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Animals and Us: Eight New Excellent and Diverse Books

Our relationships with other animals are here, there, and everywhere: read on

Right now I'm staring at a pile of books that have arrived in the past few weeks and I figured it was a good time to go public with them as each has a very important message about our complex and challenging relationships with other animals and also because my eyes are tired from reading them. What is wonderful about this collection is its diversity. Scholars from many different fields are involved in the study of human-animal relationships because we meet nonhuman animals (animals) in an incredibly wide variety of contexts.

As hard as I tried to categorize this potpourri of books so that I could present them in some meaningful order I couldn't come up with anything that was stable as I read and reread them, so this is the best I can do. There is so much information in them, often overlapping because these books are about us and "them", I'm sure you'll be able to choose which ones to read and in what order. I'm not planning to provide a detailed review of any of them but will provide enough information to whet your appetite and for you to choose which to read. And the authors and editors are all very well known and well respected.

Conservation, coexistence, extinction, and wildness

The first five books fall in one of my main areas of research, namely, conservation, conservation behavior, behavior ecology, and cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds). Carnivores loom large in two of them: Large carnivore conservation: Integrating science and policy in the North American west (edited by Susan G. Clark and Murray B. Rutherford) and John A. Shivik's The predator paradox: Ending the war with wolves, bears, cougars, and coyotes. Both books discuss our difficult relationships with various many of the same predators (Clark and Rutherford discuss six case studies of wolf, grizzly bear, and mountain lion conservation in habitats stretching from the Yukon to Arizona) and each stresses that coexistence must be the name of the game. Both are evidence-based and both stress that conservation is as much about people as it is about the scientific knowledge we have about these and other animals. Shivik's is an easier read but each of the eleven chapters in Clark and Rutherford's book is well worth the time.

Thom van Dooren's book called Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction blends philosophy with the natural sciences in his discussion of the cultural and ethical significance of modern-day extinctions. Birds are the focus of this lovely book and readers are treated to beautiful prose about what it means to the birds themselves and to us to lose these amazing beings. Once again, humans loom large in the loss of avian biodiversity. Let's not forget we are living in an era called the "anthropocene", the age of humanity or human dominion, and our omnipresence has devastating effects on innumerable species.

The fourth book in this group is called Keeping the wild: Against the domestication of earth, edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler. Other essayists include David Ehrenfeld, Dave Foreman, Lisi Krall, Harvey Locke, Curt Meine, Kathleen Dean Moore, Michael Soulé, and Terry Tempest Williams. Because not much information is yet available about this book, I offer you what world-renowned biologist E. O. Wilson wrote about it: "Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth is an extraordinarily important book. It identifies the great and irreversible damage to Earth's biodiversity that will follow if the 'Anthropocene' ideology is allowed to stall the global conservation effort."

The last book is this group by peripatetic historian Laurel Braitman titled Animal madness: How anxious dogs, compulsive parrots, and elephants in recovery help us understand ourselves is a gem. It's about as novel a book as I can find on the general topic of animals "losing their minds" and in many ways shows is the wildness of our own minds. Braitman traveled the world in search of emotionally disturbed animals and the people who care for them, and discovered numerous stories of recovery. Following up on Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity, we clearly see that "Nonhuman animals can lose their minds. And when they do, it often looks a lot like human mental illness."

Animals as food

Philip Lymbery's book called Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat (written with Isabel Oakeshott) deals with the far reaching effects of industrial food production for the animals themselves, for us (our health and well-being), and for a wide variety of ecosystems. It's a hefty book fact-filled book about how the world is fed and should give us all great pause about what goes on on factory farms (they're really not farms) and the incredible far-reaching effects of these brutal industries. This promotional quote is right on the mark: "Farmageddon is a fascinating and terrifying investigative journey behind the closed doors of a runaway industry across the world – from the UK, Europe and the USA, to China, Argentina, Peru and Mexico. It is both a wake-up call to change our current food production and eating practices and an attempt to find a way to a better farming future."

Our faithful companions

Psychologist Aubrey Fine's book Our faithful companions: Exploring the essence of our kinship with animals is a wonderful read. Fine "celebrates our kinship with animals of all species and illustrates how this bond makes our lives complete [and] integrates scientific explanations with personal anecdotes and testimonials to shed light on this unique love affair. Dr. Fine thoroughly explores why we create a bond with our companion animals and the role that these animals have in promoting a warmer and kinder household. Throughout the book, he has included testimonials that will shed light on this unique love affair." This latest of Fine's book is a gem and will make you appreciate even more the animals with whom we share our lives.

Animal exploitation

Critical animal studies: Thinking the unthinkable, edited by John Sorenson is a wonderful collection of essays that focus on the global exploitation and commodification of non-human animals. To wit, "By inquiring into the contradictions that have shaped our understanding of animals, the contributors of this collection have set out to question the systemic oppression inherent in our treatment of animals. The collection closes with a thoughtful consideration of some of the complexities of activism, as well as a discussion of how to further the progress of animal rights." This book is not light reading but as with the others, it is packed with very important information and will surely make you see that there is a lot of work to be done in the field of human-animal interactions in areas including food production, captivity, and how animals are represented.

I can see any of these book beings used in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses and any of them should be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about the topics at hand. I'm sure your brain will burst with knowledge as did mine. How lucky we are to share our world with fascinating animals and that these people have taken the time to write or edit books that fall in the ever-growing field of anthrozoology, the study of human-animal relationships also called human-animal studies. You've now got your summer (fall, winter, and spring) reading.

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