Friday, November 13, 2015

Bat Time: review of THE SECRET LIVES OF BATS, by Merlin Tuttle

The Secret Lives of Bats
Merlin Tuttle
$26.00, hardcover; our price $20.80
Click Here to Purchase

As Rogers & Hammerstein wrote in South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught/to hate and fear….” Apparently, too many humans have been taught to hate and fear bats. The result of ignorance is often irrational hatred; the result of hatred is violence. Bats have suffered human violence for centuries, in spite of their vastly beneficial role in nature as insect eaters and fruit and flower pollinators.
 Starting in the 1970s, there was a definite movement towards not only tolerating but protecting these much maligned creatures. That movement is largely the result of the work of Dr. Merlin Tuttle. His passionate research led to the founding of Bat Conservation International that has succeeded in protecting and reinvigorating threatened bat populations worldwide.
His passion for bats began as a teenager in Tennessee when he discovered the behavior of gray myotis bats was decidedly different from what he’d read in books. The fact that he, at age seventeen, had possibly made a significant observation compelled him to further his scientific studies. In so doing, he also became a skilled photographer who would not let danger or any discomfort dissuade him from the perfect shot.
In working with National Geographic Dr. Tuttle’s expeditions have taken him all over the world, and subjected him to almost inhuman amounts of physical and emotional hardship, all of which he recalls with extraordinary good humor. He seems to possess not only Herculean strength and resilience, but a diplomatic personality that never condemns or judges those who have perpetrated harm on bats. Upon visiting Bracken Cave in Texas to witness firsthand the world’s largest bat colony, Tuttle is nearly overcome by the heat and carbon dioxide, even with his respirator. Beetles crawl up his legs, biting him, and he feels the first indications of losing consciousness. Fainting would be deadly, so reluctantly he retreats.
Upon leaving the cave, he encounters three men sitting in the shade, talking:
They were speculating on how much fun it would be to sometime throw a stick of dynamite into the cave and see how many bats would come out all at once. Of course, the answer was none. They’d all be dead. These men weren’t maliciously inclined. They were simply ignorant and were quite apologetic when I explained the consequences of such an act….
The appalling spectacle of how easily the world’s largest remaining bat colony could be destroyed by simple ignorance provided a strong reminder of just how important public education could be.
Bats are fragile creatures, easily taken down in the hundreds, thousands, millions, by human intervention. Many species are already extinct because of human action and loss of habitat. Now the notorious white-nose syndrome is killing many colonies in this country. Thanks to Dr. Tuttle and others who have fought for their protection, there are some species who are making a comeback, but there is still a long way to go.
Whatever your feelings about bats, this is a highly entertaining and mind-altering plunge into their world. The color photographs are particularly awe-inspiring. Bats can be cute! They can also have faces only a mother bat would love. But they will never be evil, blood-sucking, hair-entangling creatures we’ve somehow cursed them to be. Next time you see a bat, thank him for the insects he’s eating or the fruits and flowers he’s pollinating. And leave him alone.

Friday, November 6, 2015


Wendy Williams
$26; our price: $20.80, hardcover, with photos

Long before they were useful to us for work, war, or entertainment, horses have fascinated humankind. The famous Vogelherd horse was sculpted by admiring hands thirty-five thousand years ago. Horses seem to fill a niche in our lives. But when did this bond first form, and why? Those are the central questions journalist Wendy Williams strives to answer in her outstanding and ground-breaking book The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companions. She writes:
“We must have horses and dogs and cats and other animals in our lives in order for our psyches to function as they should, just as we have to have bacteria in our guts in order to digest food.”
Other domesticated animals have changed biologically because of the process of being domesticated. Horses, for the most part, have not. The horse has evolved according to the world he inhabits, adapting as the climate changed, grasses proliferated, water ebbed and flowed. The horse we know now in North America originated 56 million years ago as the dawn horse, gradually losing his toes, developing a concave back and flat teeth. In fact, the evolution of the horse’s teeth determined his very survival, and the evolution of grass determined his teeth. Beginning as a browser, he developed into a grazer. Beginning as a scampering little creature, he became a galloping athlete. His intelligence, along with his physical prowess, also grew.
Because of horses’ unique intelligence (dawn horses had advanced brains, according to paleontologists), as well as social and emotional commonalities with humans, behaviorists are able to conduct tests to determine horse perception. It’s been revealed that horses can interpret two-dimensional images, much as humans can. And although they are far-sighted and partially color blind, they recognize different human faces, even being able to tell twins apart, and, more important perhaps, perceive emotions. When we gaze at a horse’s eye, we also read his feelings. Could the Pleistocene cave artists have felt that connection as well? And perhaps in finding this bond, did a mutual trust develop even in prehistoric times? (Humans have famously abused the trust of our animal companions on too many occasions, but horses seem to have unending faith in us anyway, which just proves that they must know something we don’t.)
In searching for a deeper understanding of horses, Williams explores some of the mysteries in their evolution, including one fascinating riddle: the disappearance of the horse in the Western hemisphere, and specifically North America, around 14,000 years ago. The reasons for this vanishing are debated vehemently by scientists, and no consensus has been reached. (The fact that horses were no longer here when Europeans arrived has been used as the rationale for the government’s removing the wild mustangs in the West as a non-native species.) Darwin himself had struggled to find an answer to this phenomenon. Why, after millennia of adapting to the changing conditions, would the horse population dwindle and die out in this region? Was it the result of human activity?
Williams’ investigation of this disappearance takes her all over the world, tracking the horse’s progress and decline, along with the planet’s shifts, and coinciding human development. One particularly illuminating incident occurred in 2013 in Britain’s New Forest National Park where dozens of free-roaming New Forest ponies perished as a result of the boomer crop of acorns. Horses love acorns to death. Literally. Oak trees proliferated relatively recently, after the ice receded, so equine tolerance has not had a chance to evolve, and probably will not. Perhaps that offers one clue to the North American extinction. The controversy, however, continues to rage in the scientific community, and may never be fully resolved.
What we do know is that the horse’s extraordinary evolution occurred not to benefit mankind, or as a result of our intervention, but in spite of it. We are fortunate to have found common ground that enables a mutually beneficial relationship, and that the horse is forgiving of our many trespasses. There is still much to learn as we humans evolve into wiser, more compassionate companions.
The Horse begins and ends with the author observing wild mustangs in Wyoming. Her quest for understanding the true nature of the horse, and the origins of the bond between horse and human, provides us with a joyous ride through equine history. Williams gives us a cohesive, comprehensive, yet comprehensible study of this magnificent animal. Her Epilogue is truly an “ahhh!” moment of personal evolution.
Click Here to Buy Book

