BOOKS: What The Parrot Told Alice

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1998:

What The Parrot Told Alice
by Dale Smith
Illustrated by John Bardwell
Deer Creek Publishing (POB 2402, Nevada City, CA
95959), 1996. 125 pages. $11.95, paperback.

Loosely structured after Alice In Wonderland, with
black-and-white art instead of the color a book about parrots
would seem to demand, What The Parrot Told Alice owes more
to John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, than to
Lewis Carroll, the vicar who broke from the tradition of “entertaining”
children with thinly disguised sermons.
Like both pre-Carroll children’s books and many
other recent ecologically sensitive titles, What The Parrot Told
Alice is unrelentingly preachy, albeit more sensitive to the
complexities of issues than most works of the genre, and
packed with information about parrots. It’s good enough to
wish it was more fully developed.

Through the narrative figure Bo the Parrot, author
Dale Smith criticizes human meat-eating, with emphasis on
rainforest beef. Through Alice herself, Smith also expresses
misgivings about eating chicken, since chickens resemble parrots.
Bo objects to catch-and-release fishing, as Alice and her
father practice it, but after Alice defends it and Bo falls silent,
it isn’t clear whether Smith himself still endorses it.
What is clear is that Alice has not yet extended to
species other than parrots the lessons taught by Bo, and the
other parrot/teachers he conjures, about the wrongness of capturing
wildlife in order to feel “connected” to nature.
Ambiguity of course allows moral choice. If Smith’s
ambiguity stimulates children to think more about meat-eating
and fishing than they would if preached at, so much the better.
A perhaps less intentional conflict exists between a
chapter outlining the fallacy of turning rainforests into “wildlife
farms,” a central part of the “sustainable use” strategy pushed
by the World Wildlife Fund, and an appendix listing 20 organizations
from which children might seek more information about
parrot and rainforest conservation. At least 18 of the 20
embrace “sustainable use.” Several promote trophy hunting, of
which Smith is critical. No anti-hunting organizations are listed,
though several are at least as involved in rainforest issues as
many of those that are.
Finally, having saddened young readers with one
woeful account after another of parrot trafficking, rainforest
destruction, and species extinction, Smith reaches for a happy
ending, reminiscent of the escape of the orca at the end of the
film Free Willy!, allowing Bo to fly free. Bo hasn’t a hope of
survival, let alone of finding a mate and a flock, but Smith
doesn’t delve into that.
Informed readers may recall the ongoing capture of
parrots and other birds in the rainforests of India and Southeast
Asia, for sale to those who follow the Jain, Hindu, Buddhist,
and Islamic dictums that captive birds should be released––one
form of parrot exploitation Smith omits. Turning loose the
bedraggled survivors of captivity and transport in unfamiliar
habitat, the faithful imagine they have done good deeds,
unaware that their practice actually profanes the spirit of the
teachings they profess to honor.

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