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April 9, 2008

Environmental Children’s Books, Part 1: A Polar Bear, A Hippo, And A 130-Year Old Tortoise

 

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,iconby 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,iconby 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.



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16 comments
AnnMarie
AnnMarie

I'd love to own this book! I recently heard a podcast about Owen and Mzee (I think it was Nat'l Geographic), the authors, and giving updates. It would be fun to read the first book!

Matt &amp;amp; Kari
Matt &amp;amp; Kari

My son is very into hippos these days so I would happily cycle out one of his books to our preschool to keep the reading train going. I'll have to save my zoo comments for another day - its a tough catch 22 when you have a kid obsessed with animals

Robj98168
Robj98168

no book- more kitties!!! My cat sammy loves 'em

CatMominPhilly
CatMominPhilly

I would love another book to add to the resources I share w/ "my" kids. (I work with 3-5 yr. old kiddos.) AND, my cats own me.

just ducky
just ducky

I gotta throw my name in the hat as well...

Rosa
Rosa

I am so torn about this whole issue. (not pet cats & dogs, but zoos & teaching kids about wild animals.) First, I have this huge sorrow because I feel like we're teaching my son to love animals that will be extinct before he is an adult - not just polar bears, but our local frog and turtle species, and maybe even the moose and wolves and beaver. It's like the little knot of sorrow for the world I carry around all the time just explodes every time we run into a river turtle on the path or find just one tiny northwoods frog where there ought to be hundreds of them.And then, I am really uncomfortable with zoos and wild animals in captivity generally - but I feel really strongly that along with supporting habitat preservation and working against the war in the Congo and all that, we need to support the wild animal sanctuaries & retirement homes and the zoo programs that are trying to prevent some species from becoming extinct. So we give money to the Wildlands project and subscribe to My Big Backyard and then we get all this mail that just exacerbates issue #1. We have the book about Knut. This whole thing jsut makes me sad.

christy b
christy b

Beth taught me how to get live links in my comments. Beth is a very good teacher, I am not a very good student!! Yesterday the Today show did a segment titled:How Safe Are Plastic Bottles?and this morning they did afollow-up pieceThanks for your patience Beth!

jennconspiracy
jennconspiracy

*mew* *mew* more pictures of the kitties, please. thanks!Btw, I don't have cats as pets. They have me.

har mar
har mar

OH and i totally disagree about the pets are robot statements. sure that may be the case for some pets..but not all. and dogs are so far removed at this point of being wild like they originall,y once were. Neither of my dogs have been to training school. and it's actually interesting that one of my dogs i've only had for about a year and a half and for the other 4-5 years of his life he was a stray (owen...oh i have THE saddest video of him when he was found if you want to see it and his improvement)...in another country no less. and he's MORE obedient than the dog i've had since she was born. Watching Owen over the last year and a half has been amazing. We've let him kind of do his own thing. We left him alone when he first came to live with us. and for about 6-8 months he stayed away from us and we let him be. but on his own...over the past 6 months or so he has become the most loving and amazing dog ever. i believe it to be in his nature to be loving and loyal even though his entire life he's been on his own and even abused by humans. i think at this point...the way animals are now and the reality of it all...it's not helping dogs to not own them. they've been family pets for years and years at this point. and looking into the future, that's not going to change. and even NOT helping dogs and letting them be wild is harmful to the dogs themselves and people too. look at these countries that are killing off 100,000 stray dogs. for one...the dogs are wild but they are also disease ridden. and because they are stray and wild...they attack villagers and children spreading diseases to them as well. not to mention they are also breeding at an alarming rate. and these countries that have no money to fix these kind of problems think the only solution is to destroy 100,000 wild dogs. that number is just...unreal. so i dont think dogs in this case should go back to being wild and that people should not own them or support them. other animals...im totally in agreeance with you. you call humans 800lb gorillas...have you seen what humans are doing TO the gorillas? there's no land left really for animals to be wild anymore. and we're changing these animals into weird genetically altered freaks with the chemicals, pollution, etc that we dump everywhere. blech. one day wild animals will be unreal...like the thought of dinosaurs ruling the earth once. yanno? depressing.