Friday, October 9, 2015


Peter Zheutlin
$14.99, paperback. Our price: $12

There are true angels among us. They are not supernatural, superhuman, or super wealthy. Instead, these angels are people who see a problem that is without ultimate solution, but they soldier on regardless, trying to solve it. If one life is saved, they tell themselves, that’s reward enough. One such angel is the subject of Peter Zheutlin’s new book, RESCUE ROAD: ONE MAN, THIRTY THOUSAND DOGS AND A MILLION MILES ON THE LAST HOPE HIGHWAY. Zheutlin writes,
The lows in rescue, I realize are matched by the incredible highs, and without one, there isn’t the other. I’ve met so many selfless, good-hearted people from all walks of life and different parts of the country, all connected by their love of dogs and willingness to go the extra miles—or a few thousand—to shepherd them along on their arduous journeys to love and safety.
The impetus for the writing of this book is, fittingly, a dog. Peter Zheutlin and his family adopted Albie from a high-kill shelter in Louisiana via labs4rescue. He learned that Albie was to be transported north via an organization called Rescue Road Trips, run by Greg Mahle (pronounced “May-lee”). Zheutlin, a journalist, decided to explore the amazing amalgamation of events leading to his own dog’s rescue. He reached out to Mahle and asked if he could ride with him over the course of a year and see for himself how rescue really works, and particularly, the place where his beloved Albie had come so close to death. He would not just be a passenger, but would help as needed. The experience was more than eye-opening. In fact, it was exhausting, exhilarating, and ultimately awe-inspiring.

Greg Mahle grew up in the restaurant business in Ohio, so he is inured to hard work, rough hours, and low pay. His wife Adella handles the back office duties to help with the ever-changing scheduling and myriad problems arising while Greg is on the road. It’s tough on the family to have him gone so much (he makes the 1000-mile trip south every two weeks), but the results are worth it. “Gotcha Day” is what Greg calls the happy end of the transport when he can hoist a previously unwanted and doomed pup into the arms of a happy adopter. Gotcha Day is what keeps him going through horrible weather, mechanical breakdowns, and personal crises. It makes it all worthwhile.
Zheutlin sees firsthand the poverty of the Deep South, particularly the Fifth Ward in Houston, and the disregard of human as well as animal life. The so-called shelters are often nothing more than brief holding cells for euthanasia. Some of the facilities have a 90% kill rate, usually targeting puppies first rather than have to fund vaccinations. Compared to shelters in the north, that seems unbelievable, but it’s a reality that rescuers know well.

The reasons for so many high-kill facilities in the south, and for the general poor treatment of domestic animals there, are complicated. There are cultural issues concerning how animals have been traditionally regarded, especially in the rural areas. There are, of course, financial issues. A family stuck in severe poverty is not likely to take measures to care for their pets. In fact, “pet” is not really a term to apply to the creatures who are forced to live their short lives outside, with no medical care or socialization. This mindset is changing slowly, thanks to educational initiatives that many rescue organizations and southern shelters are taking, but the tidal wave of unwanted, neglected, abused, and forgotten dogs still seems endless. In spite of the odds, however, rescuers such as Greg Mahle, and his colleagues in the south, push on, never taking a breath, it seems.

Now so many of those unsung heroes and angels out there have a moment in the spotlight, thanks to Zheutlin’s book. And anyone who thinks rescuing dogs means playing with puppies all day long will be humbled by the physicality and emotional strain rescuers endure.

Take this book as a call to action to not only support legitimate rescue organizations through donations and adopting, but to address the importance of education in slowly building empathy towards all living things. We can all be angels if we want to be.

