From 'Inky's Great Escape' To Singing Seahorses: Animal Books For The Holidays

Nov 22, 2017

A Sunday column by David Sax in The New York Times quotes a cheering statistic from the Association of American Publishers: Sales of "old-fashioned print books" are up for the third year in a row.

Cox explains this trend well: "People are buying books because a book engages nearly all their senses, from the smell of the paper and glue to the sight of the cover design and weight of the pages read, the sound of those sheets turning...."

There's something special about holding a book — and also something special about gifting one at the holidays. Here are four recent volumes about animals, that I have held, viewed, smelled, and listened to, and think animal lovers would enjoy. Most are spiced with science, some lightly and some substantially.

Inky's Great Escape: The Incredible (and Mostly True) Story of An Octopus Escape, written by Casey Lyall and illustrated by Sebastia Serra, embellishes the real-life tale of a Houdini of the animal world. Inky escaped his New Zealand aquarium last year and flowed right out to the bay, becoming a viral sensation. Written for young children, the book is as beautifully bold as was Inky himself during his night adventure.

Features of octopus brain (smartness) and body (invertebrate squishiness) bring science into the picture as Inky conjures a way out of his tank: "With magnificent skill that only the most remarkable octopuses possess, he poked one arm through the lid and began to wedge his body out through the gap," Lyall writes.

It is nevertheless disappointing to see, as Kirkus Reviews notes, that Serra placed Inky's eyes where they would be located were Inky a mammal and not a cephalopod. (Octopuses have keen vision: The eyes are, naturally enough, on the head, which is found toward the center of the body, not on the mantle as they are in the book.)

Staying with the marine theme but turning to books for adults, Deep Thinkers: Inside the Minds of Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises, edited by Janet Mann, is a winner. A cross between a cetacean encyclopedia and a coffee-table book, Deep Thinkers breaks new ground: "Until now no book has covered the state-of-the-art scientific discoveries across cetacean species," Mann notes.

Mann invited cetacean scientists to contribute to the volume and, as a result, it's teeming with cool stuff. To focus on its stunning photographs for a moment, Heidi Harley's informative chapter "Cognition" includes a wild bottlenose dolphin during apparent play as she balances a yellow clam shell on her rostrum; a group of wild common dolphins collaboratively herding sardines into a ball for easier predation; and an Atlantic spotted dolphin "carrying seaweed, possibly to impress females." Wow!

The section "Cetacean Tool Use," prepared by Eric Patterson and Janet Mann, is another of my favorites. Over a wide geographic range, humpback whales coordinate with each other to blow bubbles in such a way that a school of small fish is surrounded.

"As the bubbles rise, they concentrate and startle the prey to the surface until the whales lunge through the center and consume large mouthfuls," the authors explain.

In dolphins, by contrast, it's only at the site of Shark Bay, Australia, where "sponging" tool use is observed, almost always by females. The dolphins affix a sponge to their beak, then forage right at the seafloor, nosing against the bottom and discarding the sponge only when a prey item is flushed out and consumed. Does the sponge tool protect the dolphins' sensitive beaks? Scientists aren't yet sure.

My sole disappointment with this otherwise gorgeous book is the choice of small and light font for much of the text. I "field tested" it on my husband; we both found ourselves straining to read a good number of the pages.

Octopuses and dolphins make an appearance in Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kindand so do lions and deer, dogs and slugs, and a wily ermine who, we read, popped up in an unexpected place on Christmas morning. Adapted from Montgomery and Thomas's newspaper column for the Boston Globe, the chapters are only a few pages each, gems engaging enough to compel me to read bits aloud at home.

The science here is part of the draw: Did you know that in raptors, the eyes weigh more than the brain?

But a big part, too, is the empathy these writers, both of whom have traveled the world, feel for creatures not only in exotic locations but also in their own homes and neighborhoods. Marshall's perspective on how to live with cats — "I manage their vandalism by accepting it" — is kind and amusing. Indeed, Marshall respects life where she find it; in one chapter, she notes, "Any life-form is fascinating if you watch it long enough...who knows what a slug can achieve?"

Montgomery brings animals to life as individuals with their own thoughts and feelings. This includes her own free-range chicken, Old Lady, who ran a veritable New Hampshire gauntlet of predators to make it safely back home after wandering; an electric eel at the New England Aquarium who telegraphed the sparks of his dreams to a voltmeter; and her "adopted" bird (a symbolic adoption in aid of conservation) called Puffin M who lived in Maine.

Montgomery puts it well: "Ideas interest us; individuals move us."

Assumptions made in the book caused me to quibble now and again. Amphibians like salamanders and frogs, too, think and feel. On this I agree, up to a point. When amphibians lay their eggs in vernal pools composed of snow melt, those eggs gain protection from fish predators because the ponds aren't connected to streams or ponds and, thus, fish have no route into them. The amphibians, Marshall writes, do this "knowing that their eggs will not be eaten and most will survive and hatch." Through natural selection over eons, though, evolution rewards such a choice; there need be no awareness of any link between egg-laying location and offspring survival rate.

(I look forward to discussing animals with Montgomery and Marshall next month at the 92nd St. Y in New York City.)

Returning to fiction, I was drawn to many of the chapters in After Coetzee: An Anthology of Animal Fictions, edited by A. Marie Houser. In this genre, of course, there needn't be any science. But many of the 16 contributors to After Coetzee, even as they write lyrically, sometimes shockingly and sometimes with fantastical notions, write at the intersection of real animal lives and questions of animal ethics. We encounter an exceptionally thoughtful zoo-confined capuchin, insects mounted as scientific specimens as if they were art objects, a boy who sells tiger bones and alligator tails and soon finds himself the one in danger.

The fresh voices here are usually packaged in traditionally structured chapters. But we also meet seahorses who sing their story, in Justin Maxwell's "A Blinded Horse Dreams of Hippocampi." These animals chorus with oceanic pride to a land-locked horse:

"A horse's heart beats a different tattoo;

the sea does not have a mammalian cadence."

And later:

"Come and see.

Come and see.

(beat)

Evolution has brought you nothing;

return to the sea."

When two of my life's passions — books and animals — come together, I often discover new language with which to think, as I do here through the seahorses' song.

And as I think back on these four books, representing sea, air, and land across literary genres, I see each as offering precisely the multi-sensorial immersion that Cox yearns for when he celebrates the resurgence of print books.


Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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