TOpicks: Lions and Tigers and Books, Oh My!
Whether they serve us, or we serve them, animals are often our most loyal (and sometimes furry... or scaly) best friends. Throughout our history many have worked alongside us through each step of our evolution and progression to where we are today. We may not be privy to an animal’s rich internal world but many authors, filmmakers and artists have tried to honour their stories and feature them as characters in their works. In many ways – through our interactions with them or through their representations in art – animals strangely reconnect us profoundly with our humanity. Here are some suggestions from our #TOpicks team which highlight our fascinating companions.
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I may have mentioned this before on Twitter, but the first thing I ever read on my own was the Aesop fable “The Ox and the Frog”. It was all about a frog who felt he could blow himself up to the size of an Ox.
Aesop’s fables are important life lessons which function like a “cheat sheet” to life. The adult disappointments I have both faced, and avoided, were all documented in these fables. Life is a constant rerun, and I truly feel like Aesop’s Fables is required reading for all children who wish to have an advantage in life. It will teach them that dealing with humans and their situations is messy – through the lives of animals. It is not too late to get a leg-up in life – and our Digital Archive has digitized copies from hundreds of years ago (even more reason to check it out!)
Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales as told by Julius Lester
The Favorite Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris
Throughout many cultures over thousands of years, the rabbit has often been portrayed as the “trickster”: an intelligent and humorous creature who upstages all those who try to get him. I grew up reading Joel Chandler Harris’ hilariously clever “The Tales of Uncle Remus” which was a documentation of American slaves’ oral tradition of their African folklore married with the American culture. Today, you can see many of the animal archetypes in “The Tales of Uncle Remus” in cartoons – Looney Tunes being the best example with Bugs Bunny being a stand-in for Uncle Remus’ “B’rer Rabbit”. Much like Aesop’s Fables, I think that these are entertaining stories which teach children (and adults!) important life lessons, and highlight our humanity the only way anthropomorphized animals can.
Elephant Company by Vicki Croke
I have always found elephants fascinating and intelligent creatures. I didn’t know elephants helped the allies during the war. This is a touching and exciting story of how elephants contributed to the British war effort against the Japanese in 1942 Burma. This is the story of Billy Williams, a man who worked with elephants logging in the 1920s for the East India Company. He eventually joined the British army because of his skill, knowledge and treatment of the animals (his observations would later be confirmed by researchers studying elephants decades later). The elephants helped in many ways, including moving refugees, supplies and building materials. This is a captivating, gripping, well-researched exploration into complex social structure and interactions of the elephants as well as how they related, and became indispensable comrades to humans during the war.
I can’t really say much about this documentary, other than it was one of the most shocking, and monstrously horrifying documentaries I have ever seen. It’s all about the secret hunt of dolphins by Japanese fishermen and what seems like government corruption supporting the secret practice. It is required and important viewing for all those who love dolphins. It is an excellent documentary but stay away from this if you are easily upset by animals being slaughtered.
I hate animals dying in books, TV, movies or real life so I steer away from animal-based entertainment. I rarely make reviews in my Goodreads account but I will usually say something if there’s an animal in peril. “Don’t get too attached to Mr. Winky” or “The dog survives the book.”
It's a band with an animal name! Mark Deming on AllMusic said that by “[e]xploring a jagged, lo-fi post-rock after forming in the mid-'90s, Modest Mouse became unlikely chart-toppers with a volatile mix of punk-inspired rawness and simmering atmosphere". Oh, ok. I just like cheerful music paired with melancholy lyrics.
I particularly recommend their CD The Moon and Antarctica which contains the delightful song Wild Pack of Family Dogs. On the surface it’s a lighthearted song about a rampaging pack of formerly domesticated dogs. Obviously like so many Modest Mouse songs, under the surface it’s quite different. I’m pretty sure the pack of dogs represents death. Nevertheless it’s still delightful.
Bad Horse: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (DVD)
Aspiring supervillian Dr. Horrible is determined to join the Evil League of Evil but to get in he has to impress their leader Bad Horse, known for “his terrible death whinny”. He is pictured above ruling the league with an iron hoof. Basically I just enjoy Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and wanted to let everyone know the DVD is available at TPL.
Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity by Bruce Bagemihl
This is a very large book about sexuality in the animal kingdom. Don’t be put off by the number of pages. The second part of the book looks at courtship and mating rituals of 190 species in encyclopedia-like entries. It’s fascinating to flip through and find out more about different animals including those adorable koalas who are abusive and promiscuous substance abusers.
Random Animal Stuff:
I'm very fond of this house hippo ad.
My favourite animal collective nouns
- Shrewdness of apes
- Sleuth of bears
- Glaring of cats
- Convocation of eagles
- Flamboyance of flamingoes
- Parliament of owls
- Pandemonium of parrots
- Murmuration of starlings
- Wisdom of wombats
- Zeal of zebras
Want more? Here are some collective noun dictionaries.
A personal story about wombats:
A decade or so ago, I was in Sydney, Australia and we went to the Koala Park Sanctuary. They have a lot of activities and we went to see the wombat. The wombat keeper told us, "you can touch the wombat but he's really grumpy and tends to bite, so don’t walk in front of him, make any sudden movements, loud noises, do anything unpredictable, cough, sneeze or breathe too loud or you’ll likely lose an arm”. My friend Caroline volunteered her 8-year-old daughter as wombat petter and we all left with the same number of limbs we came in with.
I have always regretted not petting the wombat. I mean when will I ever get another chance to touch a wombat? Because of this, I made “always touch the wombat” my personal motto and use it to remind myself that when confronted with a once in a lifetime opportunity, I should be brave – within reason.
