Dog’s-eye view a page-turner
Yes, I’m back here today. It’s not because I’ve irked the books editor. I know for a fact he tries to make the final page as good as the first. It’s so I have space to run a handful of photos from some books about animals, ahead of World Animal Day this coming Wednesday.
There’s a lot of sadness in animal stories. Think of Bambi, for starters. So let’s start with a cheerful book, The Extraordinary Life of Pikelet (Ebury Press, 234pp, $29.99). The first-time author is Pikelet Butterwiggle Stoll, though his “ma” Calley Gibson receives front-cover credit for typing the manuscript. Pikelet’s life is indeed an extraordinary one. We first meet him, aged just five weeks, in a Sydney pound, a place where the story so often ends badly.
“As cage doors opened we would all hold our breath with uncertainty,’’ Pikelet remembers of his time in canine detention. “Some dogs would turn right, towards the doors of freedom. Sadly, some poor pups would turn left with a pound attendant, toward the big grey doors of no return. Last living moments lying on a cold metal table.” That we are reading a book by Pikelet is because he was able to turn right, into the arms of new owner Calley.
His life with her and her partner Brad Stoll has included lots of canine — and in one case porcine — foster siblings. Pikelet has become a bit of an internet sensation. He looks like an American staffordshire terrier, though on his Facebook page his personal information status reads “It’s complicated”.
His book is full of sweet, humorous stories. Pikelet may be a celebrity now but he tries to stay down to earth.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,’’ he says. “You won’t hear a single complaint from me. (Okay, maybe a few ’ cause I have #firstworlddogproblems.)” There are lots of wonderful, loving photographs, even of the little pig who pokes her snout into, well, everything.
When it comes to pigs, the best recent book is Esther the Wonder Pig: Changing the World One Heart at a Time, but I have written about it before, so today I want to note two more serious books, both of which feature Esther’s compatriots on the cover. The Inner Life of Animals (Bodley Head, 281pp, $29.99) is by German forester turned ecologist turned writer Peter Wohlleben, who had a global hit with his previous book, The Hidden Life of Trees. Wohlleben, in engaging, non-academic fashion, essentially makes the argument that all animals, from the almost invisible to the giant, are capable of thoughts and feelings.
His section on slime mould is fascinating. I, for one, will never eat slime mould again. And that is more or less Wohlleben’s point. He is not didactic but he would like us to think a bit more about what we eat. In short, chatty chapters he ascribes every emotion and feeling to animals. “Evolution is not the single-track process we sometimes think — or maybe hope — it is.’’ And where the science has yet to decide, he thinks, “if there’s any doubt, why don’t we adapt the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’? ... wouldn’t it be better to give animals the benefit of the doubt, to be sure that they are not suffering unnecessarily?”
Wohlleben has a stirring chapter on pigs, making the point that if we understood how intelligent and social they were, we’d be less keen on bacon. “If people knew what kind of animal they had on their plate, many would completely lose their appetite. We already know this from primates: could any of us eat an ape?”
Yes, we could, as American anthropologist Barbara J. King details in Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat (University of Chicago Press, 229pp, $49.99 hardback). In a chapter titled Chimpanzees, King considers the trade in bushmeat, which is mainly in Africa but extends, via illegal exports, to restaurants in cities such as Paris. Bushmeat refers to free-ranging forest and savanna animals killed, usually illegally, for food. This includes monkeys and apes, and she opens the chapter with a harrowing story of a 15-year-old national park chimp poached in Cote d’Ivoire.
She quotes a local biologist: “What an absurd, criminal waste of a life for just one meal.’’ King continues: “… it’s fair to say that human consumption of chimpanzees is a practice not all that far removed from the cannibalism we humans occasionally practise on each other”. Yet, in strong scholarly style, she notes that the eating of bushmeat is more culturally A Guinea Pig Romeo & Juliet; A Wombat in My Drawer;
The Extraordinary Life of Pikelet complex. This is a drier book than Wohlleben’s, but well worth reading.
OK, back to the cheerful. Ros Almond’s A Wombat in My Drawer (Affirm Press, 139pp, $19.99) is a delightful collection of stories and photos of unusual animal bedfellows, and of animals who find themselves in unusual beds, such as the titular wombat, Kenny. My 12-year-old son and I loved this book. Our favourite stories include The Emus Who Think They’re People, The Emu Who Thinks She’s a Cow, The Emu Who Thinks He’s a Horse and … well, we could go on. We like the labrador puppy and cheetah cub raised together at Taronga Zoo, and we are super-fond of Swino the wild pig who does a David Boon and drinks 18 beers (though not on a flight to London for an Ashes series).
Speaking of mammals behaving strangely, I don’t know what it took to convince rodents to do Shakespeare in A Guinea Pig Romeo & Juliet (Bloomsbury, 66pp, $16.99 hardback) but I applaud their work, especially the physical comedy of the nurse. I also like that the publisher’s blurb bills this book as “Shakespeare’s classic … retold in an entirely new way”. Now, there’s some truth in advertising!
Small NSW publisher Exisle has put out three picture books for animal lovers, Woof, Meow (no prizes for guessing their inhabitants) and Spirit, which is about horses. In each the left-hand page is a photo, the right-hand page a quote, often from someone famous. So opposite a striking photo of a blue-eyed husky, for example, GK Chesterton declares: “His name is not Thursday.” (Joking! The real quote is: “I always like a dog so long as he isn’t spelled backwards.”) Woof and Meow are $14.99, Spirit is a $29.99 hardback.
I want to finish by noting other books I skimmed through. Lauren Fern Watt’s Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life With a Very Large Dog and Dion Leonard’s Finding Gobi: The True Story of a Little Dog and an Incredible Journey are feel-good stories about dogs who make life better for their owners in difficult times.
Anthony Hill’s updated edition of Animal Heroes is about the animals who work beside Australian soldiers, including of course Jack Simpson’s Donkey. Guy Barter’s How Do Worms Work? quadrupled (at least) my knowledge as a worm raiser and gardener.
And, finally, I also learned a lot from Laura Vissaritis’s canine behaviour manual Dognitive Therapy, not least when Jack — my English staffordshire terrier mate, who was sprawled on me as I read — pointed out the subtitle: To Change Your Dog’s Behaviour, First You Must Change Your Own.
IF WE UNDERSTOOD HOW INTELLIGENT AND SOCIAL PIGS WERE, WE’D BE LESS KEEN ON BACON
Woof: A book of happiness for dog lovers; Personalities on the Plate asks the cannibalism question; the rodents have comedy covered in of the star and Pork Chop and Pikelet lap up their freedom in
Clockwise from main: a hound and words of wisdom from