BOOKS: Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January-February 2007:

Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras:
A Menagerie of 100 Favorite Animals
by Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson
Ballantine Books (1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019), 2006
429 pages, hardcover. $ 27.95.

This is a collection of 100 short essays, each about a
different animal. Beyond describing the appearance and habits of the
subject animals, psychologist turned author Jeffrey Mousiaieff
Masson wants to know what kind of “person” each animal is.
Seeking personality in animals is a challenge, requring
much research, but Masson has proved equal to it.

For instance, Masson relates how Australian magpie
researcher Gisela Kaplan has discovered that magpies play-fight with
human friends just like a playful puppy, pretending to be angry.
During these play-fights they roll over and expose their bellies to
express submission, just as dogs do.
Badgers have shown human-like rituals around death. Masson
describes how one badger sow who lost her mate made a mournful sound
that brought a male out from another sett. Together they dragged the
dead body to a warren, buried it, and then separated.
Masson also reveals surprising aspects of biology.
Jellyfish, for example, like butterflies and caterpillars, go
through two completely different stages of life: the free swimming
bell-like shape that we all recognize, and a phase as a polyp
attached to a stem. The venom of some species can be lethal to
humans. And they are not all blind, as one might suppose. Six sets
of four eyes provide the box jellyfish with superb vision.
These and other surprising scientific truths leap out of the
pages at every turn, showing how little we really know about the
other life forms who inhabit our planet (other than how to kill and
eat them).
Anticipating from the title that we would be reading about
fluffy animals such as the panda bear, we found, to our delight,
that Masson covers an eclectic mix of creatures, from the
charismatic–such as gorillas, lions, and elephants–to the
common–including chickens, sheep, and cows–the obscure–
including pearl oysters and glow worms–and even the mythical,
represented by the yeti.
Since our experience is with African wildlife, we looked
critically at the chapters on lions and meerkats. We found no
glaring errors. Masson correctly describes male African lions as
lazy, but he might be faulted for leaving the impression that they
are useless except for reproduction. Masson might have noted how
essential large males are to protecting lion prides from competition
from other large predators. For instance, lionesses can be
terrorized by spotted hyena clans, in the absence of large males who
are able to kill them.
–Chris Mercer & Beverley Pervan

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