to put the miserable labrador to sleep, but they insisting on keeping their family pet, in spite of its chronic health problems. Then a relative came home from a stay overseas and brought them a parrot. A frightened, unhappy, feather-plucking vicious young parrot they named Gracie. They tried to give Graycie the best care, but unfortunately whenever things happened in the family (leaky roof during snowstorms, multiple kids with chicken pox at the same time, frightening episode of seizures complicated by their daughter's adverse reactions to medication when she was older, etc) the parrot got ignored. In boredom it self-mutilated and destroyed whatever it could reach- including pulling tiles off the wall. Not to say they didn't speak kindly to it, provide it with veterinary care, research proper diet, etc- and recorded plenty of amusing moments, the kids' delight in the bird's antics, amusing incidents when Graycie repeated phrases in appropriate context- scolding the dog or the children, for example. But I have to say overwhelmingly it sounded like keeping a parrot is a ton of work and trouble, constant cleaning of messes, and not very encouraging when the bird never warms to you and is always ready to attack. It is admirable that the family never gave up on Graycie, nor on any of their other pets that turned out to be troublesome (after the hyperallergic lab, they had a dog with a penchant for biting). The author relates how caring for Graycie taxed her patience and sanity, but also taught her kids responsibility to other living things, a firm commitment to the creatures we take into our lives. It all cements my impression that parrots don't really make good pets. Similar read, but with a parrot that actually liked its owner: The Parrot Who Owns Me. Similar read in tone, but about a dog. In the end, I found this one disappointing. While the stories about the family's trials and challenges made me sympathize with them, I wish there had actually been more page space given to the bird, except that I was feeling bad for the bird, so maybe not.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 2/5                240 pages, 2010

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Aug 28, 2019

The Wild Robot Escapes

by Peter Brown

Sequel to The Wild Robot. My kid brought this one home from school, and we were reading it together as a bedtime story. But then of course she read ahead, finished first, and I had to catch up later. Sorry, there are a few spoilers below.

Picking up straight where the previous book left off, Roz the robot has been refurbished and sent to work on a farm. The farm is mostly run by technology- this farmer rarely leaves his house- but has fallen into a lot of disrepair. Roz is there to fix it all up. But she's no ordinary robot, she remembers acutely her old life on the wild island, and misses the animals especially her adopted son the goose. Roz starts having conversations with the dairy cows on the farm, but can't let any humans know of her ability to talk to animals- she'll be seen as defective and sent back to the factory. She comes to befriend the farmer's children, who help her make a plan to run away, and return home to her island. When the moment comes- after a lot of difficulty- Roz is suddenly torn- having grown attached to the children, the cows, the farm itself. Ahead of her is a long, dangerous journey. Migrating geese find her and spread the word, so eventually she comes in contact with her 'son' again and they travel together. They have to face down wolves, a ram that randomly bashes anyone with its horns, human hunters and terrible storms. They see other farms, some operating with greater efficiency than the one Roz worked at, but at greater suffering to the animals- this isn't elaborated on, it's kind of mentioned in passing. As is the presence of an abandoned mine, the idea of humans living on a space station, working conditions for other robots, and so on. Lots of big issues, gently skirted by.

Eventually Roz and Brightbill the goose have to travel through cities, where the robot tries to blend in but eventually attracts attention and has to run for her life again. Flocks of city pigeons mobilize to help her, a rat leads her through the sewers, but she ends up back at the factory anyway- where she meets the very scientist who made her. The doctor is adamant that Roz must be destroyed- the public fears her aberrant behavior- but first she insists on having a few long talks with Roz, and finds the robot's way of thinking fascinating. Will Roz be melted down into parts? or will she finally find a way back home to her island. There, I left you something to find out!

Borrowed from the school library.

