Home

For a list of recommended books see:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Animal-books/lm/RZBKZOLDCVF5V/ref=cm_lm_byauthor_title_full

Lonesome George: The life and loves of a conservation icon

By Henry Nicholls

ISBN 1-4039-4576-4

 

Lonesome George is a giant tortoise. Not just any giant tortoise but possibly the last of his kind. He was discovered in 1971 on one of the Galapagos Islands, Pinta, where tortoises had been thought to be extinct.

 

Henry Nicholls’ account of George and the plight of giant tortoises in the Galapagos is rich in detail but at the same time light-hearted and compelling. The book not only chronicles George’s capture, the efforts to find him a mate and the difficulty of obtaining sperm samples from a reluctant tortoise but also includes a fascinating introduction to the many issues that surround the science of conservation. It also provides insight into how scientists try to solve puzzles such as how tortoises got to the Galapagos islands in the first place and how to assess the potential risks of releasing cross-breed offspring into the wild.

 

The way that the author can put forward many different theories without disrupting the flow is impressive. As a reader you will gladly follow a diversion to a discussion about a different species or how specimens are catalogued in the Natural History Museum and as such this book is much more than just a story about a tortoise. It manages to weave many major concepts of biology into the tale without feeling like a textbook: from Darwin, to DNA analysis, to cloning.

 

George is not just a tortoise but also a conservation icon and this message is loud and clear throughout the book. He is an ambassador to remind us to think about what we are doing to the world, and does a very good job.

Book review Animal Spy: Animal Welfare Behind Enemy Lines (Terry Spamer and Gordon Thorburn)

Terry Spamer worked undercover at the Special Operations Unit of the RSPCA investigating organised animal crime.In this book he describes some of the cases he worked on; hilarious at times, deeply moving and upsetting at others, it is a must read for anyone interested in animal welfare.

Last Chance to See

by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

Douglas Adams (author of the Hitch-hiker trilogy) and Mark Carwardine (zoologist) go on a search of some of the most endangered animals on the planet and the result is a very entertaining read but not at the expense of the seriousness of the issue of conservation.

I recently re-read this book, which was first published in 1990 and it was just as good the second time as the first. A quote from the first page: “The aye-aye is a nocturnal lemur. It is a very strange-looking creature that seems to have been assembled from bits of other animals. It looks a little like a large cat with a bat’s ears, a beaver’s teeth, a tail like a large ostrich feather, a middle finger like a long dead twig and enormous eyes that seem to peer past you into a totally different world which exists just over your left shoulder.”  

Book reviews

The Art and Science of Clicker Training for Horses: A Positive Approach to Training Equines and Understanding Them

Ben Hart

There are other people who are doing g reat things with clicker training equines, and some who understand the science behind why it works (and why it doesn't if not done in the right way) but this is the first book to comprehensively put it all together.

Each chapter answers a common question about clicker training and is incredibly well thought-out - the product of an enquiring mind for which an answer isn't enough until it has been turned over, prodded, looked at from all sides and revisited a bit later to see if it still looks the same. The result is responses that are thoroughly backed up and justified from whichever angle you view them from; they are never just surface-deep or patronising to the reader but are informative and considered. And not once do you feel that the author is trying to blind you by science or tell you `just because I say it is' - how refreshing.

Ben Hart describes using the clicker as an intermediate as well as terminal bridge. As he says, many horses work this out for themselves and some owners naturally train this way but Hart, being the aforementioned sort who needs to take things apart before putting them back together again, delves deeper and considers why this might be the case and how we can use these signals more purposefully.

The author's enthusiasm for his subject leaps out from every page. The writing style is accessible and rooted in his insatiable desire to share information that will make the world a better place for equines.

I particularly liked the chapter entitled `Can I use clicker training in conjunction with my other training methods?' - it doesn't just leap in with an answer but takes you on a journey of exploration to get there. And the final chapter `What is the future of clicker training?' is an honest appraisal of the state of horsemanship in the UK today. If more people read this book one of the obstacles to clicker training becoming a widely accepted and valued method of training - not understanding it - will be blown away.

Freeing Keiko: The journey of a killer whale from Free Willy to the wild

By Kenneth Brower

ISBN 1-592-40147-3

 

Freeing Keiko is the remarkable tale about what can be done when people really care about something. This is one of the best books I have ever read and one that has left a lasting impression on me.

