Posted November 4, 2013 by in Book Lists

A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Books for Animal Lovers

Here are some of my essential books for animal lovers and passionate wildlife conservationists:

Durrell Menagerie Manor

1. Anything by Gerald Durrell (especially Menagerie Manor and Catch Me a Colobus)

I’ve already mentioned Durrell in the context of my favorite family memoirs. His trilogy of books about growing up on the Greek island of Corfu is hilarious and heartwarming. Yet he is best known for his wonderfully readable travelogues describing international animal collecting journeys, the first of which, The Overloaded Ark, was published in 1953.

Menagerie Manor is the account of setting up Durrell Wildlife Park on the island of Jersey (in the Channel Islands off of France). I was lucky enough to pay a visit to Jersey last weekend, and Durrell’s zoo was our main destination. It is no standard zoo, though, but a conservation-oriented center that links captive breeding and work on the ground in native countries in the effort to save endangered animals from extinction.


Catch Me a Colobus is a kind of sequel. Durrell returned from a trip to Australia and New Zealand (the subject of Two in the Bush) to find the zoo close to bankruptcy. He started the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and, between the financial support of donors and his own writing, managed to rescue the zoo. The rest of the book details his trips to Sierra Leone and Mexico, filled with the same sorts of madcap adventures and quirky characters beloved by readers of his autobiographical works.

His passion for conserving the natural world comes through clearly:

“The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider’s web, and like a spider’s web, if you touch one thread, you send shudders running through all the other threads that make up the web. But we’re not just touching the web, we’re tearing great holes   in it; we’re waging a sort of biological war on the world around us…By our thoughtlessness, our greed and our stupidity we will have created, within the next fifty years or perhaps even less, a biological situation whereby we will find it difficult to live in the world at all.”

Those words were prescient when the book was first published in 1972, and even more telling now, more than four decades later.

Jaya the Sumatran orangutan, at Durrell Wildlife Park.

Jaya, at Durrell Wildlife Park

The most notable species of the weekend visit was, for me, the Sumatran orangutan. My Christmas present from last year was a special encounter with the orangutans. The zookeeper took us behind the scenes to meet the resident orangutans and watch them have their lunch. It was especially amazing to meet Gina the orangutan, a creature born in 1965 who has been part of Durrell since 1967. Her son Jaya will soon be off to another zoo, where he will father a new generation.

Yet Sumatran orangutans have been reduced to a population of just 6,000 in the wild, and are disappearing at a rate of 1,000 per year. Females generally only reproduce once every eight years, so it will be extremely difficult to rebuild wild populations. Before 2020 we might have driven this amazing creature to extinction, largely through burning down their forest home to plant palm oil plantations. You might not think you are contributing to the orangutans’ destruction, but think again – palm oil is in hundreds of processed foods and toiletries we buy everyday: cookies, candy bars, bread, margarine, soap, shampoo. We are all complicit in this travesty, but organizations like Durrell are making a difference.



2. Reflections of Eden: My Life with the Orangutans of Borneo, Biruté M. F. Galdikas

A few months ago I happened to read this memoir by a less famous member of the ape-studying scientific community (which included Louis and Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall, and Dian Fossey). Galdikas was born to Lithuanian parents and grew up in Vancouver and then L.A. In the 1970s she was hand-picked by the Leakeys to conduct PhD research among the orangutans at Tanjung Puting Reserve in Indonesian Borneo; over the decades she tracked the same individuals’ progress, monitoring their health and pregnancies and developing relationships with them.

She named each of her research subjects, a shared first initial indicating family relationship, and often served as a surrogate mother to wild orphans: “our hut was filled to the brim with ‘children,’ furry orange children to be sure, orangutans, but ‘children’ nonetheless in that all considered me their mother. I was a cross-species mother.” They’re certainly adorable, these “orangutan infants with haloes of red hair standing erect as though their fingers were plugged into electric sockets. They looked like little Einsteins.” I loved seeing Kea, the miracle orangutan baby born at Durrell earlier this year (there’s even a video of her birth here). But I didn’t envy Galdikas: the orangutan babies would cling to her such that she could not detach them for even a moment without them screeching at the top of their lungs; she often had to eat or even bathe with one on her back or hip.

