BOOKS FOR THE HOLIDAYS
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1996:
Wolves, by Nancy Gibson
Tigers, by John Seidensticker
Beluga Whales, by Tony Martin
Humpback Whales, by Phil Clapham
All from Voyageur Press (123 North 2nd St., Stillwater, MN 55082-5002), 1996.
Each 72 pages, 55 color photos, $14.95 paperback.
The World of the Wolf, by Candace Savage
The World of the Penguin, by Jonathan Chester
The World of the Shorebirds, by Harry Thurston
The World of the Orca, by Peter Knudtson
All from Sierra Club Books (85 2nd St., San Francisco, CA 94105-3441), 1996.
Each 128 pages, 52-57 color photos, $27.50 hardback.
Mark of the Bear: Legend and Lore of an American Icon,
edited by Paul Schullery
Sierra Club Books (85 2nd St., San Francisco, CA 94105-3441), 1996.
120 pages, 85 color photos, $27.50 hardback.
Animal Athletes: Olympians of the Wild World, by Franz Lanting.
The Nature Co. (POB 188, Florence, KY 41022), 1996.
96 pages, approximately 80 color photos, $15.95 hardback.
The natural history and geneology of Orcinus orca in British Columbia and Washington State
by John K.B. Ford, Graeme M. Ellis, and Kenneth Balcomb
University of Washington Press (POB 50096, Seattle, WA 98145-5096), 1994.
102 pages, black and white photography, no listed price, paperback.
Once upon a time, the lavishly illustrated coffee table
book was a nice, noncontroversial gift, with sparse text if any,
whose principal function was giving household guests something
to thumb through when hosts were otherwise occupied.
Then someone realized that with the addition of genuine
content in the margins, coffee table books could tap the
lucrative school library market. The race was on to find the
most profitable means of providing content. Reprinting old literature
now in the public domain or already owned by the publisher
was initially favored, as was dressing up or dummying
down the dissertations of academics who, locked into the publish-or-perish
system of survival and advancement, were––and
are––usually willing to virtually donate their work to anyone
who will stick it between two covers beneath a respected logo.
An introduction or some other contribution by a celebrity who
could be bannered on the cover completed the package.
Noting the success of the latter approach, academic
presses eager to increase their revenues jumped into the field,
offering volumes of generally stronger scientific integrity but
weaker production values due to undercapitalization.
Quality won out. Where once only the most costly
coffee table books offered custom-written original text, indepth
original work by name experts now dominates––and
some of the best titles reviewed here are the least expensive.
For competing titles, offering similar resumes of
wolf behavior and biology, Nancy Gibson’s W o l v e s a n d
Candace Savage’s World of the Wolf are otherwise remarkably
different. Gibson is a disciple of David Mech, the Minnesota
wolf expert whose own Voyageur coffee table volume, T h e
Way of the Wolf, in 1991 argued that “wolf control has little
effect,” and that wolf translocation as projected for
Yellowstone probably wouldn’t work because of wolves’
dependence upon knowing their habitat. Within a year of publication,
Mech surfaced as then-Alaska governor Walter
Hickel’s chief scientific defender of wolf control––and translocation
into Yellowstone has obviously been eminently successful.
Gibson delves into the art, literature, and mythology of
wolves, and provides a review of the status of wolves worldwide,
but quite unlike Mech steers well clear of controversy.
Savage dives right in. “Personally,” she concludes,
after debunking most of the pretexts for wolf-killing both historically
and currently, “I believe there are times when it is
legitimate to shoot wolves to assist the recovery of ungulate
herds. I would do it, for example, to protect a remnant population
of woodland caribou from extinction. I would do it to benefit
aboriginal subsistence hunters who were threatened with
hardship. But it is obnoxious to kill large numbers of wolves,
year after year, decade after decade, as part of the routine
management of ungulate herds, even if the losses can theoretically
Indeed, Savage asserts, in as direct a statement of
animal rights as you’ll ever see from a mainstream conservationist,
“Wolves have a right to more than mere survival as a
species. They have a right to forests and plains and mountain
valleys with a natural abundance of mule deer and caribou and
moose. They have a right to safety and space.”
