Alive In The Wild, edited by Victor H. Cahalane
This is the sort of book I would have enjoyed a great deal more as a child than I enjoyed reading this book as an adult. I say this not because the book is in any way bad, for it is not–it is in fact mostly enjoyable writing from various people involved in the study of North America’s native wild animals , written engagingly about a variety of species, but because the focus of the book is one I find oppressive at this stage of life that I would not have been as bothered by as a younger reader. None of this is the fault of the author, for this book was written before I was born and was in no way meant to be a continual depressing reminder of the most unpleasant aspects of my life–selections include an author laughing about how bachelor walruses live and about how snake rape is impossible because consent is required on both sides. I’m not joking, that is the sort of sense of humor that the book traffics in. Thankfully, not all of the book’s jokes are like that; take, for example, what the article on collared peccaries has to say: “In fact, there is hardly an appropriate place for a hand-fed semidomesticated peccary outside of a zoo. I have never known one come to a happy end. One “pet” developed a selective taste for chickens in the ranchyard and had to be disposed of. Another apparently tried to bite the hind foot of a horse and received a kick that left its neck in a permanent kink. Two, kept as college mascots, severely wounded the school’s president in an unprovoked attack (141).” When I read this, I had to wonder, what college president was stupid enough to keep peccaries as mascots? Any book that prompts that kind of serious question is worth a read.
The contents of this book are precisely what would one expect from a book about wild North American animals from the point of view of people who love the animals and want other people to love them. Article after article goes the same way, with discussion of animals often feared or loathed, a discussion of their odd ways of life and their troubled interactions with human beings, their mating and family habits, and a plea for mankind to support and encourage these animals in living wild and free and without fear of being destroyed by humanity. By and large, aside from some quibbles about the way the book takes evolution as a fact rather than a misguided theory under extreme contention, this book has a message I can support. I happen to live quirky animals, and this book is full of loving descriptions of quirky animals: birds (including the golden eagle), reptiles (sea turtles, the American Alligator, the common water snake, and the rattlesnake), and many types of mammals from the prairie dog to three types of bears (black bear, grizzly, polar bear), other meat-eaters (black footed ferret, raccoon, solverine, red fox, timber wolf, skunk, cougar, and bobcat), browsers and grazers (the collared peccary, mule deer, crippled doe, elk, moose, caribou, American bison, Death Valley bighorn, mountain coat, and musk ox), and then closing with various sea mammals (the sea otter, walrus, sea lion, northern fur seal, an odd type of porpoise, and the gray whale). It’s hard to think of people who wouldn’t like at least some of the animals discussed here in one way or another.
So, what can be said about this book? Does it favor mammals to the exclusion of other animals that are less cuddly? Absolutely. Are the essays in the book a bit on the repetitive side? Yes, in the same way that, say, Jane Austen novels are repetitive because they are all romance novels that end in marriages. That does not make the book any less enjoyable. If you love odd animals, or are willing to look at animals one may strongly dislike (see rattlesnakes) in a new way and with a certain degree of compassion, this book has a lot to offer. The writers of the essays know their animals well and write from the point of view of people who have a great deal of expertise in the wild animals discussed. At just over 200 pages there are a lot of beautiful drawings as well that add to the charm of the text. If you like odd animals of North America or know someone (probably a young person) who does, this book is an oldie but goodie. Just don’t let it depress you about all the lovemaking animals are getting that you aren’t.
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