To order your copy at 20% off and FREE shipping, click here!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Invisible Dogs: review of THE BLACK DOGS PROJECT, by Fred Levy

The Black Dogs Project
Extraordinary black dogs and why we can’t forget them
Photography by Fred Levy
Hardcover, $25. Our price: $20
The fickleness of humans never ceases to amaze. For some reason, black dogs are more likely to be overlooked in shelters by potential adopters, and thus more likely to be euthanized. The explanations for this phenomenon, known as “Black Dog Syndrome,” range anywhere from superstition to a sort of blind eye; black dogs simply don’t stand out as prominently as other dogs, and are thereby rendered invisible.
Fred Levy had been taking a series of photos of black dogs for the Black Dogs Project in order to help display their worth in a better light, perhaps rectifying their invisibility. Now he has encased the collection of over 50 portraits in this beautifully produced volume.
Each photo is accompanied by the dog’s bio as told by his or her human companion. All found their homes because their person was drawn to a distinctive personality, a look in the eye, or that strange, inexplicable connection we sometimes discover with another creature. One pup helped soothe fraught nerves of fire fighters after the Boston Marathon bombings. Another helped raise his human, staying with her through young adulthood and beyond as a steadfast supporter of all she did.
No dog deserves to be abandoned, abused, or neglected. If some are simply overlooked because their true beauty is hidden under a dark bushel, then Fred Levy’s wonderful work will certainly provide their much-deserved day in the sun! And if you are looking for a dog to join your household, be sure to judge by the temperament and not by the color, or absence thereof.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dog Detective: review of SCENTS AND SENSIBILITY, by Spencer Quinn

Spencer Quinn

$25; our price $20

In this latest installment in the Chet and Bernie Mystery series “Chet the Jet” supplies us with more fast-moving intrigue as he himself struggles to understand the humans around him, especially his favorite human of all, Bernie Little, owner of the Little Detective Agency.

Returning home from their last case (see Paw and Order), Bernie and Chet are dismayed to find their safe missing, and Chet's nose confusingly picks up the scent of his best pal Iggy who lives with the Parsons across the street. What could old man Parsons have to do with this apparent theft? Bernie and Chet find out soon enough when an illegally transplanted saguaro leads to murder.

When I introduce those deprived folks who have not yet had the pleasure of reading any of the books in this delightful series, I explain the concept the way Spencer Quinn himself does: Chet the dog serves as narrator of the mysteries, and never once seems any less doglike. He is easily distracted by edibles, often finds that his tail has a mind of its own, and relies on his superior nose to help his pal Bernie do what they do best. Although a K-9 School failure (“I’d somehow flunked the leaping test on my very last day. Was a cat involved?”), Chet is Bernie’s right hand, uh, dog, and loves Bernie with an unwavering devotion.

Chet is also somewhat philosophical in his observance of human foibles and fumbles. For instance in trying to understand the meaning of skin color, he muses:

The truth is there’s not much color variety when it comes to humans, not compared to how we roll in the nation within. Take me, for example: mostly black but with one white ear, which I know on account of how many people mention it in my presence. Ever seen a human colored like me? The point is humans go on and on about skin colors when it isn’t even one of their strengths. And they have so many strengths: cars, tennis balls, bacon, and that’s just without even thinking, which is how my mind works best.

Quinn masterfully moves the story along by use of dialogue, which Chet overhears, and generally misinterprets, and with Chet’s own observations. His senses are keen, but deductive powers are, as he puts it, Bernie’s terrain. He is unable to count past two, and his knowledge of colors, especially red, is, he says, not to be trusted. But what a nose, far superior to Bernie’s, even though he admires his friend’s bountiful feature:

"One thing for sure," Bernie said. "I smell a rat."
All at once Bernie had my full attention. He had never smelled a rat before, not in any back alley, Dumpster, or landfill we’d ever investigated, almost all of them as ratty as you could wish for. Once we’d even worked our way into a sewer system. Rats out the yingyang down there, my friends. Invisible, yes, on account of the darkness, but they’d smelled the place up in a way that couldn’t be missed. But that was the point: Bernie had missed it. That was when I’d first been certain that his nose—really good-sized in human terms—was mostly for decoration. And now he was smelling a rat, when—trust me—there was no rat to smell?”

Humor aside, the action is intense. Bad guys abound and Chet is pushed almost to the brink, as is Bernie, leaving us with a cliffhanger at the end of the book. Now we shall have to wait another year for the next installment. Unlike Chet, this human finds waiting terribly difficult. With no bone to chew or tail to admire, I’m left to wonder and worry about what awaits the Little Detective Agency.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Runaway: review of LET THE TORNADO COME, by Rita Zoey Chin

2014, paperback

$15.99, our price $12.79

A drawback to amateur memoirs is the writer’s inability to tell a story, no matter how extraordinary it might be. How often, in my years in publishing, I’d hear about someone’s “fascinating” life. And yet they were incapable of relaying it with any finesse or style, thus turning a fascinating life into a dull one.

Not so with this incredible memoir, which I would place on a par with Strayed’s WILD and MacDonald’s H IS FOR HAWK. 

