Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Review Redux: CHASER

In honor of the recent passing of Dr. Pilley, I am reposting this write-up upon the original publication of his book.*

First and foremost, Chaser, the lovely border collie who graces the jacket of this fine book, is part of the Pilley family, not just a research animal or entertainment. She has the innate intelligence of her breed and is, therefore, a willing and fast learner.
Dr. Pilley is a retired professor of psychology with a keen interest in animal cognition. He has read about Rico, a dog who was taught over 200 words and is certain his pup can exceed that number. But more important, he wants to write a scientifically acceptable research paper proving that canine intelligence is real and should be studied more. Rico’s accomplishments were found flawed by the scientific community. Dr. Pilley wants to avoid that pitfall.
So he sets about first teaching Chaser names of toys. “Chaser, this is …” is how he manages to do this. Chaser is eager and needs to have something to herd, so she quickly picks up the names of toys and fetches and herds them on command. By the end of the book, she has 1,022 toys, all of which she knows by name.
That in itself is amazing. But that’s only part of the story. Dr. Philley explores her language abilities further. He wonders whether she can infer a meaning of a word or name. He adds a toy that she has not seen before to a group of familiar toys hidden together. He then asks her to fetch that new toy with a name she has not heard before:
            “ ‘Chaser, find Lounge. Find Lounge.’
            Chaser padded behind the couch while I sat with my back to her. Several seconds passed without her bringing anything to me. I repeated, ‘Chaser, find Lounge. Find Lounge.’ I waited ten more seconds, marking the time by the clock above the television, before turning around to see what Chaser was doing, or rather, not doing….
            I was wondering how much longer I should wait when Chaser slowly came around the couch. In her mouth was a plush miniature chair from a dollhouse set….”
            Chaser learns other commands that are intended partly for her safety or for her “Pop-Pop” and “Nanny’s” sanity, such as “Time out,” and “No toy.” Her reward for getting a right answer is always playtime, rather than treats. Dr. Pilley makes a strong plea for using more play in teaching our children as well.
            Chaser’s language abilities extend far behind simple memory. She understands syntax and semantics. She can be told to paw, nose, or take an object and bring it to another object, thereby understanding a verb and a direct and indirect object. Her accomplishments are always rewarded by play and love. She’s not only a brilliant dog but a very happy one!
*Review is of hardcover edition. Now available in paperback. Click Here for more info.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Time for Laughter: Humor Books for Animal Lovers

Most of us are bombarded by daily doses of awful reality spewing from social media, television, podcasts, radio, or simply overheard in bars and coffee shops. No place is safe from it. Our country is in turmoil; our planet continues to suffer from a toxic combo of human intervention and neglect. There are young children in cages, animals being tortured, species dying out every minute of every day . . . It's enough to make you really cranky. So, the solution is to latch onto a book that will let you smile, chuckle, giggle, and even audibly guffaw. Here are a few recommendations (add your own to this list!):

YOU HAD ME AT WOOF: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness, by Julie Klam

Memoirs about the dogs in one's life usually turn maudlin. Yes, most of us will outlive our dogs, and the endings sometimes overshadow the beginnings. Klam acknowledges that "the end" is part of every life with a dog, but she doesn't dwell on it; instead, she writes with wit and charm and so much self-deprecating humor about finding, keeping, and living with dogs. Not to say she doesn't have some tragedy over the course of dog-life. We all experience it, grieve and get through it. The lessons learned from the lives and the deaths are equally valuable to her.

After a dream in which she acquires a Boston Terrier named Otto, Julie Klam realizes that spending her free time in front of the TV, waiting for the right person to come into her life is just not working out. She searches for the Otto of her dreams and finds him, a rescue, and thus begins a life with dogs.
Having Otto taught me about the give-and-take that is needed to succeed in a relationship. He gave me the courage to try things and the feeling that there was someone waiting for me. If I could've turned Otto into a man, Pinocchio-style, maybe with a tad less gas and eyes that looked straight ahead, I thought at the time, I might actually be able to have a viable relationship.
Each dog she adopts, fosters, or rescues becomes an integral part of her growing family. Some do not work out as well as she'd like, but their importance to her is never doubted. And ultimately, every moment of their lives, even when cut too short, is worth the pain of their loss.