Dana and baby Kea, at Durrell Wildlife Park.

Dana and baby Kea, at Durrell Wildlife Park

Nor did I envy her the discomfort of the tropical rainforest atmosphere: crushing humidity, leeches and burning tree sap were only three of the perils she and her husband faced. Moreover, her work with the orangutans was so all-consuming that her first marriage broke down. Animal obsession does not always blend well with normal human relationships. And yet the orangutan is so much like people – sharing 97% of our DNA – that it is impossible to avoid the similarities: they share sex-linked patterns of beards and male pattern baldness, and are among the only other species that copulate face to face and show signs of affection like hugging, kissing, and holding hands.

But the picture is not entirely positive. Orangutans are highly sexed: even younger orangs rub against people for the sexual frisson, use human fingers to stroke themselves, or try to have intercourse with people’s ears; and a male orangutan once raped a cook at their camp. Galdikas thinks this explains

“why we find the adult male orangutan so compelling. In his eyes we see a precarious balance of ruthless strength and brutality on the one hand, and gentleness and serenity on the other. The eyes of the male orangutan remind us of the awkward combination of angel and beast that characterizes the human soul.”

Dagu, at Durrell Wildlife Park.

Dagu, at Durrell Wildlife Park

I certainly found Dagu, the dominant male at Durrell’s zoo, to be a frighteningly contradictory animal. At first he seemed docile as he came up to the cage bars for a snack of raisins. As the others came up for a treat, though, he started tearing around the enclosure, banging things together and skidding around on his knuckles (and then, I’m afraid to report, pleasuring himself). It was impossible to forget that I was mere feet from a wild animal.

Galdikas believes that “Orangutans reflect, to some degree, the innocence we humans left behind in Eden, before our social organization, bipedalism, and toolmaking gave us ‘dominion over’ the planet. Thus, understanding orangutans gives us a clouded, partial glimpse into what we were before we became fully human.” Like Durrell’s, her book is a passionate plea for conservation, warning us that “when we turn our backs on compassion… we risk our own humanity.” After all, “Human beings are…consuming the orangutans’ natural habitat at an alarming rate. At the very least, we owe them some rice and bananas.”



3. Otter Country: In Search of the Wild Otter, Miriam Darlington

Not everyone can go off to the tropics to work with exotic animals. There are any number of wonderful authors whose love for wildlife comes much closer to home. The next three are among my favorite recent works of nature enthusiasm from British authors. Darlington’s book is extremely well-written, especially in the earlier chapters. It is possibly overlong; the last two chapters do seem to drag. Still, in my mind she joins the ranks of poetesses writing beautiful nature books: Kathleen Jamie’s Findings and Sightlines, and Jean Sprackland’s Strands are three more terrific examples.

Darlington travels around Britain’s watery places, ranging from Cornwall to the Isle of Skye in search of her elusive mammal friends. She references famous literary otters (such as those in Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter and Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water), tracks the history of otter hunting, and even observes an otter autopsy at the University of Cardiff. “We don’t pay enough attention to this tribe that lives alongside us. They yield to us because they have to, and endure the relentless fallout from our lives,” Darlington argues – thus the huge number of otters hit by cars every year, crossing roads to reach fragmented territory.

I read the book this summer during a week’s vacation to Cornwall, and it proved to be the perfect accompaniment to our watery scenery. In fact, Darlington inspired us to go looking for otter spraint (excrement) deposited on rocks along the river Hayle. Though unsuccessful in that endeavor, we were then overjoyed to see a real, live otter swimming down a waterway at RSPB Ham Wall nature reserve in Somerset on a quick break from the drive back.

Along with Durrell and Galdikas, Darlington realizes that conserving a species requires you to first know as much as possible about it – as a friend convicted her, “If we know what it is and what it needs, we can save it.” It is also necessary to take personal responsibility for the ways in which we are harming the natural world; in the words of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “there is no part of the world that is not looking at you. You must change your life.”