Rita Zoey Chin suffered at the hands of her parents and later with predatory adults in ways we in this country prefer to ignore. Instead, we incarcerate, and she suffered that as well. Her only hope was to run. So from the age of eleven on Rita ran away, sleeping in stairwells or empty cars, struggling to find food in any way possible, begging for help from friends and strangers alike. Each episode would end with her back home, being beaten again, traumatized emotionally and physically.
All of this is survivable, and she does survive, and yet at age thirty-five, happily married and living the life she had always dreamed of, she is suddenly hammered by panic attacks, which become so debilitating she’s unable to leave the beautiful house she and her husband just moved into. The runaway is hamstrung, and that immobility frightens her to death.

Chin refers to her childhood self as a runaway with a mixture of derision and pride. As a young girl, she hears the sound of hoofbeats in her mind, and longs for the wild, galloping freedom they represent. But when she meets the horse who will become her salvation in many ways, he is himself troubled by a possibly rough past, and certainly by some untreated physical ailments. Claret requires a presence of mind on Rita’s part, with precludes running away or freezing in panic. When he spooks at falling ice in the barn and tosses her to the dirt, he returns to her and puts his nose down on her helmet. His breath reassures her and she climbs on him again—a major accomplishment for this runaway rider and for her fearful horse. It’s clear they need each other, and that the bond between horse and woman is stronger than the trauma they both have faced: “… I stood beside him in the paddock and looked up at the pine trees. He seemed to be looking, too, both of us standing so still. Sometimes a breeze would flutter his mane, and I’d think, You wild, wild thing.”

As with Helen MacDonald, Rita Zoey Chin is a poet, and her sense of lyricism and rhythm is prominent throughout the book. But she’s as much a storyteller, compelling us to read, even as we cringe at the monsters she faced. We know she made it out alive and well, and we know the mutual devotion she shares with Claret will beat off the panic they both confront. How such broken lives are mended is what propels the reader. This fascinating life makes for a fascinating read.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

First Dog: review of THE DOG MASTER, by W. Bruce Cameron

The author of the celebrated A DOG’S JOURNEY and A DOG’S PURPOSE, among other fine books, W. Bruce Cameron here offers a novel set in the Paleolithic era, about 30,000 years ago, when climate change was threatening modern man with imminent extinction. Starvation forced human tribes to fight each other as well as wild predators for the rapidly diminishing or migrating prey. Humans needed every angle to survive, from weaponry to cunning. Biologists and archeologists have demonstrated that the most important element of our survival and evolution was domestication of plants and animals, and perhaps above all, wolves. Domestication and artificial selection not only saved our species from doom, but have altered our own biology substantially.
THE DOG MASTER unfolds with mankind divided into tribes, including one called Wolfen, who worships wolves, paying tribute by offering them food, and mimicking their ways. Wolves were their gods, not their enemies. Spirituality and art were just beginning to surface in this era. The Wolfen represent early devotees.
Another tribe, the Kindred, is organized by sex: the men as hunters, the women as gatherers and in charge of marriages and any domestic issues. One woman heads the council, and thereby holds much political clout. Through her brutal pursuit of power, the council leader banishes a crippled child of her most hated adversary, claiming his disability is proof of a curse upon the tribe that has led to the decreased hunting. Mal, the banished son, eventually forms the bond with a female wolf and her pups that will change the course of his and his peoples’ lives.
Cameron’s characters in both of these tribes become intertwined, with a wolf at the center. He weaves the narrative in such an expert and enthralling pattern that one can easily forget the more fantastic elements: for instance, the communication among the people and tribes. In fact, he states as much in his very entertaining Afterword:
“With no manuscripts to study, I could only speculate on what a conversation might be like between two members of the Kindred…. For all I know they would say ‘LOL’ to each other…. I am not alone in having to guess: as I read what experts had to say about this particular era, I was struck by how current theories attract consensus and controversy, and how some dogma, accepted in the past, has fallen into disfavor.”
What experts do seem to agree on is that at some point one wolf was thoroughly domesticated by one human, and that act created an evolutionary leap. (For some really fascinating reading about evolutionary development, read DOMESTICATED by Richard C. Francis.) The wolf’s superior ability to hunt and track prey was of vital importance to human survival. But in the story, it is more than simple basic survival that brings the two species together. There grows a trust, an empathy, and a strong emotional attachment between the Kindred man Mal and his “Dog.”
I’m not generally a fan of “cave” fiction, although I did love REINDEER MOON by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. And yet I found myself utterly enthralled and invested in each character. Once again, W. Bruce Cameron has written a brilliant novel that will certainly inspire more thought and conversation about the wolf’s role in our evolution and survival, and about animal/human codependency. But it is also just a damn good read!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hard Choices: How I Pick Books to Review and Sell

