Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Animal story

If you've ever taken any sort of communications class, you've probably heard confirmation of something you've already observed for yourself: people love animals. Stick one in your commercial, or on the front page of your paper or magazine, and people will gravitate towards what you're offering.

It works on me, definitely. I'm a total animal person. My county has managed to reach zero-kill countywide, partially through satellite cat adoption centers at the local malls. I stop in every time I'm there. I have two cats. I know all of the neighborhood dogs and cats, sometimes better than I know their people.

And I like animal books, too. For today's post, I thought I'd compare a few that stand out in my mind.

"My Dog Skip" by Willie Morris is sort of the classic American animal tale. It concerns a pet, and follows the arc of the pet's life, complete with the very sad end inherent in all stories about a bond between a human and one of the small, furry creatures with the short natural lifespans.

It's a wonderful book, though. It explores very well the actual bond between Willie and Skip. Growing up in a large Southern town in the 1940s, Willie and Skip did most things together. Skip could, and did, play football and baseball. They had a gag where Skip would drive a car, with Willie operating the pedals and controlling the steering wheel from the floor. They had near misses and adventures. Skip was a part of the community. He was known by everyone and was a regular customer of the butcher, when Willie would send him for bologna with money under his collar.

A series of animal books that breaks out of that mold was written by James Herriott, Yorkshire country vet. He tended to not just dogs and cats, but horses, sheep, pigs, cows and anything else found on farms. His stories are also delightful. He told his tale over several volumes, which take their titles from different lines of a hymn: "All things bright and beautiful," "All creatures great and small," "All things wise and wonderful" and "The Lord God made them all."

These books can't help but explore small-town country life, and the various characters and idisyncrasies of the owners of the animals. Herriott can't help but laugh at himself, and many of the stories involve him facedown in the mud, chasing after recalcitrant patients, or tangled in the nightmare red tape of tuberculin testing. They also can't help but be hopeful. One of my favorite tales involved a man whose calves were dying of a common but fatal virus. Herriott said that he wanted to try something, that he'd read of this new drug that could do wonderous things, and persuaded the farmer to allow him to give it a go. He returned the next day to find the calves much on the mend. The whole lot of them were saved. And penicillin had come to the Dales.

A darker, much less happy book is titled "Zoo Story: LIfe in the Garden of Captives" by Thomas French. Covering the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida, it's an enthralling, depressing, fascinating read. French goes behind the scenes at the zoo, as they attempt an incredibly ambitious renovation featuring an elephant exhibit as its crown jewel. But as humans attempt to subvert nature, bad things inevitably happen.

It's upsetting for anyone who likes animals, or is even just concerned about the direction things are going in, to contemplate the "Fifth Extinction" that is currently underway. Animal species are disappearing at a tremendous clip as their habitat is gobbled up to make way for fields of corn and soy, coltan mines, and other such things. That topic is discussed extensively in the book. At the beginning of the book, he talks about an elephant refuge in Africa that actually succeeded too much. Elephants were happy there, and multiplied, and soon began to strip out all of the vegetation at such a clip that the park was becoming a barren wasteland. If some elephants weren't put down or moved or something, none of them could survive. As four of them are airlifted to Tampa and Lowry Park, French notes that humans are the only animal that can modify their environment more, and leaves us to chew on that.

What are some other thought-provoking or heart-warming animal books that you've read?