Rating: 3/5          278 pages, 2018

Aug 27, 2019

Zoo Story

Life in the Garden of Captives
by Thomas French

Picked up another book from my shelves, on the same subject matter. I was a bit surprised how very similar they were. In both books, the same animals get a lot of focus- tigers and elephants. This one also has a lot about a certain chimpanzee who had lived in the zoo a very long time, seen many changes- but started his life raised in a private home, so he had some confusion including a fixation on human females instead of his own species. The shuffling of hierarchy among the half dozen chimps at the zoo as some aged and younger ones came in, was pretty fascinating. The tiger- beautiful and always fierce- even to the older, larger male tigers they bought in hoping to be her mate- met a tragic end after getting out of her enclosure one day. Main thread going through the book was about the elephants- brought over from Swaziland to spare them from being killed in a cull (the area they lived in had too many elephants, no room to roam, and they were destroying the habitat, running out of food. This felt very familiar to me- I think I read about the same elephants in Animal Wise). The zoo's acquisition of these elephants caused a huge outcry from animal welfare groups. There was also a lot of conflict among the zoo staff- some wanted direct contact methods used with the animals, others pushed for new methods that kept the keepers and staff safer from the elephants. This book, like the other, also had a lot about how inner operations and politics, but it felt more focused. Quite a lot about the zoo director's decisions and actions, how it impacted the workers, the animals, even how his wife felt about things.

Some other animals featured in the book are the manatees which the zoo rehabilitates and releases into the wild, patas monkeys that escape off their island and run around the outskirts of the city for weeks, and endangered frogs being bred in captivity. It's all based on six years of research- four of which the reporter spent in visiting the zoo and going behind-the-scenes. The appendix has detailed notes about sources for all the described scenes and conversations, very thorough. Most of the time I appreciated the author's attempts to imagine what the animals were thinking, feeling or perceiving in certain moments, but I found his constant comparison of human behavior to chimpanzees (especially in terms of males seeking high status) annoying- it just started to get old. Although he made a good point to reiterate what zoo staff told him about how they help endangered species and work for the good of the animals, a lot of what's in this book made me feel dubious about zoos for the first time- usually I enjoy visiting them. Now I'm not so sure.

Rating: 3/5                 288 pages, 2010

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Aug 22, 2019

The Peaceable Kingdom

a Year in the Life of America's Oldest Zoo
by John Sedgwick

A reporter spent a year at the Philadelphia Zoo and then wrote this book about it. He talks just as much about the keepers, administrators, construction, repairs, management problems and so on as he does about the animals- getting a lot of behind-the-scenes look at how the zoo operates. For me, these details about how the people and politics in running the zoo weren't nearly as interesting as the animals- so I ended up skimming quite a lot, especially in the beginning. I even skipped an entire chapter (two pages) that was all about the budget. That, and the fact that much of the humor missed the mark with me, is why this book rated low for me. On the other hand, I did enjoy reading about all the wildlife- attempts to breed a rhino, raising baby animals rejected by their parents- kangaroo, binturong, marmoset- veterinary procedures, moving gorillas from old bare cages into new outdoor habitats, tricky work with dangerously strong elephants, bringing in a new zebra to replace one that had died, making a stubborn camel move into its shelter from the winter weather (it didn't want to go indoors), watching interactions among the group of wolves. There was a koala on loan that was a star attraction for weeks- even though it slept ninety percent of the time on exhibit. Some of the descriptions are very brief, others- the wolves, elephants, rhino and gorilla in particular- are longer or revisited through the book. You might want to know there's a several-page very detailed account of the rhinocerouses mating. The author seems to take delight in nonchalantly describing the animals' sexual endeavors, including the tiger, the gorilla, and a tortoise (who kept mounting boulders). He also keeps mentioning how dangerous certain animals are, or how stupid others, without much attempt to see beyond this sensational or disparaging attitude. This was the era when zoos were just starting to recognize the importance of conservation and captive breeding as a means to preserve species, rather than just have more lion cubs to show off to the public. There's a bit of history and side stories about collectors (but with none of Durrell's charm) which unfortunately only detracted from the main narrative for me. It's certainly a piece of its time, an honest look at what a zoo was like in the 1980's. Rather sad how ineffective most of the veterinary attempts were- there seems to be more mention of animals getting ill or dying than of new births and successful treatments- but maybe they just stood out to me more.

Rating: 2/5                 299 pages, 1988