I've had many queries lately, and decided to post this just to clarify my methods for choosing which books to review and to sell online. I hope it is helpful!
I started Books for Animal Lovers last year because I wanted to combine two great loves of mine and offer my choices to other like-minded people. I am not a fast reader, but I do try to read two or three books concurrently in order to offer timely reviews. My blog has received enough readership that I now am on the list to receive advance reader copies (ARCs) from various publishers and samples from smaller presses. I appreciate receiving the books and do my best to look at each one with an open mind.
Many of the books I receive are from self-published authors. As a former publisher and owner of a subsidy house, I’m aware of the difficulty authors have in finding a so-called traditional publisher willing to take a risk on an unknown writer. I’m also aware of the various methods for self-publishing, many of which are quite good. All of this is to say that I’m not opposed to including self-published books on my site, but I do have standards that I am rather strict about imposing. And so here are some of my peeves pertaining to self-published titles:
·      Errors. No book is perfect, and typos do happen, but when a book obviously has not been edited or proofread, I cannot accept it because, quite simply, I can’t bear to read it! Hire an editor as part of your writing process. You will benefit, as will your book.
·      Interior Design. Part of the joy of reading is the feel and look of a book in my hands. But a book that is poorly designed with low-resolution images, ugly fonts, or a shoddy layout will not be accepted here no matter how wonderful the writing. I’m not just selling words, but the whole package. Otherwise, I’d simply sell eBooks. Hire a professional designer to layout your book.
·      Cover Design. Self-published books often have amateurishly designed covers.  It is absolutely a fact that a good cover will sell a book. Frankly, I do not want to have ugly books on my site! Pay the extra and have a pro do your cover while designing the interior.
·      Pricing. Understandably, writers paying for books to be published, either through CreateSpace or other services, have to pay a much higher unit cost. That causes the retail price to be higher than traditionally published books, and limits the book’s marketability. Sometimes it’s just too high a cost for a small retailer to handle. There’s no real solution unless the writer is willing to break even or take a loss on sales to a retailer. At least they are getting their books out before potential readers.
So if you have a book you feel fits the list here (and you’ve read or at least browsed the selections and reviews), by all means send it to me to consider. If I feel it has merit and may sell, I’ll definitely add it to the site. If I believe it merits a review, I’ll post one on the blog and send it to other sites. If it does not meet my criteria, I will not include it. If you would like referrals to designers, editors, etc., ask me. I have a pretty good list of resources!
Keep reading, keep writing, and don’t give up the dream.
Contact me: for more info or questions.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

SeaWorld's Secrets: review of BENEATH THE SURFACE

John Hargrove
$26, hardcover. Our price: $20.80
According to their website, SeaWorld is “dedicated to giving animals a second chance at life.” They also purport to contribute to conservation efforts of marine mammals by educating the public. There are certainly elements of truth to some of their declarations. But there are also abundant falsehoods, according to John Hargrove and many other former and current SeaWorld trainers, as well as scientists studying orcas in the wild. Given the overwhelming outcry against their practices, how can one truly believe that “SeaWorld Cares”?
I wanted to believe it. Most of us do. We enjoy watching the wonders of these enormous animals up close in a way few could in the wild. Their bulk and intelligence are awe-inspiring. They have an almost mystical enchantment about them that is irresistible to audiences.
But then, tragedy strikes, and as the story of one trainer’s death unfolds, the public learns of the deep dark secrets behind SeaWorld’s Shamu Stadium.
John Hargrove was a senior trainer at SeaWorld, a dream job for him, and one which he gave up under quite a bit of duress. His fascinating book chronicles not only the maltreatment by the corporation of the orcas, but of the trainers as well. It took him years to face the reality of the dark side of SeaWorld, and when he did, it was even longer before he made the decision to leave. That meant leaving the whales he loved deeply; losing a career that had been hard-won and fulfilling; and becoming the target of SeaWorld’s backlash against the bad publicity his book and the documentary Blackfish created.
To understand the complexity of the situation, the reader of Beneath the Surface would benefit from reading War of the Whales, and of watching Blackfish, which focused on the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. But also, study SeaWorld’s website, read their refutation against the charges in Blackfish, and weigh the good against the evil of such animal venues. To me, in the end, it came down to the ethics of using wild animals for our entertainment and for a company’s profit. Do we have the right to do that? I don’t believe we do. Especially when the use is actually abuse.
Hargrove’s book begins with his fascination as a child with the orca show at Shamu Stadium in SeaWorld Orlando. He pleaded with his parents to let him question the trainers after the show, and thus began years of letter-writing campaigns to SeaWorld executives begging for guidance into how he could become an orca trainer. His persistence paid off, amazingly, and he eventually became the highest-ranking senior trainer at both the Texas and California parks.
Orcas in the wild are generally not considered a danger to humans. In captivity, however, some have become aggressive, and death and injury are now well-documented. SeaWorld continues to site trainer error in all incidents, because to admit that these otherwise gentle creatures would turn against their human companions would be admitting that conditions are not ideal and that captivity might, in fact, be contributing to aggression. If you consider that these whales learn that humans are their sole source of food, it’s not unreasonable some resentment might develop. Add to that, habitat too small for such an enormous creature, intense boredom, disruption of family units, and mutiny seems downright predictable. But not according to SeaWorld.
Hargrove writes that in spite of SeaWorld’s adamant declaration to the contrary, trainers are told to deprive orcas of food if they do not perform at the expected level: “In accordance with SeaWorld policies, trainers have reduced the amount of fish that a whale needs to eat daily—sometimes by more than two-thirds to remind the orca who provides sustenance at the marine park. It is not done often and it has a mixed record of effectiveness. But it has been part of the trainer’s options for making sure a whale understands that it is best to cooperate.” The company keeps careful records, and thus there is documentation of such deprivation. This form of behavior modification, however, would not go over well with the public, and thus SeaWorld has kept it secret and denies it to this day. Hargrove, however, notes that he himself inflicted this punishment “at the request of a supervisor.”
The training methods are fascinating to read about, and the close calls and tragic interactions between trainers and orcas are horrifying. The take-away from this book as well as others reviewed on this blog is relatively straight-forward: cruelty and abuse take many forms and may be camouflaged as “care.” If you believe that humans truly have dominion over creatures of the earth, then you must believe humans are wise enough to recognize that dominion does not necessarily mean domination. Pope Francis himself has said that dominion is best interpreted as stewardship. Of course, animals would be perfectly fine without our stewardship if we weren’t constantly interfering with the natural order and essentially messing up their world.
SeaWorld’s orca program originated with the kidnapping of whales in the wild and subjecting them to a lifetime of deprivation. The fact that they ceased their hunting of animals thirty-five years ago doesn’t negate the crime. Once they were forced to stop hunting, the executives realized they needed to keep adding to their stock if they were going to grow the Shamu program. And they needed to have the public perceive their use of the whales as “conservation.”
In 2000, SeaWorld embarked on an ambitious program of artificial insemination that has created a new culture of captive-born orcas. Female orcas in the wild are revered matriarchs, respected and obeyed by their extended families. In SeaWorld, some have become baby-makers, repeatedly artificially impregnated, often at very young ages, and then separated from their calves too soon. (Again, SeaWorld adamantly denies this latter charge. Hargrove, however, sites several examples he himself witnessed.)
The PR battle will continue, and SeaWorld has the motivation of dropping stock prices to keep the war going. The hope is that the corporation doesn’t begin developing parks overseas in places where public outcry over misuse and abuse may not be as prevalent. The best way to fight, however, is with the pocketbook. If people stopped patronizing such animal venues, they would eventually go away. For it is only through consumer reaction that advocacy for captive wild animals succeeds. Of course, when you hurt the bottom line of a corporation like SeaWorld (owned by Busch Entertainment Corporation), the company will respond aggressively.