har mar
har mar

aw. i lub animal blogs. i hate zoos though. i actually am one for wanting the SF zoo to be shut down. blech. but im also torn (about zoo's in general) because obviously the reality is that they exist. and it's a reality that the animals in it...need to be cared for. so if you stopped supporting the zoo...what happens to the animals? and the zoo keepers that care for them and love them even? and maybe when you think about...helping to support the zoo can help that zoo better itself. yes? but at the same time...it's so cruel to keep animals caged. and it's not healthy (for the animals). so im torn. and i have heard that the oakland zoo is amazing. also...when you come to present your plastic presentation you could bring the book here to allie who is having her second baby sooooon!!

Clif
Clif

The relationship of a human to a pet is fraught. On one hand, a secure home and a healthy life are given in return for affection (though cats can be stingy) but on the other, the pet is shaped for the benefit of the human, and dogs certainly are far removed by breeding from what their forebears were. I watch dog walkers with pets that are as obedient as robots, answering every command on cue. The pet, of course, has no choice but to got to obedience school and fit itself into the plan of the human that owns it.An animal in a house is a contradiction, isn't it? I say this as one who has had two dogs in the past and throughly enjoyed all the romping and fun they provide. So that's the trade-off...they provide and we provide, but it is all our choice and none of theirs. Unilaterally, we declare it a fair deal.I've come to the point where I don't like to go to zoos. It is just too pathetic, no matter how "natural" we make the micro-environments for the animals. I see too much repetitive, automatic, neurotic behavior there. Saddest of all is the realization that zoos may be the only place some animals will survive, but an animal outside of its natural environment is only half an animal, if that.All this said, even in the "wild" nothing exists but by our say-so. Even the most remote areas are becoming the environments that we make them, intentionally or not.I wish I could end on an upbeat note but humans are the 800 pound gorilla around which all else does the best it can from the deepest rainforest to the most remote icepack. Much as I love dogs, I'll play with those of others from now on.

heather t
heather t

As much as I love a book freebie, you could consider donating it to a local library or school. You probably DID consider that, but just letting you know that probably most of your readers would think that was ok, even though you offered it here.As far as how much to tell the kids, I hate to disillusion kids but at the same time, they need to know that wild animals should stay in the wild whenever possible. If it's not possible, like in Knut's case, then they need to be acclimated to their own kind as much as possible. It's part of our duty as the planetary caretakers. Like the folks who raised the whooping cranes and condors - they did NOT let the birds imprint on them because that would be irresponsible and detrimental to the birds individually and, more importantly, to the species at large.end rant... but the point is, since my 9yo daughter loves polar bears, I'd let her read this book and talk about wild animal care but probably not say much about Knut's specific outcome. An older child could do their own internet research, and if they find it out on their own, at least they don't hate their parents for spoiling the story for them.:/

Tracey
Tracey

As a mother of two with no ability to with hold spoilers, I have an aversion to animal stories, of the Disney and of the conservationist sort. I like the wordless picture book about penguins "First Nature Watch" about the penguin life cycle, but otherwise I feel like human stories about animals are like watching a car crash.

organicneedle
organicneedle

Here is another book well worth your attention.Me and My bagIf you check today's post you will get to see the extensive research I am doing on your coffee filter dilemma. Brew #1 went well yesterday. Just want to run it through a few more times to see if the oils clog it over time. (Don't worry...I would send you a fresh untoddlered one.)

MamaBird
MamaBird

Oh, I would love to have a copy! BUT, then you'd have to mail it clear across the country, used or not, so yes, put me down BUT if we get it I'll have you send it to a small person we know in sf if that's ok...

Burbanmom
Burbanmom

Oooohhh, would love to have to donate to my kids' preschool! :-)

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