DOG ON IT, Chet and Bernie Detective series, by Spencer Quinn

If you haven't read this utterly delightful series, you are missing out! And I hear from a little bird (on FaceBook) that a new installment is in the works. Can't wait. There are eight books in the series right now, and can be read in any order.

Chet the dog (or Chet the Jet, as he refers to himself) is the narrator of these books. Everything is from his perspective, and if something distracts him from the goings-on (an animal scurrying; a piece of interesting-smelling garbage), well, you just have to wait until he gets back on track! These are page-turners that you'll want to reread (I'm starting the whole series over this summer). Need a good escape from reality? Go with Chet.

HOW TO RAISE A JEWISH DOG, The Rabbis of the Boca Raton Theological Seminary as told to Ellis Weiner & Barbara Davilman

A parody of the plethora of dog-training manuals written by monks, whisperers, or whatever, HOW TO RAISE A JEWISH DOG illustrates how you can use guilt, shame, passive aggression, sarcasm, and Conditional Unconditional Love to create an unbreakable bond with your dog.

This is a great gift, and also fun to just pick up and read bits and pieces of when you're in the mood for some silliness!

HANUKCATS, And Other Traditional Jewish Songs for Cats, by Laurie Loughlin

Cats can be funny, too! And these rewrites of traditional songs from the cat's point of view will tickle any kitty's fancy.

TAO OF PUG, by Wilson the Pug (with Nancy Levine)

Sepia photos of Wilson along with his commentary on the Tao, make for a delightful book. As Wilson writes, "When the country falls into chaos . . . Sometimes I am glad I can't read."

For our complete list of gift and humor books for animal lovers, go to:

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Meaning of Meow: review of THE INNER LIFE OF CATS: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions

Thomas McNamee
$27.00, hardcover (our price $21.60)

I have a decided lack of empathy for people who hate cats. How, I wonder, can anyone hate such a creature? In fact, how can a human being hate another species? But then again, I’ve had some exceptional cats in my life, particularly my current cat, Nellie. She’s beautiful—a tuxedo cat with fluffy fur, bright green eyes, and perky white whiskers against a black face. She’s brilliant, with a command of a vocabulary of at least four words: her name, “food,” “dinner,” and “naptime,” and a cat vocabulary of squeaks, purrs, and other noises to which I always respond correctly because she has taught me to. She’s also compassionate, keeping a live-and-let-live attitude towards the mice that annually move into our house (although that may be her advancing years, rather than kindness). Her closest animal friend is our troubled dog Sophie, an alliance we’ve never quite figured out. I’m her best human friend, of course. As she enjoys her seventeenth year, she’s taken to burrowing under the covers with me on cold nights, emitting a high-pitched purr to prompt me to make room for her. 

According to The Inner Life of Cats, however, Nellie may not be particularly exceptional after all. Cats have lived intimately with humans for centuries, and yet have remained true to their catlike nature, never succumbing to the anthropomorphic vision we have for our pets. They learn our habits, culture, and language, and yet choose what to attend to and what to ignore.

And they have learned how to speak to us.

Nellie’s purr will gently wake me, and she seems to know that there’s no need to meow. She will meow if she’s hungry or would like to consider going outside (weather depending), or if she’s just saying hello. Cats do not, according to author Thomas McNamee, meow to each other (except when yowling during a fight or before sex). They’ve developed meowing over the centuries to speak to humans, in order to have their needs and desires catered to. If that isn’t brilliant, what is?

In his new book, nature writer McNamee begins his analysis of cats and their unusual place in human history in his own backyard, when a tiny black stray kitten wanders onto his Montana farm in the dead of winter. Estimating her birth month to be August, he names the kitten Augusta and soon finds himself enthralled with her antics, personality, and quirks. Why did she eschew laps, and yet adored being pet? Where did she go when she slipped outdoors for hours? Basically, what was his little cat thinking and feeling? She came in from the wild, and yet settled into domestic life quite easily, keeping her wildness intact at the same time.

McNamee also explores the amazing gattari, caretakers of cats in Rome, and the problem of (and possible solutions to) the feral cat populations throughout the world. He discusses self-proclaimed cat whisperers (I was particularly pleased that he spent a few pages on Buck Brannaman, the original horse whisperer, whose clinic he has hosted at his ranch) and debates about behavior modification, nutrition, and indoor versus outdoor life. 