4. Badgerlands: The Twilight World of Britain’s Most Enigmatic Animal, Patrick Barkham

Controversial creatures, badgers: here in the UK it seems they’re always in the news, blamed for disease and targeted for ruthless culling. Barkham presents an affectionate, balanced view of the role of badgers in Britain’s countryside. He’d noticed that “the land where badgers roamed had become a battleground on which collided all kinds of arguments about the disjuncture between the town and the country, the crisis in farming, the rights of animals and how we should best live alongside wild creatures in our countryside.” And so with this book he sets out to find the truth behind the propaganda-influenced caricatures of “the diseased, predatory, out-of-control bad badger, and the home-loving, family-oriented good badger.”

Barkham’s stake is personal: his grandmother, Jane Ratcliffe, campaigned for badgers’ legal protection in the 1970s, writing several books including Through the Badger Gate. Following in her footsteps, albeit more tentatively, Barkham aims for impartiality. On the one hand, he meets Brian May, the Queen guitarist and now an anti-cull badger champion, visits feeding and rehabilitation centers, and celebrates the whimsical charm of Mr. Badger in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

On the other hand, he examines those age-old stereotypes of badgers as vicious vermin, interviewing farmers who have lost livelihoods through bovine tuberculosis and recalling centuries of human violence against badgers, especially digging and baiting with dogs. He suspects that throughout history such blood sports have “satisfied whatever in the psyche makes it pleasurable for human beings to gang up on a victim.”

In Britain badgers are an easy scapegoat for the spread of bovine TB, but the statistics show a different picture. A trial badger cull in 1998 reduced TB by only 12-16%; meanwhile, testing is so rudimentary it fails to diagnose bovine TB in 20% of cases. Vaccinating badgers would be more effective – but even better would be a complete overhaul of industrialized dairy production, which curbs natural disease resistance. “No one entirely convinced me, not the badger lovers, nor the badger haters,” he remarks. Unlike the badgers themselves, these issues are not black and white.

Amidst the somewhat distressing stories of both historical and modern persecution, you’ll find a plethora of amusing anecdotes that lighten the tone. For instance, Teddy Roosevelt and family kept an American badger named Josiah as a White House pet. Josh had been given to him during a tour of the Wild West, but when he bit too many presidential guests he was donated to the Bronx Zoo.

Barkham’s sensitive portrayal of an under-appreciated species is clearly patterned after Darlington’s in Otter Country and Warwick’s in A Prickly Affair (see below). Yet he remains markedly unsentimental compared to those two passionate animal advocates: he even samples stir-fried badger with a road kill aficionado. (“I admired the species and saw no contradiction between liking an animal and wanting to eat it.”)

Nonetheless, it is clear that by the end of the book the author has fallen in love with his subjects; discovering a badger sett near his new home in Norfolk, he anticipates many magical evenings spent watching one of England’s most beloved mammals.

(A shorter version of this review was first published at We Love This Book.)



5. A Prickly Affair: My Life With Hedgehogs and The Beauty in the Beast: Britain’s Favorite Creatures and the People Who Love Them, Hugh Warwick


You’ll never come across anyone more enthusiastic about hedgehogs than Hugh Warwick. He believes that working for nature starts not with the intellect but with the heart: ‘falling in love’ with a particular species can lead you into a better relationship with the whole environment. And though he doesn’t write with quite the same poetic beauty as Darlington, his books are still a pleasure.

A Prickly Affair tells of the author’s twenty years spent working for hedgehog conservation, while The Beauty in the Beast tours around Britain to find enthusiasts for even some seemingly unlovable creatures (bats, dragonflies, and snakes). Warwick even sets up his journey as a fun contest to decide on his next animal tattoo (to join his hedgehog). You’ll have to read the book to find out which unlikely beast wins. Also look out for a guest appearance from Darlington herself, as the eccentric otter expert who sends him some otter spraint in the mail!


Are you an animal lover too? What are some of your favorite books featuring wildlife or the environment?

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.