I love animals and like TPLMaggie, I hate when an animal dies in a book or film. I try to avoid them at all costs, but they are sometimes unavoidable. Most of the animal-based books and films I have watched were from my childhood and youth, but are still absolute gems for adults, too!
Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith
One of my favourite stories about a little piglet originally won at a fair by Farmer Hoggett. As they have no use for pigs on the farm, Mrs Hoggett intends on fattening the pig up for Christmas dinner. The piglet, named Babe, is taken in by sheepdog Fly, who cares for him with her puppies. Together they teach Babe how to herd sheep, much to the surprise of Farmer Hoggett. It is a heartwarming story of an "underpig" (see what I did there...? 😮) that is charming, emotional, and engaging.
Also, here is a delightful scene from the film adaptation of the book, called Babe.
Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne
Some of the most important lessons that I learned in life, I learned from Pooh Bear!
- Ask questions without fear of looking naïve; that’s how you continue to learn.
- Be creative when trying to solve problems. Want honey but can’t get past the bees? Dip yourself in mud, use a balloon, and pretend to be a little rain cloud. Trial and error, after all...
- Surround yourself with a diverse group of friends: from the energetic, optimistic Tigger, to the pessimistically fretful Eeyore, to the anxious yet steadfast Piglet. Each will give you a different perspective on life.
- Pooh Bear wore a crop top with no pants, ate his favourite food without apologies and loved himself. Love yourself like Pooh Bear loves honey.
- And when all else fails, a well placed, “Oh Bother!” works wonders!
How can you not love the cuddly little cubby all stuffed with fluff?
The Lion King (DVD) (Disney 1994)
I’m starting to see a theme in all my selections here...
One of my favourite Disney films of all time. I still haven’t seen the new re-release as of yet, but if it is even half as good as the original, I know I’ll love it! A heartwarming story of Simba, a lion cub destined to take over as King of Pride Rock. His uncle Scar however, has other plans and Simba finds himself in the wild befriended and raised by a meerkat and a warthog, who teach him that Hakuna Matata is the way to live your life. Seems ideal until his past finds its way back into his life, and he must decide between a "no worries" future, or to reclaim his destiny as King.
The visuals, the music, the story...everything just works in this film. And I’m not ashamed to say I still shed a tear during the wildebeest stampede. For those who haven’t seen it, I will simply say, have some tissues ready.
Finding Nemo (DVD) (Disney/Pixar 2012)
An overprotective clown fish named Marlin meets a lovable but forgetful blue tang named Dory on his journey to Sydney, Australia to find his son Nemo. Meeting an eclectic variety of underwater creatures, a helpful pelican, and one terrifying dentist’s niece, this movie has to be, in my humble opinion, one of the funniest, most clever works of animation in decades!
You’ll never hear a seagull’s caw the same way again...
Its follow-up, Finding Dory (DVD) (Disney/Pixar 2016) was also a brilliant sequel!
Blackfish (DVD) (2013)
A hard-hitting, controversial documentary focusing on captive marine animals, but most particularly on Tilikum: the famous orca who was involved in the deaths of three people, most notably his trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 at SeaWorld. Received mixed reviews, it is definitely worth a watch!
Gorillas in the Mist (DVD) (1988)
This docudrama tells the story of Dian Fossey, a primatologist and conservationist who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda. A passionate conservationist, Fossey's efforts to end gorilla poaching led to her murder in 1985.
An amazing documentary series on nature and wildlife all over the planet.
Also, my favourite animal is featured in Planet Earth II!
What is my favourite animal of all time, you ask? Well, that would be a sloth.
Yes, a sloth.
I finally had a chance to see not just one, but three rescued sloths up close at a sanctuary in Costa Rica two years ago, and I was so excited that I cried.
I was able to watch one of their feedings and see them in action as they climbed down from the slumbering perches and engage with their handler. I can’t explain why they are my favourite animals, as I love animals of all kinds, but there is just something so lovable about them and their slow-moving, relaxed nature.
Do you ever get tired of reading books about people, or is that just me?
Of course, many books about animals are actually books about people – whether they’re allegories, like Animal Farm, or stories where animals act as foils to their human companions, like My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. But there are times when you'd rather not think about people much at all, and these are some good books for those times:
The White Bone by Barbara Gowdy
This epic novel about the adventures of a herd of elephants is so earthy and vivid and believable that I found myself wondering how many elephants Gowdy had interviewed in order to write it.
A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky
The Stanford professor and author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (eAudiobook) and (more recently) Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst shares personal stories of his experiences monitoring baboon behaviour in East Africa. Smart, humane, a delight to read.
How to be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery
To be fair, this memoir-in-animals is partly about a person. But Montgomery has such a feel for the animals in her life that I'll include this book here anyway. Warning: there's some traumatic material here, and not all the animals live; you may cry. But it's worth it.
All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot
Are you very tired, and do you just want to read something gentle? James Herriot's heartwarming stories of birthing calves and performing surgeries on small dogs in rural Yorkshire were simultaneously wholesome and riveting to my 11-year-old self, and they're still around.
Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis
Okay, I'm including one book that may sort of be about people? Alexis's book starts out allegorical, but gets doggier as you go (at least, that's how it read to me.) The premise: two gods have a wager: if dogs had human consciousness, would they be happier? No spoilers, but you can probably guess the answer.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith
Since it's impossible to love animals or be interested in people and not be fascinated by cephalopods, I give you: Other Minds. Godfrey-Smith gives us an exciting deep dive (pun intended) into the intelligent alien minds of octopus, squid and other charismatic sea-dwellers. (Hat tip to #TOpicks follower Larissa for the recommendation!)
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