McNamee is as disdainful of ailurophobes as I am, but he points out that a substantial number of people harm or kill cats without overt vindictiveness. They are simply ignorant, believing falsely that cats will survive with or without people to care for them. So when they move, they leave kitty behind to fend for himself. Or they have a baby and fall for the urban myth of cats suffocating babies in their cribs, and so drop kitty off at a local shelter, where she’ll likely be euthanized. (I have no patience with people who discard their pets when a baby joins the family.) 

But above all, this is a book about one man’s love for his cat and for all things feline. His heartfelt tribute to Augusta is a perfect counterbalance to the hard-pressed facts about felines. It’s fitting, therefore, that the final chapter of this marvelous book is titled “Love.” I read it and in fact most of the book, with Nellie sleeping peacefully on my lap. I suggest all cat-loving readers do the same.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Gone & Forgotten?: Review of THE SIXTH EXTINCTION (paperback edition)

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert

$17.00, pa (our price: $13.60)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or working at the White House, you know the rapid decline we are witnessing in the earth’s species, due primarily to global warming. The ultimate culprit in the changes and destruction of our ecosystems is us. Climate change is due mostly to human activity. If anyone continues to deny that, they are simply ignoring reality. The levels of COin our atmosphere are the highest they’ve been for 15 million years, and the rate of rise is phenomenal. Species of plants and animals cannot adapt quickly enough, leading us toward what many believe will be an apocalyptic extinction “event”: the sixth mass extinction on this planet.

This is not an uplifting subject. It’s horrifying to realize how many creatures are disappearing right before our eyes because of our clumsy interventions. But it’s an important subject, and one worth learning about if only to grasp onto some hope of saving what we can.

In this fascinating, eye-opening book, The Sixth Extinction, (now in paperback), Elizabeth Kolbert explores the history of our concept of extinction, since that came long after the reality of it. Like children playing with matches, humans have blundered along the last few hundred years, wiping out creatures left and right, with no clear understanding of the consequences of our actions. Kolbert steps right into the muck, literally at times, alongside field scientists, and writes warmly about the people on the front lines of our troubled environment and the flora and fauna they are chronicling and defending and desperately trying to save. She notes the wondrous aspects of our species as well: how many people there are working diligently to undo the damage we have all caused. Most of us do not want to see our planet’s destruction, and we do try, either through monetary gifts or lifestyle changes, to reduce our personal impacts. Whether or not that will work is a large and uncomfortable question.

There have been five mass extinctions in the history of the earth. We humans were not responsible for those catastrophes, so no guilt there. In the broadening of our recognition of ecosystems and their demise, we see the rapidity of the current extinction in progress. It is wiping out species at such an alarming and disheartening rate, that there are some we’ll never know before they are gone. Forever. 

We know that trophy hunting, habitation destruction, and poaching are leading to the imminent loss of lions, elephants, and other African wildlife, possibly in the next few decades. We also know that acidification of the oceans and warming temperatures are destroying coral reefs, and thus a whole plethora of dependent creatures, whose demise will then affect those who depend on them for food, including us. In human terms, all of this isn’t news. Geologically speaking, however, it’s happening at lightning speed. Kolbert writes:

“Warming today is taking place at least ten times faster than it did at the end of the last glaciation, and at the end of all those glaciations that preceded it. To keep up, organisms will have to migrate or otherwise adapt, at least ten times more quickly. . . . How many species overall will be capable of moving fast enough remains an open question, though . . . in the coming decades we are probably going to learn the answer, whether we want to or not.”

In order to migrate to more conducive climates, species need a pathway. But we’ve disrupted those paths with our development or fragmentation, adding yet another hurdle. 

Among the many ways humans have mucked up the ecosystem of the planet is through invasive species. We’ve recreated the supercontinent of 175 million years ago, by essentially going backward, jumbling everything up again in what scientists refer to as “the new Pangaea.” Thus, we have honey bees here in North America—maybe not a bad thing—but we also have the Japanese beetle and purple loosestrife. And we have lost millions of bats thanks to a fungus that has invaded their colonies. Not to mention the stink bug that has invaded the eastern coast (and my house). Modern humans are perhaps the most invasive of invaders, having pushed out the Neanderthals some 30,000 years ago, possibly through killing, or through competition, but not before actually procreating with them. (So yes, we all have some Neanderthal in our DNA, although it may not show up in your 23 & Me report.) In that way, I suppose we actually saved our early cousin from total extinction, but I doubt that was much comfort to the last one left.

