Wednesday, March 31, 2010

David M. Carroll "Self-Portrait with Turtles" & Esther Woolfson "Corvus"

Odd as it may seem, I found much common ground between “Self-Portrait with Turtles” and “Corvus: A Life With Birds”. They are, of course, both memoirs and as such their narrative spans several decades. They both revolve around animals, even if crows and turtles share little common ground in our minds.

But what connected them in my mind was, first that both Esther Woolfson and David M. Carroll love animals as representatives of a wider, wilder natural world and secondly that they were both slightly difficult books for me.

I liked both, but they are the kind of stories that demand that readers pace themselves, read a few pages and then take a break to reflect on what was told, maybe even lay the book aside for a few days. It makes sense, for not only do they encompass a lifetime (though not all memoirs share this rhythm), they are also both written by authors that clearly like to take their time and make their way into the world in a calm, quiet and reflective manner.

Well, I have difficulty pacing myself in anything, reading included, and both these volumes presented a real challenge – I had to fight tooth and nail against finishing them in a day or two for I felt that they weren’t supposed to be read in a couple of sittings. But throughout, there lingered a sense of dissatisfaction, of restlessness.

With both books finished and some days elapsed, a cloud was lifted – then I could really enjoy them, as strange as it might sound. They really are amazing stories.

David M. Carroll fell in love with turtles in grammar school, but instead of evolving, as is more usual, into a pet hobbyist - keeping them in complex terrariums and aquariums - he allowed them to show the way on his life path and to inspire his nature: humble and persistent, observant and reliant, in a word, chthonic.

The childhood hours spent waiting, looking for turtles in the marshes and ponds near his home, inspired in Carroll a deep connection with nature – a bond that led him to shape his life according to surroundings, searching for art teaching positions in more rural, untouched locations of New England, where he could escape into the undisturbed outdoors every day. Even his craft was inspired by the marshes – his first drawings and first poems revolving around the ponds and brooks of his youth.

The notion of “real” nature or undisturbed nature – as opposed to nature parks where nature is “prepared” for human consumption - is a very important and interesting concept in Carroll’s narrative. Referring to a wildlife sanctuary where the majority of land has been set aside, “reserved for nature” and humans denied entrance, the author muses:

“Why, I wondered, was such a true setting-aside for nature so rare in the global landscape? This was no human theme park or playground in disguise – no trails, no ecotourism – just a place for wood turtles and accompanying ecology. It was not a natural resource but a natural landscape. As I looked at the little wood turtle I spoke aloud another of my favorite quotes from Frost: “For once then, something.”

Frost is often referenced, as well as Thoreau and this leads to a third similarity with “Corvus”: a strong sense of place and a deep bond with that locale, its history, its nature and its writers and artists.

Esther Woolfson’s stomping ground is that of Scotland where I presume, winters are as unforgiving as in New England, and summers must seem equally magical. Maybe it takes enduring punishing cold to really appreciate the rebirth of spring, but this author, like Carroll is also able to find nature and beauty in deep snow.

Woolfson’s long line of exotic house guests began, more traditionally, as pets for her two daughters. The feathered variety began with a cockatiel, the wilder variety with doves and their outside house. Then, one day the girl’s brought home a fledgling rook and Woolfson’s tale of corvid love began.

Though parrots, canaries, bunnies and rodents also made their way through the Woolfson residence it was with these native, long-lived birds that the author formed a deep connection. As with Carroll, they led her outside into her natural surroundings searching for clues of their behavior, their life-cycle, their language (the actual birds were all confined to the house, though, having been raised by the author and probably unable to fend for themselves). Chicken the rook, Spike the magpie and Ziki the crow seem to find their way, serendipitously, into the Woolfson’s hands, luckily able to endure a certain degree of mayhem inevitable when sharing quarters with powerful, extremely intelligent birds.

Woolfson also leads us through a history of human (not very friendly) relationship with corvids, both historical and artistic, as well as presenting some famous crow owners. It is however in the daily observation of her house-guests (pets really does not seem an appropriate term considering both the havoc they wreak and their level of independence), her obvious fascination with their habits as well as the continuous looking outside at wild birds during the seasons in order to gain a deeper understanding of her own birds that makes “Corvus” so interesting.

Both “Corvus” and “Turtles” impart on the reader richness, a depth that comes from patience, observation:

“I endeavored to shift into turtle time, the time within time that is neither past nor present but the ongoing now.”