 

Keiko was born in the wild and was caught off the coast of Iceland in 1979. He was shipped to Canada where he was trained before being sold to a marine park in Mexico. He lived here alone for years in woefully inadequate tank that was just a few meters deep (killer whales dive to 50m in the wild) and too warm. He then appeared in the film Free Willy, after which thousands of people wanted to free the real ‘Willy’ and the Free Willy Foundation was launched.

 

The book documents in detail the amazing effort and politics involved in the project from when the idea was first conceived to the lengthy and complicated process of sending him back to Iceland, rehabilitation, constructing a suitable enclosure in the sea, teaching him how to hunt and survive in the wild, watching him interact with a pod of wild whales, and all the politics, red tape, egos and heartbreak along the way.

 

Freeing the whale was controversial and both sides of the argument are carefully put forward. Some people thought that he would never adapt to living in the wild and many thought that the amount of money spent could have been better applied to marine mammal conservation.

 

Keiko did adapt to being in the wild and lived for more than four years in the sea before he sadly died in 2003. During his time in the sea he interacted with wild orcas and swam more than 1000 miles!

 

The book describes Keiko’s time spent in captivity and really highlights how important it is to study an animal before making opinions and suggestions about what they might need or how to enrich their lives. Uninformed decisions led to many erroneous assumptions about Keiko’s behaviour and health.

 

It is also a lesson in perseverance because so many barriers had to be broken at each and every stage of the story.

 

The process of rehabilitation and descriptions of his reaction to his new enclosure in the sea are incredibly moving and written in a way that makes it feel as if you are really there, standing on an observations platform waiting anxiously to see what will happen. It’s a very atmospheric book and the photo panels help to bring the story to life.

 

There are many websites about Keiko but you have to read the book to fully appreciate the story. This book is about the relationship between people and animals and will inspire you to work through things that seem to be insurmountable; to believe in yourself and to get things done whatever it takes.

Listening to whales: what the orcas have taught us

By Alexandra Morton

ISBN 0-345-44288-1

 

If I believed in parallel universes I would think that somewhere there is another version of me, living in a place a bit like British Columbia in Canada. I’d live by the sea, somewhere rugged and remote and study marine mammals. The version of me writing this review took a different path in life but this book is as near as I’ll get to that alternate life: and it does a pretty good job.

 

Alexandra Morton started her career at a marine park in California in the late 1970s. She began studying communication between dolphins but then changed her attention to the killer whales at the park and pioneered the recording of orca sounds using a hydrophone. Becoming increasingly perturbed by the concept of captive marine mammals, in 1984 she moved to a remote community in British Columbia changing the emphasis of her research from captive to wild orca.

 

Alexandra recorded the whales during mating, childbirth, training and grief and became to recognise the various patterns and what they mean. Her recordings have led to a deeper understanding of whale communication by echolocation and of the effects that modern fishing techniques and other human activities are having on the whales today.

 

I enjoyed the way this book was written: it is scientific but also deeply moving. She describes the tedious and meticulous job of recording and analysing the sounds recorded on her hydrophone: I’m not certain that the other version of me would have the patience for that. She describes how the whale researchers all interact to piece together what they can about the behaviour of whales in a way that makes you feel as if you have met them in person. She also documents the realities of life researching wild whales: the unforgiving weather, the isolation, life on a float-house, the death of her husband in a diving accident, making clothes for her children and the trials of bringing them up in a remote community.

 

Obviously this book also contains a considerable amount of information about the natural history of whales and their behaviour. For example, there are two types of whales: residents and transients and each type has their own diet, language and social system. This is very unusual in the animal world and usually only occurs when the communities are separated geographically. However, these two types of orca live side by side. You’d think that they would compete for resources (food etc.) but, fascinatingly, the resident pods eat fish but the transients eat mammals. This is possibly the only example of a ‘sympatric’ species (animals that live in the same area but don’t compete for food or habitat). The behaviour of transients is different to the residents: transients are quiet because their prey can otherwise hear them coming; they live in smaller groups and can hold their breath quietly. The fish-eating residents, however, can afford to be noisier and live in bigger groups. Alexandra co-authored one of the first scientific papers about the behaviour of these little-studied transient orca.

 

The book also contains photographs to really bring it to life. Books don’t have to be novels to be escapist and this book illustrates that concept perfectly.