Gibson’s is the only one of the four Voyageur titles
with an index. Lack of indexing inhibits reference, an injustice
to National Zoo curator of mammals John Seidensticker and
marine mammologists Phil Clapham and Tony Martin, whose
work might otherwise be cited in considerably more school
reports over the next few years. Seidensticker roars, tiger-like,
against the poaching and habitat destruction leading to the perhaps
imminent extinction of wild tigers; Martin somehow
sounds more bubbly and beluga-like in describing the little
white whales of the north, whose most evident characteristic
seems to be their determination to be cheerful through any
adversity. Curiously, Clapham, a friendly and accessible presence
on the MARMAM Internet discussion board, offers plenty
of knowledge but no distinctive personality in his book.
The Sierra Club titles are always indexed, and the
hardcover format insures longer shelf life, too, offsetting the
higher price. Like Savage, Knudtson, Thurston, and Chester
also engage the controversial issues pertaining to orcas, shorebirds,
and penguins; Chester’s descriptions of the historical
and ongoing abuse of penguins by human beings are particularly
painful to read, because penguins are such hardy and personable
creatures, not especially brave but generally lacking any
trace of malice despite the malicious characterization of The
Penguin in the Batman comics and the toothed “penguin” Drake
in the cartoon drama The Penguin and the Pebble.
It seems a bit presumptuous to challenge Chester on
any point about penguins, who have been his life’s focus since
boyhood, but his section entitled “Ancient Origins” sounds like
self-contradictory hogwash: “Penguins are thought to have
begun to diverge from petrel-like flying birds over 65 million
years ago…It is widely agreed that earlier penguins were more
diverse and much larger than present day species.”
In fact, as Chester describes, there isn’t a trace of
fossil evidence that penguins ever flew; their origins predate
the purported extinction of the dinosaurs; petrels have apparently
always been tiny; and recent discoveries of fully differentiated
birds of about petrel size as well as feathered flightless
dinosaurs both suggest the possibility that the differentiation
occurred even earlier, perhaps before petrel ancestors flew.
Like ostriches, who differ more in superficials than
substance from the mimuses, e.g. Struthiomimus, Gallimimus,
etc., penguins may be not only members of d i n o s a u r i a, the
order including birds, but may indeed be living “dinosaurs.”
This brings us around to Mark of the Bear, Animal
Athletes, and Killer Whales, each a genuine throwback to an
earlier era in picture-books.
Killer Whales combines general reference with an
authoritative scientific text produced by a seemingly improbable
partnership including both John Ford, senior marine mammologist
at the Vancouver Aquarium, and Kenneth Balcomb,
a vocal opponent of keeping orcas in captivity. What it lacks
are the lavish color photos of competitor volumes. As Ford
explained to ANIMAL PEOPLE, the publisher decided that as
orcas are black-and-white anyway, black and white would do.
Killer Whales, after two printings, is deservedly successful,
but may be among the last hits of its kind.
Animal Athletes purports to be “by” acclaimed
wildlife photographer Franz Lanting; Cynthia Bix and Diana
Landau, who wrote the substantial text, get minor inside
billing. The “Olympians of the wild world” motif is barely
developed, and seems anachronistic a few months after the
Atlanta games closed. Nonetheless, Animal Athletes b r o u g h t
many smiles to our best critic of children’s books, our son
Wolf, age six, and will delight any child who loves animals.
As to Mark of The Bear, it’s your basic collection of
dated macho bear stories, mingling the usual bear hunting and
taming exploits with pontificating about the plight of bears in
the modern world. Joaquin Miller wrote a book much like it all
by himself, True Bear Stories, published in 1900. An illustrated
edition of that would provide interesting historical perspective.
Mark of The Bear just demonstrates the tendency of this
year’s coffee table book to resemble last year’s if emphasis isn’t
placed on originality