For those of us still too anxious to stop for long, both authors prove that much more can be gained by standing still, and waiting.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Mary Elizabeth Thurston "The Lost History of the Canine Race"

“The Lost History of the Canine Race: Our 15,000-Year Love Affair with Dogs” is a must-read for every dog lover. But anyone interested in knowing more about our complex historical relation with the creature that, for good and bad, has been our closest companion will find a lot of information in this book.

This large volume is put together like the reference book it deserves to be. It is filled with information and illustrated throughout with black and white photographs and also has a section of colour reproductions. It’s the kind of book you keep going back to, in order to check a fact, re-read a passage, or just look at the pictures.

Mary Elizabeth Thurston starts at the very beginning taking a look at currently held theories on the domestication of the wolf (Asia, is now the believed spot for the first domestication, and all dogs are supposedly descended from only a few domesticated individuals). She then takes a look at archaeological finds to see what they reveal (or not) about mankind’s growing proximity with the dog. Interestingly enough, European cave painting so lavish in portraying prey animals hardly ever features dogs, who were by then almost certainly a feature of human groups.

The author then provides fascinating and learned essays on the place of dogs in Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations, drawing from archaeological finds, art, texts and religion. She also explains that, only recently, has zooarchaeology been gaining acceptance in museums and universities. For most of the twentieth century archaeological finds pertaining to animals were regularly discarded by archaeologists themselves as well as museums – dog and cat remains along with objects related to their keeping were not seen as important. Animal mummies (and animal cemeteries) for instance, were so numerous in Egypt that they were routinely destroyed or sold as curios. Unimaginable amounts of information were lost in this way and by the discarding of animal bones found in Neolithic and Palaeolithic digs.

Following chapters analyse dog culture in Medieval and Renaissance epochs. Some very interesting sub-chapters deal with the use of dogs as weapons of terror by the Spanish Conquistadores in their colonies, the belief in supernatural dogs (the Inquisition popularizing the relationship between black dogs and the Devil) but also favoured royal pets in European courts.

The object of royal indulgence, dogs became the status symbol for anyone who could afford them. Ironically, as populations became increasingly urban, the dog, so often maligned as the carrier of disease and bad spirits, endured only as a fearless, tireless and uncomplaining guardian of flocks, property and hunting companion, slowly turned into the loved pet we know today.

It was in this context that “the fancy” was born. Breeders, shows and clubs were mostly the product of the XIX century and it is surely not a coincidence that DNA testing has proved that the majority of dog breeds were “born” around this time by extensive artificial selection at the hands of humans. In this period breeders began to enhance certain physical traits and not always with a goal other than esthetical preference and the belief that a “purebred” dog (in other words a dog created by human intervention) is superior to a “random-bred” dog (a mutt, by other words).

It is fascinating to think that our “modern” relationship with dogs is, in fact, so recent! Of course, as soon as dogs became pets, “rare” and “exotic” breeds become the holy grail of cosmopolitan trendsetters. One of the first dog “fevers” was caused by the tiny Pekingese. Probably descended from the Roman Era Maltese, only the royal Chinese family was allowed to own and breed them. And breed they did, creating (mostly in the late XIX century) the short-legged, pug-nosed, hairball we know today (western breeders would further “improve” the breed within an inch of its life). When British and French troops stormed the Summer Palace in 1860 during the Opium Wars, they came upon these little “freaks”, who could have easily slipped into oblivion, where it not the fact that a British ship captain offered one to Queen Victoria. The Peke had been made. In fact, modern Pekes are descended from these Chinese refugees (just as modern Shar-Pei persecuted by the Communist regime were also “saved” by westerners), a couple of males and a hand-full of females.

The first societies for the protection of animals, the use of dogs in wars, the place of the dog in Native American culture, the rise of modern dog breeds, dog laws, commercial dog food and accessories and dog cemeteries are all tackled in this volume. It overflows information, all of it fascinating for dog people and at 300 pages it made wish it was double the size. An absolute treat.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Suzie Gilbert "Flyaway"

“Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings” makes for compulsive reading. It’s one of those books where you are torn – you can’t stop reading yet each page brings you closer to the end, something you would rather not see coming.

Suzie Gilbert is one of the most likeable memoir voices I’ve ever encountered: she’ll be the first to point out her flaws, but is never over-dramatic, she’s one of those caring souls who, all over the world, get suckered into doing more to help animals than they possibly can – and yes, she knows that’s not necessarily a quality, especially when it starts interfering with your family and sanity; she has a sense of humor and a larger sense of duty. Her countless episodes of rehabilitating wild animals are truly entrancing and her narrative spellbinding. I loved this book.

