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Friday, June 1, 2018


Published by Basic Books in 2018.

Zoologist Lucy Cooke explores some of the offbeat bits of the animal world in The Truth About Animals - a book that shows us that most of us think we know a lot about the animal world, but we really don't. None of the animals featured are obscure - they are all well-known, with the possible exception of the eel (at least in the United States). 

A surprising example of an invasive species - wild hippos
thriving in Colombia thanks to Pablo Escobar.
The animals featured in the book are: eels, beavers, sloths, hyenas, vultures, bats, frogs, storks, hippos, moose, pandas, penguins and chimpanzees.

Cooke usually begins with a look at the animal in question in historical texts so that we can see that these misunderstandings have been going on for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. For example, bats have been misunderstood and mis-classified since...well, forever. The struggle to figure out how exactly bats travel at night was especially gruesome, featuring scientists blinding live bats, plugging up their noses and coating their bodies with lacquer in an effort to determine exactly how they can fly so well in the dark.

All too often, these animals are associated with an human-introduced invasive species of some sort. Sometimes, they are the victims of that species (frogs) and sometimes they are that species, as in the case of hippos. Did you know that there is a colony of hippos in Colombia? Four of them were introduced by the drug lord Pablo Escobar as a part of a personal zoo but they escaped when his drug empire fell. Now, there are more than 40.

Every animal description has a long description of the sex life of the animal. Ironically, this usually comes after a withering commentary about how Victorian or medieval writers were overly concerned about the sex lives of animals. Sometimes it is interesting and has a larger point (as in the story of the eels), other times it is simply presented in a vulgar manner that detracts from the book. 

For example, when Cooke is discussing Hyenas she spends a lot of time talking about the fact that the genitalia of a female hyena look a great deal like those of a male - so much so that they are often confused for males without benefit of a very close inspection (which would be dangerous for most people). This setup makes it difficult for them to mate and makes giving birth a highly dangerous activity. All of that is interesting information. But, calling them "the original chicks with dicks" (p. 73) is unnecessarily crude and that type of thing occurs throughout the book.

I learned a lot with this book. I learned how storks are making a comeback and how they they were the species that taught us about bird migration. In the section on eels, I learned that we are still uncovering mysteries about common animals - even animals that are eaten by the millions. I learned that the female hyena is a mighty animals and she may be the leader of a very large pack with an exceedingly complex social order and a large territory. I learned all about how the sloth is perfectly adapted to his environment and his slow-moving ways are actually an immense advantage. But I was bothered by its too-crude tone when discussing the breeding habits of the animals. For that, I deducted a star. 

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here:  THE TRUTH ABOUT ANIMALS: STONED SLOTHS, LOVELORN HIPPOS, and OTHER TALES from the WILD SIDE of WILDLIFE.

Note: I received a pre-publication copy of this book as a part of the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

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