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Bears: A Brief History | Book Review

Bears: A Brief History | Book Review
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The Animal MirrorPhoto/Art by Heath RobbinsThe Abenakis called him “cousin,” the Penobscots “grandfather.” The Kets of Siberia preferred “fur father.” In the Carpathian Mountains, he was “little uncle”; Laplanders addressed him as “the old man with the fur garment.” We call him Smokey, Yogi, or Winnie-the-Pooh.

It’s clear that human beings have always felt a kinship with bears, as Bernd Brunner makes clear in Bears: A Brief History (Yale University Press; $15). It’s not a two-way relationship, though. “Bears are not interested in people,” Brunner states flatly. Oh, but we’re interested in them, and in other nonhumans who share our planet, a theme these three recent books share and explore.

That interest is illustrated by the lengths to which writers will go to learn more about our fellow travelers. Richard Conniff, who lives in Connecticut and has been a frequent contributor to Yankee, has collected his most remarkable encounters in Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Things With Animals (W.W. Norton; $25.95). In addition to taking the piranha plunge (not even a flesh wound), he sticks his hand into a nest of fire ants (extremely painful) and sits down in the middle of a pack of African wild dogs (they sniff him and depart).

Conniff and Brunner are journalists. The one scientist in the group is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and her field is anthropology–the study of people, not animals. But she’s famous for two best-sellers, The Hidden Life of Dogs and The Tribe of Tiger, which explore the psychology of canines and cats, respectively. In The Hidden Life of Deer (Harper Collins; $24.99), she turns her attention to “the most written-about mammals in the world” and finds new depths of mystery in her New Hampshire backyard.

Thomas is a keen observer, but she makes no pretense of scientific objectivity. She is firmly on the side of deer–and oak trees and caterpillars and fungi–regarding them as co-owners of her farm and, by extension, the earth. “A good way to look at other life forms,” she declares, “is to view them all as something like yourself.”

She’s not alone. In all three books, the question arises: Does our yearning to see ourselves in the animal mirror distort our vision? Frans de Waal, a leading primatologist profiled by Conniff, says no. “Instead of being tied to how we are unlike any animal,” he states, “human identity should be built around how we are animals that have taken certain capacities a significant step further.”

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