Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, March 15, 2018

Wednesday, March 15, 2018: Maximum Shelf: The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife

Basic Books: The Truth about Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife by Lucy Cooke

Basic Books: The Truth about Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife by Lucy Cooke

Basic Books: The Truth about Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife by Lucy Cooke

The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife

by Lucy Cooke

"I'm fascinated by the mistakes we've made," writes the award-winning documentary filmmaker and zoologist Lucy Cooke in The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife. "They reveal much about the mechanics of discovery and the people doing the discovering." Here she refers to the scientists and philosophers who for millennia have studied the natural world only to come to some astonishingly terrible--and often hilarious--conclusions. 

There was the medieval German scholar Sebastian Muenster, writes Cooke, who believed that "ostriches were capable of digesting absolutely anything, even iron." That mistake led to generations of naturalists shoving scissors and nails down the  throats of the large birds. A few centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci popularized the myth that beaver testicles contain healing properties. Even more absurdly, he believed the animals bite off their own bits to avoid being captured by hunters.

That's all nonsense, of course, but facts seem to have rarely gotten in the way of influential people's myth building. That's the thesis of Cooke's funny and immensely engaging deep dive into the history of weird animal tales and the ways in which they've been perpetuated.

Each chapter explores the myths of a different animal, many of which can be traced as far back as ancient Greece (Aristotle proves to have been a frequent perpetuator of amusing beastie folklore). Cooke then upends these myths by discussing how modern science has busted most of them, only to create new--and sometimes stranger--myths to replace the old. Consider the myths of the chimpanzee: Renaissance-era explorers were "befuddled" by their humanlike traits and concluded that they must be a new form of human. Centuries later, writes Cooke, when the first chimp arrived in Britain in 1738, the English were so taken aback by its humanoid appearance they offered the animal a cup of tea: "It was said to have sipped it daintily."

Flash forward to the 20th century, and scientists have all but completely mapped the chimpanzee's genetic makeup, proving definitively that they are not human beings. But that didn't stop U.S. scientists in the 1960s from conducting an experiment wherein they transplanted a baby chimp into a human family "to be raised as a human in isolation from its own species." As one might expect, the results of this experiment were mixed and ultimately upsetting. But Cooke manages to eke hilarity out of this scientific misstep through her wry writing style and by recounting the more amusing aspects of the study: "At around the age of three," she reports, the chimp "acquired a taste for alcohol after she swiped a drink from the nervous wife of a visiting academic."

Other highlights include a chapter on the sloth, which corrects the idea that the languorous mammals are lazy (their metabolisms, explains Cooke, are just very slow). And in a chapter on moose, Cooke explains that the "goofy looking" animals with a "certain long-suffering, lugubrious look" are not as melancholy as many people think. Actually, the moose is "a badass beast" with a penchant for getting drunk on fermented wild fruit.

Page after page, Cooke's descriptions of animal myths speak volumes about humanity's hubris and faulty powers of deduction. But instead of teetering into depressing contemplations about how we continue to stray from the scientific ideal, Cooke acknowledges that "there is a (scientific) method to the madness," that such mistakes are rooted in assumptions that are often very close to the truth.

Cooke, who's trained as a zoologist and has written extensively on animals (her first book, A Little Book of Sloth, was a New York Times bestseller), recounts her own time spent searching for the truth, and these moments are perhaps the book's funniest. While researching beaver myths, for example, she tasted a secretion from a beaver gland to see if it indeed would cure her fever as the ancients believed. The results of this self-experiment are disgusting and completely worth the price of the book. In a later chapter, she describes her experiences observing chimpanzees in the wild, only to have her reverie "shattered by the sound of a fart." Yes, wild chimpanzees, we learn, are so renowned for their gaseous emissions that scientists have learned to locate the elusive animals by listening for "the sound of distant trumpets."

The book transcends mere irreverence, however. Taken together, these amusing--and insightful--chapters present at least two important conclusions that all humans, scientists and laypersons alike, would do well to remember: first, human arrogance has resulted in "many of our most misguided mistakes" and that "in these times of mass extinction, we cannot afford to make many more." And second, that while "wrong turns are an essential part of all scientific progress," we must keep on. In an era where some of the most powerful people in the world seek to discredit science, "there has never been a greater need for truth."

