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
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The Independent Culture
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."