The animal kingdom is full of insights into human nature. These new books give readers a fascinating glimpse of some of the connections.
Near and deer
Nature as nemesis is a foreign concept to anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (The Secret Life of Dogs), who embraces and even encourages the scourge of modern suburban gardeners in The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World (Harper, $24.99, 256 pages, ISBN 9780061792106). One fall, Thomas noticed that acorns were thin on the ground around her New Hampshire farmhouse, so she sprinkled corn on the ground for the wild turkeys.
Then came the hungry deer. Thomas, who grew up with her scientist parents among the Kalahari people of Africa, started scattering pounds of corn each day, the better to attract, track and observe usually hidden deer behaviors. “I could do no more than the bears and whitetails do—keep looking and listening for more information,” Thomas writes of her curiosity about the deer. “You find questions you cannot answer, and mysteries you cannot solve.”
As she begins to identify each doe, buck and fawn and follows the herds from season to season, Thomas draws readers into her compassionate, insightful accounts of everyday courage on behalf of wildlife, including standing up to an armed neighbor to make sure an injured bear wasn’t shot dead (he later bends her backyard birdfeeder pole like a paper clip and casually empties the seed into his mouth, proof of his vitality). Her accounts of the treatment of whitetail deer that survive impacts with cars are heartbreaking, but this “tree-hugging grandmother” passes a hunting license course with a near perfect score at the age of 68 and then goes hunting with her neighbor in the name of conservation and research. “I didn’t learn how to hunt but I did learn how it feels to hunt,” she writes, “which is all I really wanted.” Anyone with an interest in wildlife will adore spending time with Thomas and her sensitive, inquisitive mind.
Amazing animal rescues
World-renowned ethologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall made her name studying and living among the chimpanzees of Tanzania. She later founded the Jane Goodall Institute, a nonprofit that encourages individuals to take “informed and compassionate action to improve the environment of all living things.” Horrified by the destruction of primate habitats, she left the field in the mid-1980s to raise awareness about conservation. Her new book, Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink, co-written with Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard, host of the NPR’s The 90-Second Naturalist, is a report on species once on the verge of extinction whose populations are now being revived.
Gathered firsthand by Goodall and colleagues in the field, and from scientific and historical record, these accounts detail the heartening yet life-threatening challenges of conservation work. From the graduate student who dyed the tufts on the heads of cotton-top tamarin monkeys to tell them apart while observing this endangered primate, to the 19th-century lighthouse cat that killed the last remaining wrens on Stephen’s Island, New Zealand, to the California condor chick reintroduced into the wild and then rushed into surgery after its young parents fed it trash instead of bone fragments, these stories could galvanize even the most cosseted animal lover to action. “It comes down to a conflict between concern for the individual and concern for the future of a species,” Goodall writes. “[But] I found that people got really excited about the idea of sharing the good news, shining a light on all the projects, large and small, that together are gradually healing some of the harm we have inflicted.”
Finding the wolf within
Did the dog and human evolve together, and did canines become so successful because they had access to the even bigger human brain? Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jon Franklin (Molecules of the Mind) uses research in brain science and anthropology, plus interviews with experts and primary experience with his own dog, to explore the relationship between ancient wolves, canines and humans in The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs. “With respect to dogs,” Franklin writes, “the picture science had painted for us was woefully inadequate.” So he sets out on a long, smart and sometimes meandering research trip into the evolution of the wolf brain and its possible relationship to human and canine development.
Franklin tracks down the sexy and non-sexy research into canine evolution, and therefore, human evolution— from current research into what transformed humans 12,000 years ago, canine fossil material found in China, 150,000-year-old wolf skulls in an ancient cave and the lack of grant money to research dogs. (“I can’t get money for work on dogs,” one scientist laments. “I’m tired of struggling with it. Nobody cares about dogs.”) The story really gets interesting when Franklin gets a poodle puppy, Charlie, as a “marriage price” from his wife, then reluctantly observes the lengths to which humans go to “train” their companions, and how their efforts often say more about the humans than the dogs. He watches his wife prepare Charlie for competitive obedience trials (“Could dogs be a tool of one’s ambition?”) and goes to the nursing home where Charlie performs “songs” and realizes he can’t laugh with him, only at him, and that the dog knows the difference. As he muses on his dog as an “amplifier of nature,” Franklin leads dog lovers to ponder the critical role their own pets may play in shaping their daily lives.
Millions of viewers fell in love with the story of Christian the lion on YouTube, wishing they were the ones getting that big cat hug. Kevin Richardson has lived that fantasy as a self-taught behaviorist and animal custodian at Kingdom of the White Lion in South Africa. He teams with writer Tony Park for a fascinating glimpse into the dangers and joys of working with lions, hyenas and other predators in Part of the Pride: My Life Among the Big Cats of Africa. Working as an exercise physiologist after college, Richardson met a rich man who had just bought a local lion park and encouraged him to visit with two little lion cubs, Tau and Napoleon. “Before I knew it,” Richardson writes, “I was responsible for an entire family of extreme creatures.” Without aspirations to become an animal wrangler or leeu boer (Afrikaans for lion farmer), the former zoology major instead developed relationships with these dangerous animals without a stick—the usual way of handling lions at the time—feeding them from his hand and following his own observations and instincts. Richardson still gets his fair share of lion “slap arounds” and tooclose encounters, which make for hair-raising reading. His respect for the big cats as he continues to learn and risk all makes his story endlessly fascinating.