When I was a little girl, I loved going to the American Museum of Natural History and I was fortunate to live in Manhattan which means I went with a frequency that most other people never enjoy. I especially loved the dioramas, with stuffed animals frozen in a moment of time. Where else could I see a lynx stalking through the snow or a jaguar reclining, looking at me, or a gorilla, standing in the undergrowth, beating its chest while its band members look on? I thought these were magical. Then one day I realized that these stuffed animals were exactly that—stuffed formerly living animals.
It’s moments like these, when reality sets in and what I loved as a child no longer seems so delightful that makes me wish I had never grown up. (Insert song from Peter Pan here.)
Zoos have fallen under this pall as well, with my ideals getting in the way of my appreciation. Which is why I was a bit put off at first by The Secret Language of Animals: A Guide to Remarkable Behavior by Janine M Benyus when she begins her book discussing the importance of zoos and how they help humans and animals alike. For humans, apparently, the opportunity to see animals up close and personal makes us more likely to care for them and their environment.
I get that.
For animals, especially those species that are already endangered because their natural habitats are being destroyed by humans (who didn’t go to zoos enough, I guess), zoos give them a safe place to reproduce and replenish the species over time.
I kinda sorta almost get it.
I guess the point is, if you are the type who thinks that zoos are evil and inherently wrong, this book is not for you. Benyus, a biologist, defends the purpose of zoos in the first chapter of the book. Most remarkable is the tone she creates throughout. She takes what could be boring information and makes it engaging, interesting for readers of all ages. Yes, even those too young to read this book for themselves would be interested in listening as the book is read to them. The second chapter explores various animal behavior. This is where the book really begins taking off, giving a broad view of how different species have adapted to environment, how the climate in one part of the world will invite one type of locomotion and another results in something else altogether. Everything from how predators adapt to their prey and how the prey continues to adapt to predators resulting in a never ending, albeit gradual evolution of form and function.
The rest of the book is divided by continent and highlights a few of the more familiar species one can typically find in a zoo. Of course, not all zoos will have every animal featured but parents can plan a trip to a zoo, knowing what animals they can expect to find, and focusing on the specific chapters for that visit. So if you find out that the zoo you plan to explore doesn’t have any zebras but does have a lion then you could read the chapter on lions and save the one on zebras for another trip to a different zoo altogether.
And be ready to learn all about how lions behave. Everything from how they eat to how they “eliminate” to how they reproduce to how they sleep is included. Each chapter concludes with a simple chart that summarizes the chapter so you’ll know what to look for. For instance, many zoos have peacocks and peahens wandering freely about the zoo’s territory and some, specifically green peacocks, are quite territorial and even a little aggressive. This is good to know. You wouldn’t want to be attacked by a peacock while at the zoo, would you?
Imagine going to a zoo, knowing that how elephants hold their ears and trunk signal different things. Having a context for their behavior will elevate the overall appreciation of the zoo experience, truly understanding how these animals will move about their day. A child who knows what to look for will be all the more enthusiastic when they, for instance, watch a panda marking its territory in different ways. (Did you know that they even do this standing on their forepaws? I certainly did not!)
Throughout the book are lovely illustrations by Juan Carlos Barberis. He has worked at the American Museum of Natural History for 20 years and is obviously well suited to add drawings to this book. Even without color, the details of the peacock are presented demonstrating perfectly the elaborate display of feathers in texture alone. (Did you know that a peacock’s feathers are actually all brown and the reason we see so many brilliant and pretty colors is because of oil? That peacocks are quite fastidious about cleaning themselves for this reason because the oil in the feathers make the male, in particular, more vibrant, but too much oil might attract parasites? So much cool stuff in this book!)
Maybe I still find zoos a little off-putting but I know that going to one would be infinitely more pleasurable if I were to read about the animals before visiting a zoo. And don’t you know, I will be reading relevant chapters from this surprisingly interesting and well-written book. After reading it, even without a trip to the zoo on my immediate horizon, I know it all seems more potentially enjoyable. I can’t wait to share this book with my granddaughter. But you know, I may not be ready to share this intriguing book with anyone just yet. I’m selfish like that.