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Book Review: Animal

Animal

David Burnie, Don E. Wilson, editors-in-chief

DK Publishing, 2011

In 2001, with the world only recently torn apart by the latest examples of mankind’s political violence, the great publisher Dorling-Kindersley issued a mammoth and beautiful volume (DK specializes in mammoth and beautiful volumes) called Animal. A ferocious-looking male mandrill glared out from its cover, and its 600 pages formed a marvellous, exhaustive Noah’s Ark of the vast panoply of animal life on Earth. The book took years to assemble and finalize, so of course it wasn’t intended to be a larger gesture of hope – but it felt defiant anyway, somehow, the yellow drill-bits of that mandrill’s eyes saying, “We have faced far worse than burning buildings, and we are still here.”

Nevertheless, that volume had some dire tidings to convey. On page after page, species after species were listed as at risk or endangered. Habitats were being razed, pollution levels were rampant, and the full range of conservationist sympathies had yet to really take hold in the Western zeitgeist. An American president and vice-president had just been elected with deep ties to the oil industry, and government environmental agencies were looking at a bleak future.

So maybe there’s a bit of defiance too in the new DK updated edition of Animal – we all survived the intervening decade, and the gaudy, impossibly rich parade of life continues. And more than simple endurance: this volume bears good news. There are new species on display here, new biological ranges, and some tenderly-reported victories. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) coordinates the work of thousands of scientists throughout the world, and international conferences every year pledge more effort, money, and land to the preservation of the planet’s wildlife. It’s true that all this good will happens against the horrifying backdrop of mankind-accelerated climate change (the animals in this volume who live in what is now the Arctic Circle, for instance, will likely not be in a volume ten years from now), but it’s equally true that of all Earth’s 2 million or so species of animals, the only one with a chance of saving the future is also the one who produced this book.

Of the six kingdoms comprising life as we know it, Animalia distinguishes itself mostly by its ability to learn and to move – the twin engines of adaptation. And this volume absolutely bursts from its pages with learning and movement. In thousands of the high-definition photographs for which DK is justly famous, animals swim, fly, burrow, run, slither, glide, and ooze, and unlike the more romantic compendiums that ruled the bookstores half a century ago, here the wretched and unglamorous are given just as much page-space and good lighting as the perennial popularity-contest winners. We get the predictable two-page spread on the mighty tiger (Pahthera tigris), for example, but we also get two pages on the justly despised wasp (everybody from Braconidae to Vespidae are represented, and they all hate you). We get both the common vulture (Gyps africanus) known to Homer and, almost grinning at his long-overdue exposure, an unprepossessing little fellow called Gunther’s triangle frog (Ceratobatrachus guentheri), newly discovered in the Solomon Islands.

There are handy visual keys to such matters as distribution and locations, and short, almost terse bullets of text give readers the basics about all these incredible creatures. Action sequences (whales breaching, bats hunting, etc.) are presented in frame-sequences that come as close as any static book could to including video footage, and there are highly detailed opening sections on the various habitats of the world (including cities, which host an increasing array of animal species). This is first and foremost a stunning reference volume, for all the sheer, inarticulate wonder contained in these pages.

A hopeful volume, then, which is an elevating thing. In fact, perhaps Animal is occasionally too hopeful; look at the section on the world’s large species of sharks, for instance – one after another is listed as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘near threatened’ when the field data itself is far more worrying. Productions like this volume have an inevitable commercial dimension, so it’s understandable for some emphasis to be put on the sunny side of the statistics. The only caution to such an approach is that it might blinker young would-be activists reading this book to think maybe they should major in business after all, when in reality the world – and all its fabulous inhabitants – desperately needs them.

Perhaps this skew could be corrected if the next edition of Animal finally corrected something else, a groaning oversight that has plagued animal encyclopedia since the days of Pliny the Elder. In every one of these books, one species of higher primate is never given its own entry and thereby put on board the Ark right alongside everybody else. I bet you can guess.