It’s also a cautionary tale. At some point “Flyaway” turns into a slow motion car-crash taking place before your eyes. I couldn’t look away. I suffer with the plight of abandoned animals and often see people who have gone over-board, trying to rescue every stray they see. This book was like being in the eye of the hurricane. This is how perfectly normal, kind-hearted people nearly go crazy.

Gilbert was always in love with animals but birds, especially raptors, won her heart. For many years she volunteered at wild-life rehabilitation centers, until one day, the mother of two, decided to start operating a small, home-based, rehabilitation facility. It being the U.S.A. there are actually all sorts of pre-planned routes you must take to become a certified wild-life rehabber. You have to cram insane amounts of information about wild-life and their needs, even species you won’t be working with. Then your setup has to meet certain standards depending on the kind of animal you will receive. Did I mention this is all coming out of your pocket?

Luckily, Gilbert lives in a small-town where many individuals care about wildlife and welcomed a bird rehabber. They helped with construction and materials, vets offered their services and fellow rehabbers advice. The initial plan was to turn away all fledglings since baby birds are so time consuming (some must be fed every half hour!) as well as injured birds for they would require specific accommodation and care.

No, the author would take in only songbirds that were on the mend and needed only shelter, food and water while they got ready to go back into the world again. Cut to Gilbert’s house filled with birds in every possible space, frantic from round the clock baby feeding, dealing not only with songbirds but also with waterfowl and raptors and still finding the time to pick up injured birds.

How could it have gone so wrong? Well, the author will tell you it was her own failure to enforce her rules. And in part it might have been so. But I think the biggest problem were humans, plain and simple. Because injured birds and babies who fell from their nests didn’t call Gilbert. People did. People who wouldn’t take no for an answer. People who consider themselves good Samaritans because they pick up a wounded bird (or cat or dog) and foist them on someone else, thinking they have done their part and aren’t they great. Never do they look back, call to find out whether the critter made it, leave a donation or offer to help out.

Humans are also schizophrenics as one episode proves, for they will let their cats hunt outside and then will drive miles with birds that are clearly in pain and dying to the nearest rehabber. They couldn’t possible kill the little bird! And so, many times it was Gilbert who had to put these small lives out of their misery.

Rehabbing (and rescuing) is emotionally exhausting work. For every happy ending is also a big question mark – the birds are released, healthy animals – but will a cat get them next month? A hunter, next season? Power-lines? Poison? Hunger, cold, disease? And they never stop coming in, a testament to human disrespect for the natural world.

Not many years after first opening her doors (and phone line) Gilbert was burning out. Going out with her husband and kids for dinner involved planning the magnitude of a month-long vacation; friends and hobbies were pretty much out of the picture. And the birds kept coming in larger numbers.

From "Flyaway" Illustration by Laura Westlake

Although by the end of the book it was unclear to me whether Gilbert would open Flyaway, Inc. once again (after a temporary close for much needed reflection) you can read on this interview how, these days, she takes in only crows and raptors. They were, after all, her first bird passion.

A word of advice from the author?

“Now that I’m older, wiser, and more haggard, I look back on my decision to rehabilitate wild birds at home with incredulity. There is only one sane way to get your wild animal fix: by volunteering at a bird or wildlife center. You show up, you work hard, you go home, you resume your life.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ann Moyal "Platypus"

Ann Moyal’s “Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How A Curious Creature Baffled the World” is a book in search of a protagonist. Why that is, is unclear for certainly this oddest of beasts has an inbred star quality, or so it would seem.

Yet the book lacks a center, a thread, instead following the complicated historical flow of platypus scientific discussion – a complicated ping-pong of (mis)communication between (mostly) amateur scientists in its Australian native land and (mostly creationist) scientists in Europe.

The first platypus pelt reached the West in the late XVIII century and threw naturalists into a frenzy. So bizarre was this duck bill tucked into a small brown and furry body, with a fat sheep’s tail and webbed feet, that some British scientists are reported to have looked for stitch marks. It seemed like an elaborate hoax.

The small platypus got caught up into a scientific discussion that went largely beyond its own strange attributes: did it lay eggs or give birth to live young? Was it a marine mammal, a fury reptile or a missing link between birds and alligators? These were questions that, due to the distances involved, the difficulty in preserving live animals (or even dead ones), the hiatus between letters and the generally discreet habits of the platypus would take many years to answer.

