August 2006

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Secrets of the Savanna by Mark & Delia Owens, One Kingdom: Our Lives with Animals by Deborah Noyes

In recent years there has been some discussion in the national media about whether or not elephants should still be placed in zoos. The big news came out in 2004 when the Detroit Zoo decided to close its exhibit and transferred both of its elephants to the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in California. After reading that the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage purchased a treadmill last year for its sole elephant I’ve been beyond annoyed by the fact that anyone could believe it is better for an African elephant to live in an arctic climate where it has to stay inside and exercise on a treadmill than to be at a place like PAWS or the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee (both of which are endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States.)

But I digress.

I was thinking about elephants when I saw Secrets of the Savanna in a recent Houghton Mifflin catalog and was immediately caught by the subtitle: “Twenty-Three Years in the African Wilderness Unraveling the Mysteries of Elephants and People.” Written by longtime wildlife conservationists Mark and Delia Owens (Cry of the Kalahari and The Eye of the Elephant), Secrets is a very personal look at their efforts to stop poaching in the North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. In the course of their work the Owenses found themselves in a very unique position to document the impact longtime poaching can have on elephant herds. They were able to see just how the social structure is affected (and can rebound if given a chance) and also what becomes of elephants that are left to make their way into adulthood without the benefits of the herd. It’s a fascinating look at elephant society and, beyond that, the impact of poaching on human society. An equal portion of the book looks at the Owenses’ work to persuade former poachers to develop other economic opportunities in their villages and wean themselves off of poaching as a source of income. Ultimately they were wildly successful in their efforts and even though the Owenses are no longer in Zambia (due to problems with local politicians who were dependent upon poaching for income), their programs are still in place and thriving.

Reading a book like Secrets of the Savanna puts all sorts of thoughts in my mind about animals and how we as humans interact with them. Author Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld explored the history of the Bronx Zoo in Wild Lives (which I reviewed in my column last month) and was able to show how our view of animals in captivity has dramatically altered over the years. (No more concrete cages with steel bars.) But the Owenses effectively point out that in many parts of the world we are still hopelessly dependent upon animals for economic means and unless a lot of time and resources can be put into showing people alternatives to poaching, the harsh reality that animals will die for the economic good of people is not going to change.

Of course the real surprise here is that in long run the time and effort needed to transform a poaching economy are in fact minimal, while the impact such a change can have on the lives of the former poachers is huge. What the Owens and their friends have accomplished in Zambia might seem like nothing short of a miracle but really it is just the old adage “teach a man to fish and he will eat forever” being reworked for the modern age. In this case everybody wins -- humans and elephants -- and as the park becomes more viable, we will reap the rewards of a tourist destination on a global level that shows us how elephants should really live.

Unless of course you want to go to Alaska and see an elephant on a treadmill.

Deborah Noyes is also intrigued by animal/human interaction and her new book, One Kingdom: Our Lives With Animals, looks at the human-animal bond in its various forms. From a historical look at zoos, contests, and animal training (elephants were trained in India as early as 2500 BC), Noyes presents a portrait of people who wanted to watch animals die versus those who longed to protect them. The most extreme killing examples come from the Romans, where under Titus during the Colosseum inauguration somewhere between 5,000 and 9,000 animals were killed in blood sport in a single day.

Noyes also discusses the first public zoo, built by the Greeks under Ptolemy I, and some private owners that most of us will not have heard of, like the Japanese Shogun Tsunayoshi who in the 17th century had over 100,000 dogs. Caring for his collection resulted in national inflation and a tax placed on farmers. It’s proof though that our affinity for house pets is not a passing fad and can be found throughout human history.

One Kingdom is not a collection of trivia however, as fascinating to the reader as some of the more esoteric bits of information that Noyes shares may be. The author is trying to get an important point across with her book, namely that while the relationship between humans and animals has at times been both bloody and violent (and led to the wholesale destruction of some species), it has still been a significant part of human history. We might love them or hate them, but we have always wanted to understand animals. We have always depended upon them for something in our lives, whether it is money, medicine, or love. Simply put, we just don’t know how to live without them.

This brings me back to the Owenses, who were so successful with their work in Zambia that as author Alexandra Fuller notes in the foreword, “the projects they helped spearhead have survived without their presence and become organic to the area.” The elephants found their champions and more importantly, the Owenses found a way to make others champion their cause. This was the critical element that was missing in the park before the Owenses arrived -- there was no tradition of seeing the elephants as anything other than useful to humans. Although the culture had appreciated the animals in the past, that appreciation had not been able to modernize with the villagers’ needs. After the Owens, the villagers moved past reliance on the elephants and were able to return to letting them live for their own sake.

On that subject, Noyes points out in One Kingdom that the Detroit Zoo elephant enclosure was one-acre, fully sixteen times larger than the American Zoo and Aquarium Association demands. But in the wild, Asian elephants like the two from Detroit would roam as much as thirty miles a day. So what are they thinking in those enclosures, she wonders -- what are all of those animals thinking about us as we walk by staring at them?

“Might it be that animals share,” writes Noyes, “to varying degrees, inside their varied skins, these same shadowy contents from which love, terror, grief, compassion and shame spring? Because they can’t tell us, because we can’t prove it either way, does that mean we should doubt what we see in our dog’s eyes or feel in our gut when we watch the leopard pacing in her cage, when we catch the zoo elephant intent on a sound we can’t hear, poised at a point of remembering….what?”

Whether they are in the wild or in captivity or sitting on our living room floor, we want to know what animals are thinking. It has been a human quest to dominate some and eradicate others, but increasingly we seem to long simply to understand. The Owenses have dedicated their lives to saving the wild and their latest book will certainly appeal to anyone with an interest in wildlife conservation. Deborah Noyes looks at a bigger animal picture with One Kingdom but the appeal of her title is the same. Both make perfect choices for young and old readers. They are books dedicated to changing minds and enlightening us as to just how fragile wildlife is and the significant ways in which humans can change the world by changing the manner in which we interact with it.

Save an elephant and save the world; it could happen, you know. At the very least, it would be saving something.

Secrets of the Savanna by Mark & Delia Owens
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 0395893100
256 pages

One Kingdom: Our Lives With Animals by Deborah Noyes
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN 0618499148
128 pages