Is this all just bad news that you’d rather not read about? Maybe, and I understand the desire to turn off the bad news. It’s permeating our lives these days. But we are the creators of this destruction and have been the benefactors as well, so we need to understand what’s happening in order to find a way to bring some light to the growing shadow. Human ingenuity has changed our ecosystem; perhaps it can help reverse destruction as well. Some are hopeful that just by concentrating on local changes we can make—using renewable energy, eating sustainably grown and harvested food—we can alleviate the problems. Possibly, but what we know for sure is that hiding from it will not make it go away. Denying it will not make it less a reality. And blaming the messengers will simply backfire. What we must face up to now is that the Sixth Extinction will include humans in its grip. If that doesn’t stir the Neanderthal within, then nothing will.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Nobody Knows Better... Review of WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE A DOG

Gregory Berns
$28 (hardcover) Our Price: $22.40

We humans are arrogant creatures. We think because we have written language, etc., that we are the smartest creatures on earth. But, to paraphrase Moonstruck, what we don't know about animals is a lot.

Greg Berns, a psychologist and neuroscientist, has taken upon himself the task of finding out just what is going on inside of our fellow creatures, primarily dogs. His first book, How Dogs Love Us, detailed his experiments with his dog Callie and others by using an MRI to gauge their brain responses to their owners' smells and voices. Since then, he has pursued further investigation of brain activity in dogs, trying to decipher the difference between receiving a treat, for example, to seeing the dog's owner.

The experiments are slow-going and complex, due to the intricacies of the training, but fascinating in their chronicle. As Dr. Berns continued to work with dogs, he also explored the brains of dolphins and sea lions. (Who knew sea lions have a sense of rhythm?) His work opened up more questions about communication between humans and dogs or other animals. He references Chaser, the border collie famous for knowing over one thousand names of objects. Chaser was also able to understand simple syntax and directions, as in retrieving a toy and placing it on top of another toy. But was Chaser unusual? Berns suggests that certain breeds may be more adept at learning language, and he questions whether or not dogs actually know their names or if, instead, they've learned that when certain sounds are made, something (probably good) is about to happen. When I call my dog Katrina, she looks up, expectant. Is she looking up because the sound I made might mean we're going somewhere, or that she's getting a bone? Perhaps the only way to know what she is thinking, hearing, feeling, or expecting, is to study what's happening inside of her brain, and seeing what parts "light up" and when. But is knowing what my dog is thinking important? Can't we just mosey along as we are, ignorant of what thoughts or dreams she is experiencing? After all, I'm the human, and therefore the important one, right?

Stepping into another's shoes (or paws), feeling empathy, is a trait humans have capacity for and yet we seem to use it as little as possible. The current political climate is certainly an indication of that. And as we outgrow our world, the tribalism we're experiencing is bound to expand to the point of an inability to communicate entirely. So understanding what it's like to be a dog, or a horse, or even, yes, a cat, goes a long way to understanding each other. Although dogs may not understand or care what's going on inside of us, they do care about us, and seem to want, for some reason, to be with us. They don't see color or ethnicity, and certainly do not understand what political party we vote for (although that may have long-term effects on their well-being, but that's another story). I read books such as Dr. Berns' because I want to know why: why does the horse I am riding want to do well? Just for the praise? And why does my dog follow me from room to room, just to be near me? Am I really that great?

All of this is a long way of saying that exploring the intricacies of a dog's brain is not an academic pursuit, or knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Understanding animals leads to better understanding of ourselves. Being obtuse, or lacking in any self-reflection, is a dangerous form of ignorance that may yet lead us to catastrophe. Books such as this may serve as a bigger wake-up call than even he intended.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Horse Sense: review of RELAXED & FORWARD

Relationship Advice from Your Horse
Anna Blake
$14.95 (our price $11.96)

This essay collection is from the author's blog of the same name and is perfect for riders who are struggling to progress in their horsemanship, but I daresay it might be entertaining for non-horsepeople, too. Anna Blake writes with wit and unabashed passion about horses and their people. Common sense being quite uncommon, the obvious sometimes has to be worded in just the right way to drill into the human brain; Blake has a gift for bringing a somewhat hazy concept into sharp focus.