But there was a more explosive argument going on. One that asked the loaded question: “do species evolve?”. The Platypus got pushed into taxonomic categories where it might best serve the underlying ideology of the leading scientists of the day, even when it was clearly a round peg in a square hole.

Moyal faithfully traces the history of platypus correspondence and theorizing while making a great job of explaining the leading scientific trends of the day and the main scientist’s curricula. But I often felt I was losing sight of what really interested me - the platypus and its native habitat - and being pulled instead through a series of smoky salons where the dried specimens were hardly a match for the huge egos in the room.

The Darwin chapter in particular seemed unnecessarily long, since he had little to say about the creature, though Moyal suggests the platypus might have had some influence on his theories.

All in all “Platypus” is an interesting natural history book, though probably not for everyone. The author obviously sifted through an impressive amount of historical data and I suspect it might have bogged her down. For my taste the book is a little too heavy on documental minutia (a lot of which I had already come across in more generic books on Darwinism and precedent scientific theories) – and in the end, seems to lack sheer passion for the fantastic creature whose story it tells.

Vicki Croke "The Lady And The Panda"

Ruth Harkness and Su-Lin

Being cute blows. Pandas know this. They might be predators who weigh up to 150kg and can cause some serious pain when annoyed (“A man has been attacked by a panda at a park in southern China, after he climbed into its enclosure hoping to cuddle the creature.”“Teenager Hospitalized After Panda Attack at Chinese Zoo”“Giant panda in China bites third victim”) but somehow it never quite registered with humans “I always thought they were cute and just ate bamboo” said victim of third attack. Well, now.

See, pandas decided to go veggie somewhere along their evolutionary path. Because the mainstay of their diet, bamboo, provides so little energy, they are forced to spend much of their time munching just to keep the sugar levels up. When they move it’s mostly slowly. But apparently, some part of their brains and bodies still know they are bears.

To humans though, they are first plush toys and second cute animals. Few other wild animals have been the source of such prolonged infatuation (dolphins come to mind, and by the way they can get mean too). Scientists point to the big round faces, roly-poly bodies, the appearance of big eyes caused by the black spots, and the fact that pandas sit in an almost human manner to eat and feed their young as irresistible to our species. They are soft, fluffy and their color looks artificial and modern, dreamed up by an avant-garde toy inventor, certainly not threatening like leopard spots or tiger stripes.
Ever since a panda pelt was brought to the west by a French missionary in 1869, we have been panda-crazy. Curiously enough the sons of American President Theodore Roosevelt (whose ordering of a “mercy” killing of a wounded bear inspired first a political cartoon and then the birth of the modern toy, the teddy bear) Theo Jr and Kermit were the first westerners to shoot a panda (Alanis me this).

Vicki Croke’s “The Lady And The Panda” certainly provides food for thought but is primarily the story of Ruth Harkness (whose account of her panda adventure was published under the same name in 1938. Married to adventurer and heir (as adventurers are advised to be) Bill Harkness, Ruth enjoyed the sort of “Thin Man” movies Manhattan night style: a dress designer that could down martinis and scotch with the best of them while husband sailed the world in search of natural treasures.

After being gone for two years on an expedition to bring pandas back to the west (an expedition that never left Shanghai) Bill Harkness died of cancer in China. Ruth was distraught but undaunted: after all she had always dreamed of accompanying Bill in his expeditions but had always been discouraged by his male associates. She would go to China and bring back a live panda to the United States.

It helped that her home-base in China, Shanghai, was in the early thirties even more cosmopolitan than New York. People from all nationalities crossed their paths in the city: there was sophistication and jazz in the luxury western hotels and exoticism in the Chinese side. Harkness soon fell in love with Chinese people and their culture, while developing a healthy disdain for westerners ill-concealed racism.

Being a charming young woman helped her circumvent the bureaucratic pits which had detained her husband. But Harkness was more than an elegant creature – she had a knack for assessing character and soon was convinced that Bill’s associate Floyd Smith was an incompetent moocher, and sent him packing, inadvertently setting in motion a lifetime of hatred and jealousy (on account of which not a few pandas died untimely deaths at Smith’s hands).