SeaWorld and other similar animal parks claim that they are educating the public about creatures that most of us would never see. Education about animals is important, but we do not need to learn about whales by watching them waste away in a large swimming pool, or by doing tricks to entertain us. There are books, movies, and whale watches to consider. And if you are never splashed by “Shamu,” so be it. Perhaps some things are just not meant to be.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Tara's Legacy: a reveiw of LESSONS FROM TARA

Pub Date: July 21, 2015
Available for pre-order

Lessons from Tara: Life Advice from the World’s Most Brilliant Dog
David Rosenfelt
Readers of Mr. Rosenfelt’s books already know his devotion to dogs, especially to Tara, the inspiration behind his work with his wife, Debbie Myers, rescuing dogs, and the namesake of their foundation. Without Tara, Rosenfelt tells us, they would likely never have become the nutty dog people they are now; Dogtripping, his book recounting their trip across country with three RVs full of rescued dogs, would certainly never have been written or experienced; and he’d likely be getting a full night’s sleep every night instead of being buried in a pig pile of dogs on his bed.
And of course, life would not have been nearly as rich and rewarding. So, as another tribute to Tara, Rosenfelt has written this lovely, funny, poignant collection of lessons learned, not just from Tara, but from many of the souls they have rescued over the years. The credit for all of the lives saved he gives to Tara: 
“The lessons in this book are the ones I learned from Tara and her friends. She never met any of them, but she saved every one of their lives.
“And I am forever grateful.”
The lessons are simple, seemingly transparent, but carry with them a deep understanding of what it means to love. David and Debbie have given their home and their hearts to all sorts of dogs, but primarily to seniors, who have only a few months or years left. Rosenfelt’s mission is to allow these forgotten canines to spend their final days in a home with human compassion and loads of canine companionship, rather than to slowly waste away in a shelter. Obviously, this means constant and expensive vet visits and knowledge that the next one may be the last. Possibly one of the most important lessons Tara taught David was how to cry, because doing what they do, he must accept the sorrow of saying goodbye again and again and again.
Dog lovers will relish the wit and wisdom in these pages, while perhaps being thankful to share a bed with only one or two creatures:
“…[T]here are always at least four dogs on the bed, though it can get as high as six. The regulars are Wanda, the mastiff; Jenny, a lab mix; Cheyenne, a Great Pyrenees; and Boomer, Cheyenne’s sister. And these are not small dogs; they represent a little more than four hundred pounds of dog….”
I for one will never complain again about being stuck in a fetal position all night when Katrina is sleeping horizontally across the bottom of our bed, while Sophie and Nellie the cat are occupying the middle, and sharing part of my pillow. The thought of tossing a Great Pyrenees and a mastiff into the mix is unfathomable. Kudos to Debbie and David! And thanks to another wonderful book, the legacy of Tara lives on.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wild Horse: review of LAST CHANCE MUSTANG

 (Hardcover; $26.99, 320 pp., with photos. Pub date: June 26, 2015)

