BOOK REVIEW / Pet subjects: Jan Morris on dogs and dolphins

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
BARKING and miaowing, hissing and growling, this is the time of year when the animal books come into the open, and six of them have found their way through the undergrowth, past Jenks the cat, to the sanctuary of my desk. They illustrate almost the whole range of emotions, sentimental to exploitative, patronising to ga-ga, with which the human animal regards his fellow creatures.

It is true that few respectable publishers nowadays would dare issue a coffee-table book about big game hunting - it would take courage even to publish one about the Quorn. Even the anthropomorphic approach to animals, except in children's books, is likely to raise critical sneers. Nevertheless, my six books show how slowly, how equivocally, how timidly mankind is evolving its attitudes to the rest of the creatures.

Take Elliot Erwitt's handsome photographic album To The Dogs (D A P Scalo). The president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says on its jacket that the book 'uncovers the absolute wonder' of the dog, and there are certainly some pictures here which show animals of dignity. But there are also dogs hideously prettied up for shows, demeaned by over-breeding, made fools of, made slaves of, stuffed, pictured in moments of defecation or used as advertising props. The real wonder is the creepy hold the human race has established over this long-degraded species, an ascendancy breezily skirted around in Erwitt's introduction.

Then there is Into the Blue (Aquarian / Thorsons pounds 20), a book about dolphins by the altogether admirable Virginia McKenna. I have no complaints about this beautiful book's attitude to dolphins. It is straightforward in its belief that they should be left alone, and that their contacts with humanity, which have brought such delight to so many thousands of people, should be at the will of the dolphins themselves. Yet even here the human self-deception shows. Why is it always dolphins? What's so special about them? It is only because they are friendly, intelligent and seem always to be smiling that we lavish such care upon them, as against the rat or conger eel.

Candace Savage's book Peregrine Falcons (Robert Hale pounds 16.95) is also Species Correct, the worst it sanctions in the way of human interference being the tracking of falcons for protective purposes. The book is brave enough to admit that the techniques of the old falconers have been invaluable in saving the peregrine from extermination, and is properly angry about the wicked over-use of pesticides. It is a manual, in fact, of benevolent human intervention in the affairs of the animal kingdom: like a Great Power's intervention in - well, in Somalia, say.

Yet most of us probably cherish an atavistic yearning for the truly wild, where man does not intervene at all. Unfortunately there are no such worlds, but there are places where we are still far from omnipotent, and where the rest of creation is unfamiliar still.

Lake Baikal, for instance, may be frightfully polluted, but it still contains (so I learn from Realms of the Russian Bear by John Sparks, BBC Books pounds 18.95) 1,200 species of animal that are found nowhere else, including its own particular seal and a kind of shrimp that sometimes congregates in fleets of 25,000 to the sq yard. The superb picture book Ngorongoro, by the German photographer Reinhard Kunkel (Harvill pounds 40) gives the illusion that the rhinos, elephants, wild dogs and servals of northern Tanzania are still stomping about, eating each other or picking ticks out of each others' hides without reference to Homo Sapiens.

Finally, yowling, chuckling, cackling and yapping louder than any, along comes Lucinda Lambton's Magnificent Menagerie (HarperCollins pounds 20). Lambton is, I have always assumed, the person Dorothy Field the lyricist had in mind when she wrote about keeping one's breathless charm, and this highly engaging anthology of animal anecdotes shows that she is successfully following the advice. In its irrepressible pages we learn how to walk like a chamelon, we hear of a clergyman whose pet mouse's ears suggested to him the Gates of Heaven, we are told the price of a rat-pie (assuming four rats to a pie), we read of a baboon working railway signals, a bird which could stand on its head, and a cotamundi which, having roasted its own tail in a fire, ate it with enjoyment. Between the lines we see entertainingly illustrated every aspect of the relationship between man and the other creatures, except only one: absolute, unquestioning equality of rights.

This is the great challenge which the human race is approaching with such equivocation, unable to believe that man himself is no more than another animal, with no more soul than a slug, no more claim to privilege than a wart-hog. We lord it over the rest by force majeure, just as not so long ago the imperialists lorded it over the hapless subject peoples. In Magnificent Menagerie Kipling indulges himself in some sickly stuff about an ever-faithful dog following its master into heaven; how I wish he could have followed his instincts for racial equality into species equality too, and written something like this: But here is neither patron or pet, culling or conservation, when man and beast stand face to face, though they come from the ends of creation.