Well-researched and written with an eye for the absurd, The Truth About Animals reveals that we don't know as much about the animal world as we think we do. --Amy Brady

Basic Books, $28, hardcover, 352p., 9780465094646, April 17, 2018

Basic Books: The Truth about Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife by Lucy Cooke

Lucy Cooke: What Do We Really Know About Animals?

photo: David Dunkerley

An Oxford-trained zoologist and documentary filmmaker, Lucy Cooke is no stranger to the animal world. In The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife (Basic Books, April 2018), she takes us on a journey to the past to discover how ancient and medieval scientists and philosophers got so many facts about animals astonishingly--and often hilariously--wrong. She then takes us into the world of modern-day science to show how today's scientists are working to correct those old animal myths--while inadvertently creating new ones. It's a fascinating and immensely engaging book about the natural world and humanity's hubris and failure in our attempts to understand it.

You write in the introduction that to "understand animals, context is key." The context you offer in your book is fascinating, and often hilarious. Tell us about your research process--did you think it would take you as far back in time as ancient Greece?

As a presenter and producer of natural history documentaries I am very lucky to have joined some of the world's best biologists in the field chasing sloths (harder than you might think) and a host of other critters. It was listening to these experts who highlighted how much we misunderstand so many animals today. I had a hunch that going back to the sources of this misinformation might be a rich vein for storytelling but I had no idea quite how far back it would take me or quite how fascinating it would prove to be.

What surprised you the most while researching this book?

I was very surprised by how old some of our prejudices about certain animals are. Take the hyena--reviled today by many as a mistrustful coward. This misconception dates all the way back to the bestiaries written in the middle ages. These were the first animal encyclopaedias, and they mixed folklore and morality tales with only a sprinkling of fact, yet many of their prejudices are still alive and kicking in the 21st century.

As much as I loved learning about the animals, I also enjoyed learning that you love sloths--you even founded the Sloth Appreciation Society. What is it about these slow, "lazy" creatures that makes you love them so?

They are one of the planet's most misunderstood creatures. We have a habit of viewing the animal kingdom through the prism of our own existence. As busy bipedal apes, we are obsessed with moving faster than nature intended--busyness is a badge of honour and sloth a sin. But sloths are one of the tropical jungle's most successful mammals, and the secret to their success is their slow, stealthy, sustainable nature. Instead of derision, we should look to the sloth as an energy-saving icon of the 21st century, and try to be less cheetah and more sloth ourselves.

One of the funniest--and frankly, grossest--moments in your book is when you admit to trying beaver castoreum, a secretion from a beaver gland, on yourself to cure a fever. I must know: How did you feel in the immediate aftermath, and how do you feel now? 

Nibbling on beaver "glands" (an ancient panacea) to test whether they could cure my own "hysteria" was indeed one of the grossest things I had to do for the book. They had a distinctly bitter taste that I am struggling to forget. And they failed to remove my fever despite containing salicylic acid--a natural component of aspirin. An expert in the matter told me I would have to consume a terrifying amount in order to have any effect--something I would not recommend.

Your chapter on bats discusses how humans during World War II thought that bats might be useful for carrying bombs. That's a fascinating tale, but what really struck me was the much more pedestrian fact that only .05% of bats carry rabies. Why are bats, of all animals, so deeply feared by so many people?

There are a number of reasons why people fear bats. They are otherworldly creatures that inhabit the night and have the spooky ability to navigate in the dark, which made them seem to have supernatural powers. Their appearance is also unnerving--they have a human-like face with forward-facing eyes and a body shaped a bit like ours, but they have big leathery wings attached to their massively outsized hands. So, they are human but inhuman at the same time.

In your conclusion, you write that "with the rise of efforts to discredit science, there has never been a greater need for truth." What do you see as being some of the greatest threats to science--animal science or otherwise--in our current moment? 

The fact that evolution is still considered a "theory" and is not taught in many U.S. schools despite plenty of rock-solid evidence is a pretty worrying state of affairs in 2018.

You write that anthropomorphism is "enemy number one" to animals. Why does our tendency to humanize animals present such a danger to them?

We are in the throes of a massive extinction crisis caused by human behavior. The natural world is in a state of emergency. In order to protect animals we have to understand them. Anthropomorphising animals makes us think they are like us, when they are not. Because of their cute anthropomorphic faces and antics we think pandas, for example, are sex-shy evolutionary mishaps that need our help to exist--the only way to save them is for us to take charge and breed them in captivity. The reverse is true--we just need to leave them alone and stop destroying their habitat. --Amy Brady

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