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The Green Life: Book Review Wednesday: The Human-Animal Relationship

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August 10, 2011

Book Review Wednesday: The Human-Animal Relationship

Book review wednesdayEvery Wednesday, we review a selection of new and upcoming books addressing a specific aspect of environmentalism. Today we're recommending books about the connection between humans and animals.

The Animal Connection (by Pat Shipman, $27, W.W. Norton, 2011): From the time humans first hunted with tools, our evolution has depended on a complex relationship with animals. Shipman, an archaeologist and anthropologist, provides extensive evidence for this fact, pointing to the greatest leaps in human development: tool use, language, and domestication. Less sentimental than the books below, The Animal Connection is a nuanced, intelligent book well worth the read.

Forbidden Creatures (by Peter Laufer, $20, Lyons Press, 2010): It's hard to put down a book when, in the first chapter, you meet a woman whose beloved pet chimp brutally attacked her best friend. Questions such as what compelled her to own a chimp, why did the chimp attack, and how did she get a chimp to rural Connecticut, push the story onward. In an engaging first-person exploration of the world of exotic pets and animal smuggling, we meet compelling characters, human and non. Laufer maintains respect for python smugglers and monkey owners, while still raising issues about the destruction inherent in the exotic pet trade.

Why we Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows (by Melanie Joy, $17, Conari Press, 2010): As an “introduction to carnism,” this book claims that eating meat is an ideology bolstered by the psychological trick of denial. The social psychology perspective is an interesting one, and Joy discusses the mental workings that allow some cultures to adore dogs and some cultures to eat them, or even for some people to love a pig as much as they love a pork hot dog. Unfortunately, the book skims off these more substantive ideas into a polemical (but less well-presented) rehash of every other vegan manifesto. The moral of the story? Read with a fistful of salt.

Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras (by Harriet Ritvo, $40, University of Virgina Press, 2010): History buffs will love Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras, a well-written collection of astute, scholarly essays exploring animals' role in human history. As Ritvo admits in her introduction, her work may very well be “the weirdest of the many weird things coming out of the humanites lately,” but it is fascinating (at least for those of us interested in 19th-century English zebra hybrids). Ritvo exhaustively analyzes issues from mad-cow disease to Victorian-age animal advocacy, showing how we've come to feel the way we feel about other creatures.

Animal Camp (by Kathy Stevens, $25, Skyhorse Publishing, 2010): At the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, farm animals rescued from horrifying situations thrive, and this book tells their stories. Full of funny, warm-and-fuzzy accounts of animal adventures, mishaps, and friendships, Animal Camp is a delight to read. It may take a while to get over Stevens's constant anthropomorphizing, though — she has literal conversations with Rambo the sheep and claims that he's wiser than any person she knows. But she's not shy about sharing her beliefs, asking, “If all of us knew in our bones that animals shared the same feelings as we do, would it make a difference?” She thinks they do, and she thinks it should.

--Christa Morris

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