Nonfiction: What We Get Wrong About Animals


THE TRUTH ABOUT ANIMALS
Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales From the Wild Side of Wildlife
By Lucy Cooke
Illustrated. 336 pp. Basic Books. $28.

Humans have long trapped animals in cages, nets and snares, but the tangled webs of vanity, curiosity, cruelty and fear we cast over other creatures may be even more perilous. We see our virtues and vices reflected in animals — hardworking beavers, indolent sloths, innocent lambs, greedy vultures — through a glass darkly. But these well-worn clichés blind us to a world far more dazzling and varied, according to Lucy Cooke, the acclaimed zoology-trained author and documentary filmmaker, in her new book, “The Truth About Animals.” As she writes, “Painting the animal kingdom with our artificial ethical brush denies us the astonishing diversity of life, in all of its blood-drinking, sibling-eating, corpse-shagging glory.” (Yes, corpse shagging. The penguin portion is not for the faint of heart.)

In 13 breezy chapters, each devoted to a misunderstood creature, Cooke collects some of our most crackpot notions (and the equally startling truths) about animals. She nimbly pings between arcane, medieval and modern sources, assembling a cast of characters that includes unhinged aristocrats, ill-fated adventurers, Thomas Jefferson, Julius Caesar, Sigmund Freud, the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and more than a few mad scientists.

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Aristotle believed the courage of animals corresponds to the heat of their blood; European scientists contended that frogs hatch from wet clay, caterpillars from cabbage and eels from drops of dew. Others theorized that migrating swallows spend winters underwater or on the moon. The real animal behavior Cooke reports is often even more extraordinary. Researchers have recently observed chimpanzees dancing in the rain, fashioning spears to hunt bush babies and playing with sticks they cradle and put to bed like dolls.

Cooke unearths old beliefs and debunks modern-day myths with humor and panache. Pandas, we learn, are not bumbling fluff balls too busy being cute to breed in captivity. Elaborate matchmaking efforts at zoos say more about us and our obsessive meddling than the bears, which are known to mate more than 40 times in a single afternoon in the wild. And bats — popularly believed to be blind, bloodsucking, disease-bearing rats with wings — are more “Buddha than Beelzebub.” They see perfectly well, are very rarely rabid and share more DNA with us than they do with rodents, and only three species are vampiric. They are also among the few animals to engage in oral sex, a fact Cooke presents as one of their “porn-star credentials.”

The book is big on bawdy humor, and while it’s not that weird mating habits and giant genitalia aren’t funny, Cooke describes the “ins and outs” of animal sex with a glee normally found among middle schoolers. (Gonads inspire some of the most blindingly painful puns and rhymes; a debate over beaver testicles becomes the “fluster over the beaver’s cluster.”)

Cooke’s appetite for the salacious sometimes overwhelms her sensitivity, as it does in her account of Maurice K. Temerlin, an American psychology professor who reared a chimpanzee named Lucy in his suburban home. At first Lucy is a model “daughter” who uses silverware and raises a kitten. Temerlin, disturbingly, then begins to fix her cocktails. Soon Lucy is fixing herself cocktails. When she takes to masturbating with the vacuum cleaner, Temerlin responds by buying her Playgirl and even participating in one of these sessions to “see what would happen.” (Nothing, mercifully.) When Lucy eventually grows too unruly, Temerlin offloads her in Gambia, where she is flayed and butchered by poachers. A story like this is worth analyzing for what it might reveal about anthropomorphism at the edge. Cooke, however, plays it for laughs.

The fraught history of humans and animals has lately been the focus of expanding scholarship, insightful meditations such as John Berger’s influential essay “Why Look at Animals?” and environmentalist critiques. Cooke, however, attempts neither to probe its complexities nor to sound apocalyptic alarms (though she does, dutifully, note the impact of human carelessness and mass consumption on other species). She is not plumbing the depths; she is riding the thermals. Her pace is quick, her touch is light, and through her wealth of research we can reach new heights of wonder.