Gallipoli Murphy the Anzac donkey

Jan Morris and her cat explore the animal kingdom in search of tigers, bears, foxes and the tuskless Indian elephant

The years come scooting by, and whenever the annual crop of animal books turns up, it brings home to me that even here in sweet Eifionydd the creature kingdom is declining - I haven't seen a glowworm for years. The hares don't gambol like they us ed to. The snakes, lizards and frogs seem scarcer. Still, Captain Jenks our Maine Coon cat is still around, and as this year's books seemed at first sight rather less gloomily elegiac than usual, I invited the old boy to join me in reviewing them, with a martini and a plate of Whiskas to keep us going.

He was particularly taken with Silent Heroes, by Evelyn Le Chigne (Souvenir Press, £15.99), which is all about the courage and devotion displayed by our dumb friends during the wars of the humans. Dumb was the right word, I thought myself, as I read about Chindit Minnie, Stubby the Hero of the Trenches, Gallipoli Murphy the Anzac donkey and Rob the parachuting collie, but Jenks thought it inspiring, and even claimed to be distantly related to Simon of the Royal Navy, the only cat to win the Dickin Medalfor courage (posthumously, for determined rat-catching in the face of the enemy, Yangtze River, 1949).

We both loved the album of winning pictures in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition (Fountain Press, £19.95) because although it has a fairly lugubrious introduction by David Bellamy ("Will it become just another archive of a dying world?"),for the most part it is a wonderfully joyous affair. The picture that won outright, by the American Thomas Mangelsen, shows a polar bear and an Arctic fox wistfully side by side, all alone in a vast expanse of the Arctic, waiting for the sea to freeze so they can go hunting for seals: but most of the pictures are full of pleasure, with bears courting, lions and leopards playing, a crocodile contentedly chomping a gazelle, a moth laying eggs, a swan leading her cygnets with perfect aplomb over a waterfall - a grand and beautiful display, in short, of animal spirits.

Then there was a book misleadingly entitled, I thought (though Jenks disagreed), Noble Beasts (Bulfinch Press, £17.50), an anthology of animal pictures taken from the collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. By no means all its beasts seemed to me noble, least of all the American naif dog on the cover, which has protruding teeth and very stumpy legs; but there is certainly nobility enough inside, in the animals themselves, in images by Durer, Renoir, Manet, the bronze carvers of Benin, Audubon and Rubens, and in the agreeable collection of poems and prose extracts which Brian D Hotchkiss has chosen to accompany them. Very commendable, Jenks thought it, slavering rather over the plump rabbit on page 90.

But then two books about exotica cast a slight dampener on our delights ("More Whiskas, Jenks?" "Go on then, if you're having another"). Raman Sukumar's Elephant Days and Nights (Oxford University Press, Delhi) is a memoir of the decade he has spent studying the Asian elephant, but it is more than that, because it is an intimate record too of the particular relationship that the elephant has with the people of India. The elephant is a national symbol, an essential part of the culture; it is al so a plunderer of crops, a destroyer of trees, and even sometimes a murderer. Sukumar treats his majestic subject with love and humour but without sentimentality, and ironically appends to his penultimate chapter, about the illustrious history of the Asi an elephant, a sad prognosis: that if ivory poaching is not ended, natural selection may produce an altogether tuskless breed of Indian pachyderm.

Even sadder, we thought, was Tiger, by Simon Barnes (Boxtree, £17.99). Its very end-papers are poignant, for they show the ever-shrinking habitat of the tiger during the 20th century - gone from the Middle East and Central Asia, from most of China and much of Indonesia, almost gone from Sibera and even in India confined to isolated slabs of terrain. The book is a celebration of everything tigrine, from myth to physique, but it is very nearly an obituary too. We are losing at least one tiger every day, probably more. All the more horrible is the picture in this book of a tiger auction in Talwain, in which a magnificent creature of the night is spread-eagled with ropes upside-down in a cage, burning bright no longer, just stared at impertinently by ugly humans.

Poor Jenks. He did not like that at all. But he was most disturbed of all by the last of our books - A Short History of The Wolf in Britain, by James Harting (Pryor Publications), a facsimile reproduction of a work first published in 1880. There are, of course, no wolves in Britain now, but once they were almost everywhere, and the learned Harting tells us dispassionately how they were exterminated. In Wales their pelts were dispatched as tribute to overlords. In England royal grants of land were made to people undertaking to wipe them out. In Scotland a dead wolf was worth a live ox. By 1770, so Harting estimates, there were no wild wolves left alive in the British Isles.

Captain Jenks was horrified, and looked up at me with anxious eyes. Could it possibly happen, he seemed to be suggesting. . .? I did my best to reassure him. . . . "Don't be ridiculous, Jenks", I said, hoisting him with difficulty on to my lap. "We'll beextinct before you are."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'