In truth, this title could be applied to every last remaining mustang in this country. The wild horse has been hounded, abused, maligned, and mistreated for centuries now, and still is subjected to the most horrific treatment by the agency in charge of its well-being. If ever an argument against government intervention could be justly made, the US Bureau of Land Management would be the poster child. Instead of protecting the mustang herds, they have repeatedly caved to special interest groups, and allowed these horses to be brutalized, all the while insisting that they are in fact helping them. It would be almost funny, if there weren’t so many unnecessary casualties involved.
The BLM has been overseeing the rounding up and adoptions of mustangs, and has come under justified fire for mishandling of those tasks. On the surface, adoption of wild horses and burros would seem to be a good thing. (The book and movie project Unbranded utilized adopted horses for their trek across the West.) But unfortunately, too many of the adoptions are either to kill buyers or to well-intentioned but incompetent owners.
Samson was one particularly unlucky horse when Mitchell Bornstein first met him. By then he had suffered six years of violence at the hands of men who believed the only way to tame him was to beat him down. He had been a six-year-old stallion, part of a large herd in Nevada, when he was captured in a helicopter roundup that decimated his herd and catapulted him into a world of neglect and abuse. His response was to fight first and ask questions later. Samson is truly not one to stand by and take it. For that, Bornstein can’t help but admire him. But the horse’s intense anger, fear, and hardened spirit turn him into a lethal creature whose destiny seems clearly to be the slaughterhouse.
Bornstein is not only a phenomenal horseman, but a compelling and talented chronicler. His tale of Samson’s journey out of the hell he was in and toward redemption is edge-of-your-seat writing.  Working with traumatized horses is a specialty of Bornstein’s, who is also a lawyer.  “Other than the fact that he could send me to my maker,” he writes of his first encounter with the wild horse, “Samson was no different from any of my legal clients: threatening, standoffish, and wearing a huge chip on his shoulder.” As with anyone who is willing to put his life on the line to achieve success, Bornstein is not lacking in confidence. And it is that confidence that was imperative in dealing with a horse like Samson. His first meeting with the mustang in a dark, dank and dirty stall, demonstrates this. Slowly, the horse allows this potential enemy into his space, and even allows him to touch his shoulder. There is a breakthrough then, but as Bornstein learns, Samson’s many demons are always just beneath the surface:
“For perhaps the first time in his life, he felt something other than the bullwhip’s lacerating blows, the lariat’s choking constriction, and the pain associated with repetitive blunt-force trauma.

“Then, everything changed. Without warning, he leapt straight up and slapped at the concrete floor with his right hoof, the sound of it like a bolt of lightning cleaving pine. He spun around and shot out two rapid-fire, dual-legged hind-end kicks at me, both missing my chest by inches, the wind from them fluttering my shirt.

“He turned and stared, this time with the look of a man about to turn into a werewolf. Get out while you still can.

“I backed out slowly and slipped through the door. Samson was still staring at me, breathing like Darth Vader. What had happened?

“Then I heard the sound of an approaching helicopter….”  
Samson’s life in the wild was certainly not an easy one. As a stallion, he was probably repeatedly challenged by other males, and had to fight hard to keep his mares and his herd. But he couldn’t fight the helicopters and cruel men with ear twitches, bullwhips, and other means of torture. Fortunately for him, there was one person who was willing to risk all—career, love, life—to save him.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Talking Animals: Review of ALEX & ME

In Chaser we learned about a border collie who has mastered the names of over 1000 toys, and who also shows an understanding of syntax and semantics, as well as definitions. Chaser is able, in a sense, to communicate with her human. But it is a one-way communication, because of course, Chaser cannot speak. That is, she cannot speak our language.

Alex, an African Grey parrot, on the other hand, could participate in dialogue with his humans. He could also add and understand concepts of equivalency, and even came to understand zero up to a point. In many cases, he taught himself words and ideas; for example, calling an apple a “banerry,” possibly combining banana and cherry.

In Irene Pepperberg’s fascinating memoir about her work and life with Alex (Alex & Me), she is determined to discover if a parrot can do more than just parrot. Is there more than mimicry involved when the bird speaks? The answer is a resounding yes, of course, as Alex demonstrates repeatedly. He not only uses language for his demands (“Want nut!”) but to emote (“I’m sorry!” “Calm down!” and “I love you”). And as he demonstrates, a creature with a brain the size of a shelled walnut can develop and learn at about a five-year-old human’s level. 

But Alex may have been an exceptionally bright parrot— a bird brainiac. His parrot colleagues who joined him in some of the testing and training were noticeably insecure around their brilliant labmate. Alex often interjected his own criticisms during their training sessions, telling one bird to “say better,” when he felt he was mumbling his answers.

Alex also had an advanced sense of humor, and obviously enjoyed messing with his humans. When he was bored or simply out of sorts, he made it clear he wanted no part of the curriculum and would simply turn his back on his trainers. When he was feeling particularly puckish, he’d purposely misspeak, or would insist his humans obey his many commands. The students who worked with him called themselves “Alex’s Slaves.”

There are many questions surrounding the study of animal communication and cognition. Are we barking up the right tree? Should we be studying how animals speak, rather than teaching them to learn our language?

And we are also still fighting against the Great Chain of Being concept, perpetuated by the belief that man is God’s creation and inherently superior to all other life forms. So long as we believe humans are the center of the universe, animals will take a back seat, and studies of animal intelligence will also be met with some resistance. The thirty-year-long relationship Dr. Pepperberg had with Alex ended too soon, but spanned a change in the scientific community towards acceptance of language and communication in animals. 

