Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"You've got to be taught to be afraid..." Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships by Catherine Thimmesh

When an old orangutan at Zoo World in Florida lost her mate, she was listless and would barely eat. Workers worried that she might very well lose her will to live. So they brought a new companion--a stray tabby cat--to her enclosure, first just outside the fence, then in. The two became instant and inseparable friends.

You've got to be taught/ To hate and fear.../ You've got to be carefully taught. These words, part of the theme song from the iconoclastic 1949 musical South Pacific, began to run through my head as I paged through the amazing photos in Catherine Thimmesh's forthcoming Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

With its glorious photos of improbable animal pairings--a macaque and a pigeon, an wild owl who flies in to snuggle nightly with a Bassett hound, a squirrel monkey and a capybara, the famous wild polar bear and the sled dog, a tiger cub and baby orangutan, and most improbably a brief friend-in-need relationship of a mouse floating to safety in a flood on a swimming toad's head---this book cheers the soul while bringing into question what we think we know about nature and nurture.

Such improbable friendship stories are legendary through literature, from Aesop's fable of The Lion and the Mouse, right down to the best-selling books of Isabella and Craig Hatkoff, Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship,(and sequels) the tales of an inseparable orphaned baby hippo and an ancient land tortoise, Carol Buckley's Tarra & Bella: The Elephant and Dog Who Became Best Friends, and of course the classic, Francine Patterson's Koko's Kitten (Reading Rainbow Book). These cross-species friendships, defying all our common wisdom about natural instincts, show that even the customary predator-prey relationships are primarily learned, nurture learned from parenting more than hardwired by nature, and most hopefully, capable of being transcended even by mature animals well beyond the pliability of youth. There is a lot to be learned in the brief verse, explanatory prose, and above all, the touching photos in this little book.

If an owl and a dog, an orangutan and a cat can transcend their different morphologies to see into each other's hearts, maybe there's still hope for us!

Friends can be different--
with stripes on their face:
or friends can have
to touch and embrace.

But it doesn't matter--
not in the end--
because deep where it counts,
one knows a true friend.

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  • I thought of the song, too. So true that prejudice and hate are learned behaviors. What a beautiful book to read with a child and talk about special friendships! Thanks for the review!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:46 AM  

  • It's amazing that you thought of that song, too. This book is very special.

    Thanks for sharing that comment.

    By Blogger GTC, at 8:21 AM  

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