BOOKS: Illumination in the Flatwoods & Paddy

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1999:

In The Flatwoods:
A season with the wild turkey
by Joe Hutto
1995. 240 pages, paperback, $16.95

Paddy: The Classic Story
of a Baby Beaver and the
Naturalist Who Adopted Him
by R.D. Lawrence
1977. 240 pages, paperback, $14.95

Both from The Lyons Press (31 West 21 St., New York, NY 10010).

R.D. Lawrence was not yet the dean
of Canadian wildlife authors when he wrote
Paddy: The Classic Story of A Baby Beaver
and the Naturalist Who Adopted Him, nor
even very well known yet, though he had
enjoyed a few successes. Neither was
Lawrence yet the outspoken critic of sport
hunting and so-called “scientific” wildlife
management that he later became––but with
20/20 hindsight one could see it all coming.
Take this passage: “I am never quite
sure what is meant by the word ‘instinct.’ It is
really a non-word, which functions to dismiss
the unexplainable by use of a convenient, if
somewhat unsatisfying term. I feel that use of
the word leads to oversimplification. If an animal
is seen to behave repeatedly in a certain
fashion, sometimes performing a complex
task for which there is no quickly evident
explanation, one is at once tempted to say that
the animal is governed by instinct, a word
derived from the Latin that simply means the
creature is impelled to act in a particular fashion.
This does not (for me) explain either the
force or the mechanics of the action.”
Lawrence figured out early that animals
think, and his keen observations are
never sharper than when he assembles factual
evidence to discover what and how they think.
Added Joe Hutto, 18 years later,
introducing his hands-on study of wild turkeys,
“The most dangerous pitfall for ethologists,
observers of animal behavior, is the employment
of the anthropomorphic analogy––attaching
human attributes to animal behavior. It is
only by analogy, however, that we have any
hope of gaining real insight into the lives of
other creatures…The old anthropocentric
notion that human beings somehow are distinctly
removed from the rest of the animal
kingdom was a poorly conceived vessel that
will no longer float.”
Hutto, like Lawrence, is both astute
wildlife scientist and unabashed heretic. Each
offers the quiet, thoughtful writing style of a
person who moves gently by habit, so as not
to spook animals; each turns conventional
wisdom convincingly upside down; and each
of these books has already well withstood
some passage of time.

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