Against all odds Harkness kept the pace, travelling to inner China, near the border of Tibet, trekking in arduous terrain and sleeping in an abandoned lamasery. A fantastic intuition told her to pack a baby bottle with her expedition material and soon enough a baby panda just about fell into her lap. Harkness felt blessed and treated little Su-Lin with a mother’s attention: always carrying her around, trying different foods. She couldn’t help but feel, despite all the discomfort she surely endured that this was a magical land, for she loved the landscape, the people, the baby panda and her expedition organizer, a young and handsome Chinese-American named Quentin Young.

After much bureaucratic wrangling, Harkness arrived in the United States with Su-Lin and received a hero’s welcome. Harkness and baby were the celebrities of the day. After negotiations with the Bronx Zoo stalled, it was Chicago’s Brookfield who won the honor (and the long waiting lines) of first presenting a live panda to the American audiences (and here is the origin of the phenomena which still, today, leads American Zoos into leasing pandas for astronomical amounts from the Chinese government).

Harkness wanted twenty thousand dollars to immediately launch a new campaign into the Chinese interior, and bring back a male panda (although a male panda is what she had brought unbeknownst to her and zoo staff). Although the zoo gave her less for her troubles, it was still an astronomical amount for that period, and instigated a few other expeditions including Floyd Smith’s.

But from here on it was mostly downhill for Harkness – she tried to recapture the happiness of that first expedition but personal and world events seem to conspire against her. Young was now married and things were awkward between them to say the least. A male panda was captured and Harkness, used to baby Su-Lin (who was still able to scratch and bite quite forcefully) was shocked at the wildness of this panda.

The male panda actually died from illness or internal injuries caused by his capture. Harkness and the press would never mention him again. They didn’t need to. In a last stroke of luck she came about a new baby panda (also a male that, like Su-Lin would be erroneously labeled a female). Harkness managed to get out of China just as the Japanese invasion was getting started.

Harkness with Su-Lin and Mei-Mei

Her third and last expedition into China would find Harkness braving a war torn country and going into the terrain with only Chang, her cook of previous journeys at her side. She would also do something unprecedented for an explorer, certainly a male one: she would double back into the wild, to release the female panda her hunters had captured.

By this time Harkness was well aware of the panda persecution and killing going on, mostly by, or at the instigation of, westerners eager to get their hands on this most valuable of trophies. This last panda was reckless, forever wanting to scale walls, trees and generally get into trouble. Harkness saw in the animal a desire for her predestined life, her wild life.

Ruth Harkness would never go back to China, although she would try for quite some time. But by then World War II was in progress. She fell deeper and deeper into alcoholism, drinking herself to sleep most nights. What was she seeking oblivion from? From constantly missing her husband? China? Unrequited love for Young? From the panda eyes behind Zoo bars or the ones that had died in her care (a second one had to be shot after going berserk in captivity, still in China)? Maybe all of it.

The dress designer turned explorer who had travelled to some of the more inhospitable regions on earth, endured conditions most men could not and returned home with the catch of the century, was unable to keep herself financially afloat, or sober. She dallied in this and that, travelled to South America, wrote for Gourmet Magazine.

In 1947 she was found dead in a hotel room in Pittsburgh.

Today, four American, three European, one Mexican and one Australian zoos have pandas. The rest are in China and Asian neighboring countries. They are incredibly expensive to lease and their conservation in the wild is proving to be multi-billion dollar endeavor. Last year a British naturalist led to some conservationists into hysterics when he suggested funds ought to be reassigned from panda conservation to habitat conservation (Americans, with their need to cause trouble came up with the headline “Wild Life Expert Says Let the Pandas Die” – yikes…). In fact his article published in the Guardian makes a lot of valid points:

“Extinction is very much a part of life on earth. And we are going to have to get used to it in the next few years because climate change is going to result in all sorts of disappearances. The last large mammal extinction was another animal in China – the Yangtze river dolphin, which looked like a worn-out piece of pink soap with piggy eyes and was never going to make it on to anyone's T-shirt. If that had appeared beautiful to us, then I doubt very much that it would be extinct. But it vanished, because it was pig-ugly and swam around in a river where no one saw it. And now, sadly, it has gone for ever.”

Shreve Stockton "The Daily Coyote"

“The Daily Coyote” is über-famous so no need to dwell on the background too much: city, new agey, arty, girl falls in love with Wyoming wilds, gets orphaned coyote from local coyote control officer slash love interest and decides to raise the pup.

