Tuesday, August 02, 2016

How to Train Your Dragon: Bridge to the Wild: Behind the Scenes at the Zoo by Caitlin O'Connell

In the heart of many cities, there is a jungle.

That jungle is the zoo, a world to itself, in some ways a wild world, and in some ways perhaps the most civilized place in the world.

Zoologist and elephant specialist Caitlin O'Connell takes us with her for an unusual day at the zoo, one which shows the reader what happens behind the scenes and why it happens.

Before dawn breaks at Zoo Atlanta, we hear that world waking up before we see it. The many birds in the aviary section provide the dawn chorus, especially the ground hornbill, with his huge goo hoos, and the kori bustard, the largest of the flighted birds with a wingspan of eight feet, with his booming mating call that definitely breaks the day for the keepers.

But the first stop is at the panda house. There are the adorable baby pandas who reach out to the visitors, along with the still-unsolved mystery of panda fertility, or lack of it as the case may be. Tidbits of panda lore include the fact that pandas have evolved an extra thumb-like protrusion that functions as a bamboo peeler which makes for easier chewing of their primary food, important since the large vegans have to spend virtually all their waking hours just chewing their way through the fibrous food that keeps them alive.

Other fascinating stops are at the meerkat compound, where their sentries are already on duty, scouring the skies for raptors and engaging in enforcing the rigid "pecking order" that maintains order in their large colonies, and a stop at the lion enclosures, with their highly paternalistic family groupings.

But the most moving visits are those to the great primates, gorillas and orangutans, our closest cousins, where we learn that male gorillas interpret eye-to-eye contact as aggression, that some gorilla mothers, like Jennifer, are total "helicopter moms," some females, like Cudzu, are clearly the beauty queens of the troop, admired by their court and suitors, while other mothers, like Madu, the Supermom, willingly adopt orphans and raise them well, even bottle feeding the infants and taking them to keepers for treatment when they seem ill. Sadly like their human counterparts, gorilla troops also include "mean girls" who make life lonely for females like Sukari at the bottom of the social order.

Visits to amphibians and reptiles include getting eyeball to eyeball with the black mamba and a scary inside-the-fence experiment in training Komodo dragons. But author Caitlin O'Connell, Sibert Award-winning author of Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt's A Baby Elephant in the Wild and The Elephant Scientist (Scientists in the Field Series) (read my reviews here), has her first love with the elephants, where she describes the "circle of love" that elephants create for their family group. With twenty-five years as a pachyderm expert, O'Connell describes the particular social structure that exists to protect and ensure their survival, with pecking order, cliques, bullying and the rest of the behaviors that have parallels among social mammals.

Caitlin O'Connell's forthcoming today, Bridge to the Wild: Behind the Scenes at the Zoo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), with its many sensitive, informing, and even funny color photographs provided by her partner Timothy Rodwell, offers so much more than a stroll through the exhibits at the zoo, with fascinating insights into testing animal intelligence and veterinary medicine for the captive animals. Who knew that gorillas substitute paper bags in place of the large leaves that they use as umbrellas in the wild, or that zoo vets have trained male lions to open their mouths willingly for dental exams and stick their tails through the bars for blood tests?

There is all that and many other choice tidbits of life in our "bridge to the wild," our local zoos, shared in this attractive and well-documented account of modern zoo work and life. O'Connell acknowledges that in a perfect world all species would live healthy and long lives in their native environments, but until that utopia exists, many wild animals are dependent upon zoos and preserves for their continued survival, and for that knowledgeable and caring professionals are essential. For middle readers who love animals and may want to make careers in caring for them their lives' work, this book is a must read and is surely a first purchase for school and public libraries.

Valuable back matter includes "Data Sheets" from observational charts by zoo naturalists as examples for would-be animal scientists and an excellent index.

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