BOOK REVIEW / Where the wild and darling things are: Jan Morris on penguins, plankton, zebra, butterflies, wolves and cats

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The Independent Culture
Hist] Here come the animal books] One of my life's small pleasures is their annual arrival on my desk, almost knocking over the word processor in their jostling anxiety to be reviewed.

Alas, the first of the pack this year made my heart sink. I seemed to know it all too well. It was glossy, done by the BBC and had a foreword by Sir David Attenborough; its jokey title meant it was all about the Antarctic and it was full of penguins. Ungratefully (for I believe television wildlife films to be much the most telling answer to the iniquities of zoos) I zapped away as hastily from Alastair Fothergill's Life in the Freezer (BBC Books, pounds 18.99) as I do whenever I sense yet another natural history programme coming up on the box.

This is, of course, very unfair to Mr Fothergill, who is the award- winning head of the BBC natural history unit. The book is probably fine, has nice pictures by Ben Osborne and will give half-an-hour's pleasure to millions. My response does show, though, that over-exposure can be almost as threatening to the natural world as neglect, and that even the most besotted lover of the birds and beasts can be alienated by too much gloss, too many penguins and another appearance by Sir David Attenborough.

At first, the second arrival on my desk had much the same effect on me. It too was very glossy, it was compiled by the Living Earth Foundation and it had an introduction by David Bellamy. However, The Oceans (Ebury Press, pounds 18.99), turned out to be a truly lovely celebration of everything to do with the seas, penguins included - a holistic picture, as its blurb characteristically says. Its articles, by 10 distinguished authorities, pay only the most essential lip-service to populism ('The Plankton Powerhouse', 'Eat or Be Eaten', 'Dancing in the Dark', David Bellamy), and its photographs go far beyond the usual nature stuff to include almost abstract images of startling beauty and invention - who would have thought a Yellowhead Jawfish incubating eggs in its open jaws could look so elegantly modernist?

Softly indeed fluttered the next book into my in-tray, if only because Dr John Feltwell's The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Butterflies (Blandford Press, pounds 25) consists mostly of coloured photographs of more than a thousand lepidoptera, all extremely dead. It is a handsome and fascinating book, all the same. As a work of reference it will be invaluable to those anxious to confirm their identification of Eroessa Chilensis (which lives only at high altitudes in Chile) or the Malayan Zebra (whose males exhibit mud-puddling behaviour), but it is full of interesting material too for those of use who just like to watch the darling things wavering about the garden.

It has measurements and maps and anatomical diagrams. It has tips on butterfly-spotting. It has an admirable glossary. Did you know that the butterfly gets balder as it gets older? That the commonest butterfly in the world is probably the Painted Lady? That there are butterflies called the Great Mormon and Nabokov's Satyr? It's all in Feltwell somewhere.

Aha, snapping at the squiggled yellow wings of the Haitian Mimic, here come the wolves. If I howl at them, I gather, they may well howl sociably back, but of all the members of the animal world, they strike me as the most disturbing. Are they our friends or our enemies? Are they noble or deplorable? Issues of conservation seem to rage more furiously about the wolf than about any other creature, and in The Complete Wolf (Boxtree, pounds 20), Liz Bomford tells us why.

Some of her history seems a little hazy - I have severe doubts about the existence in the second century BC of a King of the Scots named Dormadilla, and I know for sure there wasn't a King Idwal of Wales (of Gwynedd, she means). She is excellent, though, on the blood-curdling mythology of the wolf, which has played a horrid part in the folk- lore of half the world, and even better on the condition of the wolf today, suspended as it is between extinction and revival, atavistic persecution and sentimental gush. Even after reading her book I still don't quite know what to think of the wolf, but in a recent Portuguese survey it was voted Favourite Animal of 1992.

And finally, softly, sneakily, ingratiatingly comes the cat. Cat books are surely the most profligate species of animal literature, and many of them are perfectly ghastly - some horribly Cat Showy, some sickeningly itsy-bitsy, some patronisingly anthropomorphic. In The True Nature of the Cat (Boxtree, pounds 14.99) Dr John Bradshaw approaches the subject with a proper respect, affection and humility. He used to be a biochemist making cat food for pets, and he seems chiefly to be addressing a squeamish urban audience which doesn't much like the idea of Tiddles going outside and disembowelling a mouse; but by and large he treats the cat as it should be treated - as a wild creature that has marvellously adapted itself to living among humans.

True, he appears to accept as perfectly normal the idea of behavioural counselling for cats, and seems too ready (in my view) to consider permanent incarceration in a cat shelter an acceptable alternative to euthanasia. But he is a genuine priest of the cat mystery, and his book is full of esoterica. Cats can't see the colour red, for instance. Many Siamese can't see three-dimensionally. Some cats have a hereditary distaste for catnip. The blotched tabby is more common in south-east England than anywhere else on earth. Even now nobody understands the queer teeth-chattering noise cats sometimes make when they see a bird in a tree. Mother cats keep their nests clean by eating their kittens' faeces. Two different notes in a birdsong are necessary to guide a cat to its source, which is perhaps why some birds whistle only in one.

Dr Bradshaw sums up the cat as an 'approachable representative of the animal kingdom', and so his book suitably ends this year's visitation from that alien realm. There they go now, the lot of them, leaping and tumbling off my desk, away across the room to the open door, courteously ushered out by Captain Jenks, our distinctly uncounselled tomcat. Sir David and Professor Bellamy bring up the rear, still in their studio make-up.