I like to think that my reading covers a diverse range of topics, but when forced to admit the truth, I say I read probably 98% fiction (and of that, 98% is sci-fi & fantasy). Of the 2% non-fiction I read, 98% of that is comprised of animal books.
I actually have 2 full shelves in my home library reserved specifically for Animal Books (in case you were wondering, the rest of my library shelves are categorized as Pirates, Film/Screenwriting, Running, Manga, Food, & Everything Else). My favorite author (as far as animal books are concerned) is Mark Bekoff, but I also love Patricia McConnell, James Herriot, Cesar Milan, Bruce Fogel, Temple Grandin, the Monks of New Skete, & tons more.
Yet I’ve never read anything by Jane Goodall. I have no idea why. I always meant to, I just…didn’t.
But now, at long last, that glaring shortcoming has been rectified, & I shall now tell you about it.
Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man tells of her first 10 years studying the chimpanzee communities in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. In her follow-up Through a Window, she shares lessons learned from 30 years with the chimps.
This is a fascinating book, especially if you love ethology (which I do). But it’s not all chimpanzee body language and mating habits. Goodall spends a lot of time letting the reader get to know the individual animals, & this book has a full cast of unique characters.
For example, in her studies Goodall traces matriarchal family lines by giving members names that begin with the same letter. In In the Shadow of Man, she introduced wise, dignified Flo, one of the first chimpanzees to approach Goodall’s camp. Now readers get to know Flo’s children Faben, Figen, Fifi, & Flint, and her grandchildren Flame, Freud, Frodo, Fanni, and Flossi. Even as I write this list, each name brings to mind a vivid personality, & I’m pretty sure that I’ll remember these chimps for the rest of my life.
Goodall also describes what she calls “The Four Year War,” in which one chimpanzee community grew large enough that it split into two sub-groups, & the sides warred (killing chimps that just a few years earlier had been their companions) until one side was completely eradicated. Goodell wrote about the experience:
“For so many years I had believed that chimpanzees, while showing uncanny similarities to humans in many ways were, by and large, rather ‘nicer’ than us. Suddenly I found that under certain circumstances they could be just as brutal, that they also had a dark side to their nature. And it hurt.
…For years I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge.”
She writes that she eventually did come to terms with it, citing her belief that only humans are capable of “deliberate cruelty” as helping to aid her in accepting “the new picture” she had of her study subjects.
There are some brutally heartbreaking moments in this book; it’s just the cold, hard truth when you are dealing with nature. But there is also a lot of joy & humor, & Goodall’s love for the chimpanzees shines through on every page. So if you’re like me & have never read anything by Jane Goodall, it’s time, friends. It’s time.
The other book I read this week is Finding Gobi by Dion Leonard. While running in a 155 mile multi-stage ultra marathon across the Gobi Desert in China, Leonard comes across a tiny dog. Despite being “maybe a foot tall,” she instantly attaches herself to Leonard & runs with him during his stages, easily covering a marathon-distance (26 miles) a day.
After the race, Leonard can’t bear the thought of leaving her. Naming her Gobi, he begins the task of navigating the quarantines & other requirements for relocating an animal across international borders. In the meantime, he asks one of the race organizers to look after Gobi until he can return to China to get her.
A few weeks later, however, he gets the news: Gobi has been lost in Urumqi, a politically volatile city of over 2 million people–the majority of which hate dogs. And so begins his quest against all odds to not only find Gobi, but bring her home.
Leonard is not a writer by trade, & although I highly suspect the use of a ghostwriter, this book feels a bit stiff at times. But it’s such an uplifting story that it really doesn’t matter. My favorite part is in reading all the ways Gobi brought people together. From the Chinese volunteers who searched the streets to Leonard’s employer who gave his blessing (allowing him to take months away from work) to all the people who contributed to Gobi’s crowd-funding account (raising over $20,000), it took many, many people working together to bring one little dog home.
I personally never questioned for one second why someone would expend that kind of money & effort on a dog, but I do understand why it might cause other people to wonder. With the poverty & need among humans all over the world (not to mention the plenty of homeless dogs already on British soil), was one little dog really worth $20,000? Leonard addresses those concerns:
“So many strangers were heavily invested in Gobi’s story, and it still amazes me to read of the ways in which she had touched people’s lives. For instance, one woman who has cancer told me that she looks at our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages every day to see what Gobi and I are up to. ‘I’ve been with you from the start,’ she told me.
I love that the story isn’t just about Gobi and me trying to get home. Whether people have lost their jobs, are suffering with depression, or are going through marriage troubles, this little dog has put a smile on so many people’s faces.”
Life can be so terrible at times that once in a while, people just need a win. And even if that win happens to be a scruffy little ultra-running mutt, are you really not going to root for her?
And so, my final verdict:
Through a Window = heck yes
Finding Gobi = ditto
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