Alex’s accomplishments are truly breathtaking. Dr. Pepperberg’s memoir was published in 2008, but it is timeless in presenting seemingly irrefutable evidence not just of avian intelligence but emotion as well. Her plea, and much of her work, has been devoted to protecting pet parrots from the devastating effects of isolation and boredom resulting from ignorant and incompetent owners. A child placed in a closet during his formative years would be considered abused, and rightly so. A bird placed in the same circumstances is also abused. It’s best for them to be left in the wild, but since there are so many sold as pets these days, at least they should be given every opportunity to thrive intellectually.

Thanks to the so-called Clever Hans case, there are still critics of Dr. Pepperberg’s work, as well as the work of other scientists studying animal intelligence. It’s an uncomfortable concept for some folks to accept that the animal they are eating, caging, capturing, or manipulating may be as intelligent as their pre-schooler. Books such as Alex & Me point out in no uncertain terms that there is much to be learned and discovered about our fellow creatures. Ignorance and egoism seem to be uniquely human traits; intelligence, however, is not.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Uphill Climb: review of THE MOUNTAINTOP SCHOOL FOR DOGS (a novel)

This is a story about hope. Not the trite, Hallmark-style of hope, but the sense of pushing up from loss or failure or trauma with eyes forward and tail held high. Although the subtitle mentions second chances, the characters here—human and non—are actually dealing with third or fourth chances.
The novel concerns Evie, a young woman wearing L. L. Bean clothe, and carrying a load of psychic baggage. Although she knows nothing about dogs, she applies for the position of dog trainer at the Sanctuary—the school for rescued and often unadoptable dogs—and is accepted. She’s an avid reader and eccentric student, memorizing the dog books she carries in her backpack, and organizing her own thoughts alphabetically. She soon discovers, however, that the dog books are useless when dealing with the reality of rescued dogs, and unceremoniously burns them all.
She arrives mid-winter at the inn at the base of the mountain, where Mrs. Auberchon, the innkeeper and also the Warden of the Sanctuary, greets her with open disdain. She distrusts this girl who seems to be the product of East Coast elitists, and questions the sanity of the Sanctuary staff for taking her on. But then she watches Evie work magic on a dog suffering from compulsive pacing. Something in this young woman is able to connect with these damaged creatures.
Evie finds herself dealing with a pack of neurotic animals and humans who all seem to have reasons to forget their pasts, but who, like her, find it tough to move forward.  The pacing dog was one; the greyhound who refused to run—or even move—was another. She is given a “class” of students whose quirks and issues she chronicles, working to find the trick that will free them from the prisons of their difficult pasts. And in so doing, she finds her own salvation, or at least a glimpse of it.
Under her category of Learning, she writes: “A new male, a greyhound called Alfie, feels that coming to class means curling up in a corner and being still. When I explained that this wasn’t allowed, he bristled and showed me his teeth. I don’t have notes on him yet, but I know he was a racer. He thought he had the right to never move again. Also, he was not interested in learning this thing called housebreaking. Did I know where he used to live? He used to live in a stable. I hated it there, he was telling me, but that’s who I am.”
The author calls this a “novel with dogs,” but the dogs are not simply accessories. Their stories are as vital and riveting as their human counterparts’ are, and completely believable. The prose is exquisite: at times hilarious, and other times poignant. Like so many of the orphans in the story, this book is a keeper.
This title is now available in paperback.

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Soaring Ride: H IS FOR HAWK, by Helen Macdonald

 This is a book first about death.  And then about life, or a life regained.
As of the second chapter of this incredible memoir, Helen Macdonald’s father has died, unexpectedly and too soon, as with most deaths of loved ones. A professional photographer as an adult, as a child he’d been an amateur plane spotter, watching and photographing as World War II fighters flew over England. He seemed to spend his life looking upwards, and Macdonald believes he was likely the inspiration for her own addiction to watching—in her case birds rather than “aeroplanes.”
Additionally, it’s a book about a goshawk, an emblem of wildness and predatory expertise, who is restrained and tamed by Macdonald. The hawk’s beauty and humor are admirable, and yet as Macdonald reminds herself, her reason for being is hunting.  She is, Macdonald writes, “thirty ounces of death in a feathered jacket.”
Helen Macdonald became fascinated with hawks and falconry as a child, reading T. H. White’s The Sword and the Stone wherein King Arthur as the Wart takes on the form of a hawk as part of his instruction under Merlyn. And then she read White’s The Goshawk, and the seed for her possession of what is considered to be the least tamable of hawks was planted.
It took her father’s death and her spiral into despair to prompt her towards actual acquisition of a goshawk. She was already an accomplished falconer, and had studied and taught about this ancient and masculine sport for a few years. But the goshawk presented some unique problems that nearly undermined what stability she had left, as she teetered toward full-scale depression in her grief.
So much of this book explores T. H. White’s eccentricity and the reasons behind his determination to manage the goshawk in his care, as well as his utter incapability to do just that. Macdonald’s own emotional upheaval alternates with her exploration of White’s life and writing in a strangely relevant circular dance. The result is something truly brilliant. Macdonald launches her hawk and her reader together up into a soaring feathery ride that you will not forget. A magnificent book by a poet, naturalist, philosopher, and artist.
For more information on how to purchase this book, go to: