I’ve received 4 environmental children’s books in the past month from publishers who would like me to review them on Fake Plastic Fish. Not that I know anything about children. I mean, I was one once, but I don’t have or live with any now… unless you count Terrible Person and the two unruly kitty cats in our house. But I do enjoy picture books, and my brother, in fact, is a children’s book illustrator, so why not? I’ll talk about the first 2 tonight and the next 2 tomorrow.
Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World,by Juliana, Isabella, and Craig Hatkoff and Dr. Gerald R. Uhlich. If you haven’t heard the story of Knut, he’s the little polar bear from the Berlin Zoo who was rejected by his mother at birth and raised by a human zookeeper until he was old enough to live in an enclosure and perform for an adoring public. I don’t think I’m supposed to tell it that way, though. Knut’s become a symbol for the global warming cause. Reading his story might help children to develop compassion for animals they wouldn’t encounter in daily life and perhaps the desire to do something to protect them. In fact, the back of the book lists a few steps people can take, like riding a bike instead of driving and turning out lights when leaving a room.
I was actually moved while reading the book on BART tonight. Thomas Dorflein’s (the zookeeper’s) bond with the bear and desire to protect him reminded me of the feelings of protectiveness and care I myself felt the first time I saw the photo of the dead sea bird with its stomach full of plastic, the first time an animal moved me to act. And I thought, this bear is so cute, of course children will love him and be moved to care about our environment for his sake.
But when I got home, I did a little research and found out the rest of Knut’s story, which is not all cute, fuzzy feelings. The title of the book is actually rather ironic because it turns out that Knut has not only captivated us, but humans have captivated and damaged him. The book ends with Knut still young and cuddly, and it speculates that one day the polar bear will grow so big that he could accidentally harm Thomas. When that time comes, they will have to separate. But it will be okay because “Adult polar bears spend most of their time alone, so Knut won’t be lonely if it happens that Thomas can no longer be with him every day.”
Turns out that that’s not what happens when captive polar bears who have been made a spectacle for cheering audiences day after day are left alone. Not this one anyway. According to Markus Roebke, one of Knut’s keepers, in this article in the Daily Mail, “He is addicted to the whole show, the human adulation. It is not healthy. He actually cries out or whimpers if he sees that there is not a spectator outside his enclosure ready to ooh and aah at him. When the zoo had to shut because of black ice everywhere he howled until staff members stood before him and calmed him down.”
Another Daily Mail article quotes German zoologist Peter Arras’s description of Knut as a “psychopath.” And a commenter in The Atlantic says, “Now that his youthful charms are fading with his white coat, he still demands constant attention from humans. They stare at him, or he screams in misery. Anyone could have guessed that the lack of same-species companionship and endless train of adoring tourists would eventually damage him, but the zoo kept him on display because apparently cuteness trumps morality.” That particular writer goes on to actually suggest euthanasia as the only solution to Knut’s pain.
The children’s book tells a very cute and inspiring story of a man who bottle-fed and cared for a rejected bear and, I’m sure, loved him with all his heart. But the current reality is not so cute. So what do we do? Be grateful for the web, for one thing. Because, while books are static, the Internet is not. And after reading books to children, we can also do a little research and then decide how much of the cold, hard reality we want to share with them.
What would you tell your kids?
The second book, by the same authors, is a much nicer story. Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship,by Isabella and Craig Hatkoff and Dr. Paula Kahumbu, tells the story of a baby hippo, dubbed Owen, that was orphaned during a tsunami in Kenya and rescued to the Haller Park animal sanctuary, where he bonded with, of all creatures, a 130-year old tortoise called Mzee! Why would a baby hippo bond with a wrinkly old reptile? (Okay, I can hear the jokes coming already, so just stop it!) There seems to be some suggestion that the markings on the back of the tortoise’s shell resemble a hippo face. I’m not sure I buy that theory.
Still, the story of the bond between these two very different creatures is heartwarming, and actually seems to be true! The hippo would follow the tortoise around, nipping at its heels, and following its lead in which plants to eat and how to behave. They developed a kind of strange language of sounds to communicate with each other that neither hippos nor tortoises normally make.
But following Mzee, Owen seemed to be growing into a tortoise shaped like a hippo, rather than an actual adult hippo. He would only eat the same plants Mzee ate, which were not really hippo food. And he’d had no contact with other hippos, since his rescuers were worried that introducing him to another hippo clan could be dangerous for him. So, by the end of the story in the book, they’ve found a female orphaned hippo that they hope will become his friend, along with Mzee and another tortoise.
Once again, the great thing about the web is that you can find out what happens next! According to the Haller Park blog, Owen and Cleo, the new hippo, bonded and became friends. But in March 2007, Mzee had to be moved away from them because Cleo was too rough and the staff were afraid she would hurt him. Oops. Maybe I should have given you a spoiler warning. But these are kids’ books, and just because you know what happens, doesn’t mean you have to spoil the ending for your kids!
Anyway, reading these two books lead me to think about my own relationship with certain non-human beings and the ways that I care for them and also exploit their cuteness for my own personal gain. Right here on this blog! Maybe that’s just part of human nature. To marvel at how animals of completely different species can bond with one another without the slightest clue what it’s actually like to be that other creature. We have to be so careful, don’t we?
So… the FREEBIE! If you would like this hardback copy of Owen & Mzee, please request it in a comment. Or email me privately. I’ll choose the lucky recipient at random some time next week. I can’t give you the polar bear book because it’s already promised to Michael, who I predict is destined to be either eaten by or reincarnated as one of them, assuming they haven’t become extinct.
But tomorrow, I’ll be offering another free book. So stay tuned. You might like that one better.