First off, let me start by saying I think the book is worth it for the photos alone, which are, after all, how the blog phenomena got started. Second, let me say I didn’t much like the new agey tone of the book as it got started. But as Stockton decided to go ahead and do her thing despite everyone yelling at her she could not raise Charlie as a pet, she started to grow on me. And as Charlie became an adolescent and started biting her and she still decided to keep going and find some sort of common ground with the coyote, even changing her living arrangements so she could provide a safer environment, she definitely won me over.

A lot of people who criticize this book seem to do so, on “ethical” grounds. You shouldn’t keep a wild animal as a pet, you shouldn’t give dead animal parts to chew on and even you shouldn’t date a man who kills animals (!). Yup, this book got a lot of people on a judging fest, which seems more and more common with everything that pertains to animals and our relationship with them nowadays.

Seriously though, has anyone else noticed how people are getting increasingly hysterical about everything that concerns animals? I believe it will be the hot subject in the next decades. However, I would like everyone to take a deep breath and go get hysterical at people who abuse animals instead of people who make life-choices they don’t agree with.

I, for one, couldn’t put down the book and would definitely get a sequel to Charlie and Stockton’s adventures in Wyoming. And part of me suspect the haters are really just jealous the city girl got herself a real life cowboy.

Ella Maillart "Ti-Puss" & Sandor Marai "Un Chien de Charactère"

Neither Ella Maillart’s “Ti-Puss” nor Sandor Marai’s “Un Chien de Charactère” are currently in print in English. This, I think, is more than a coincidence – the English-speaking world being as ravenous for pet tales as it is nowadays.

Ah, you ask: But are these uplifting tales, stories of overcoming adversity, disabilities, abandonment and bad behavior? Well, not really and that might have something to do with it.

For in her delightful tale of life in India with a cat, Maillart lets Ti-Puss Minou run free, hunt and breed as she will (drowning or wringing the necks of at least half the littermates), takes her for walks in which the cat following her is always an uncertainty, travels in packed trains with her and generally allows her to be a semi-feral animal.

World traveler Ella Maillart lived in India for five years (1940-45) in order to study Hindu philosophy – however, following the Indian guru’s teachings on detachment became doubly difficult for the author when she began sharing her life with an animal that absolutely fascinated her. She couldn’t help but want to possess her and yet it was Minou’s wild nature that enchanted her.

Now, taking in consideration some hateful comments I’ve seen on sites directed at cat-owners who so much as allow a whisker outside the house, I can’t imagine “Ti-Puss” going down too well with Americans, not to mention the kitten-killing (but remember, this was the forties and Maillart actually tried to get someone to spay Ti-Puss, which proved impossible).

I enjoyed this book that brought to mind Konrad Lorenz’s description of the happiness he felt with the two cats that allowed him to accompany their forest strolls in “Man Meets Dog”. Cats are closer to wild animals than dogs, of course, and therefore seem to elicit in their chosen humans a surprised thankfulness: “Me, really?! You’ll allow me to feed you, gaze upon you and only occasionally scratch me? Why, I can’t thank you enough!”

Dogs can be wild too, though, as the protagonists of “Un Chien de Charactère” discover. Sandor Marai tells of a young, childless couple living in Budapest in the years after World War I. The husband decides to surprise the wife with a puppy for Christmas. The puppy, supposedly a Puli (a woolly Hungarian sheep guarding breed), is actually a much larger, mix breed of extremely bad character. Spoiled rotten, he soon starts biting everyone in the household. In those darker times, before the Dog Whisperer’s wisdom was available, the couple ends up deciding to send the dog away.

There is actually a common theme in both “Ti-Puss” and “Un Chien…”: both Maillart and Marai’s protagonist experience life with a more docile, pliable pet (Maillart with a daughter of Ti-Puss she gives away and the hero of “Un Chien…” with a polite lap-dog the couple gets after Tchoutoura). Yet both pine for the wild, independent cat or dog which brought so much trouble. This would please Lorenz immensely, he who always preferred his dogs “wolf-like” instead of docile.

Harsh as the destinies of Ti-Puss the cat and Tchoutoura the dog might seem, these stories feel real and are illustrative of sharing life with animals: there is often deep frustration, sadness and anger involved in keeping pets and that fact usually tends to get overlooked in feel-good books that portray animals as fragile beings who beg for our protection and spend the rest of their lives repaying our good intentions with unconditional love and good behavior.

In a culture that discards pets so easily for being animals (chewing, scratching, biting, barking, marking, etc) yet hails them as polite, cute, fashion accessories, these books are highly refreshing.