As with many books about animals, the subject of this one could be expanded to include all sorts of relationships: your spouse, your children, your dog. But horses hold unique places in our lives partly because as riders, we must trust that they will not injure us (unintentionally, of course), and that as caretakers, we must honor their trust in us that we will not cause them harm—emotionally or physically. This makes for a complicated and profound experience. And anyone who has never sat atop a horse and asked him or her to move forward at a pace and rhythm of their choice would do well to give it a shot just once. (And I don't mean by sitting on a trail horse at a local stable. Those horses just do their duty with boredom and probably a little disdain, getting through their day.)

It would be inaccurate to call this delightful, funny, insightful book instructional, although it has plenty of expert riding tips. It is also a memoir, and a finger wagger at those of us who at one time or another claim to know more about our horse than we do (or than they know of us):
If humans are the more evolved species (and the jury is out on that, but going with that assumption) then it is up to us to move beyond our more limited senses and evolve our language to meet the horse. More importantly, if we want to progress farther with our horses, we have to communicate even more eloquently, just getting louder doesn't work. 
Communication with your horse involves the ability to stop, listen, and actually hear what your horse is telling you, and then being able to convey your plan and direction concisely, gently, and confidently. It also requires a hunk of honest self-reflection and a large dose of humor. If you can't laugh at yourself, stay away from horses—and every other animal.

Anna Blake lives in Colorado on her Infinity Farm where she and her husband raise llamas, goats, dogs, cats, horses, and Edgar Rice Burro. Her other books are STABLE RELATION and BARN DANCE.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Wild Women: review of TAMED AND UNTAMED

Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Paperback $17.95 (our price $14.36)

Each piece in this brilliant collection is short, sweet, and to the point. Some are funny, some poignant, but each offers some fine bit of history or factoid that may make you sit up and say, "Wow, really?" And each conveys the sad truth that humans, being the controlling animal, have made a mess of things.

Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas are both New York Times bestselling authors of books about animals and nature, and in Thomas's case, novels about pre-history, as well as a memoir of her time living in Africa. Although their subject matter is similar, their styles are distinct and yet complementary. Both focus on the beauty and brilliance of some of the most misunderstood (or under-understood) creatures in our midst. And they adhere to an ethical sense of duty to species as well as to individuals. Whether discussing water bears, chickens, or lions, they treat their subjects with respect, wonder, and reverence.

Take sharks, for example. Montgomery writes of accompanying a Massachusetts biologist in his study of the return of great white sharks to Cape Cod. Despite movies, books, and poor press, great whites, she learns, are anything but menacing. They're not interested in eating people, or even interacting with them. They like seal meat and they go where the seals go. The biologist called them "laid back," "calm," "beautiful," and Montgomery agreed when she finally got to see one up close off the coast of Mexico. "No wonder, then, that when the great white approached me in the shark cage, instead of fear, a great sense of calm swept over me. With him in charge, the ocean would be in good hands." Of course, that's the problem: we are in charge, not him.

In Thomas's book The Hidden Life of Deer, she attracted criticism for her practice of feeding the deer who visit her Peterborough, NH, homestead. Here she writes more about the controversial practice of feeding deer, why it can be harmful (even deadly), and how she manages to time her feedings just right so as not to interfere with their winter digestion, or attract deer to hunters. But overall her argument is simple, clear and so terribly logical:
Which brings us to the question of why help wildlife anyway? I do it because we're so happy to damage them. We destroy their ecosystems to build houses, we hunt them just for pleasure, and we kill them with our cars when they try to cross the roads. If during a harsh winter I can help a little in a responsible manner, whereby the same deer who came in the fall are there in the spring to hide their fawns in the grass on my field, I feel I've done some good.
This collection isn't just intended to finger point and blame humans for harm to nature and animals. We don't really need any more books to tell us what we've done; thoughtful humans understand this already. Rather, Montgomery and Thomas give us glimpses into their lifelong studies of animals in the hopes that by sharing their discoveries, we may be inspired look a bit deeper at our own world, and not be quite so quick to condemn or dismiss the creatures around us. There is more in the animal world that joins us than separates us, and that is the message of this wonderful book.