May 28, 2009


Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature’s Mysteries from Perilous Places. By Donna M. Jackson. Houghton Mifflin. $18.

ER Vets: Life in an Animal Emergency Room. By Donna M. Jackson. Sandpiper. $8.99.

     Donna M. Jackson keeps finding ways in which the real world is every bit as exciting, dangerous and occasionally heartbreaking as anything on TV or in the movies. Both the new Extreme Scientists and the paperback edition of ER Vets (originally published in 2005) show people doing important jobs in difficult, complex and sometimes very scary conditions. Extreme Scientists uses skillful writing and wonderfully selected pictures to profile three people whom Jackson calls “Hurricane Hunter,” “Cave Woman” and “Skywalker.” The first of these, Paul Flaherty, goes outdoors when everyone else is advised to stay in and find a safe place because of a dangerous storm. Flaherty, a meteorologist, is a hurricane tracker – one of those brave people who fly into the eye of huge storms to obtain information that forecasters use to track the storms’ strength and direction, keeping people in their path safe. Flaherty “doesn’t consider himself a thrill-seeker,” but simply someone fascinated by the weather – but he has had his share of close calls, and Jackson also tells of hurricane hunters who have lost their lives. “Cave Woman” is Hazel Barton, who has a tattoo of a partial map of South Dakota’s Wind Cave on one arm and who spends her time studying microbes that live in caves – which includes discovering new ones. As a microbiologist, she is a scientist first and foremost, but she has also been seen in an IMAX movie called Journey into Amazing Caves – she descended both into an ice crevasse in Greenland and into waters beneath Mexico’s rainforests. “Skywalker” is Stephen Sillett, who studies organisms that live in forest canopies – which means he climbs huge redwood trees. Not everything living in the tree canopy is tiny – one photo in this section shows a salamander that Sillett discovered 207 feet above the ground. “The first step’s the most dangerous” in climbing a redwood, Jackson explains, because the tree trunk may have no branches for hundreds of feet. Learning how Sillett, Barton and Flaherty overcome the dangers of their jobs, and how their field work complements their more-mundane laboratory work, makes an utterly fascinating volume – one exciting enough so that many young readers will surely want to check out the publications, DVDs and Web sites that Jackson lists at the end of the book.

     ER Vets tells a more everyday story, and one that readers are more likely to experience, but in its own way it is every bit as breathtaking – and even more heart-tugging – than the tales in Extreme Scientists. An animal emergency room is a world where abbreviations save the doctors time and help them save lives, a world of HBC (hit by car), BDLC (big dog attacked little cat), CHF (congestive heart failure) and FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disease) – and a world of hedgehogs, rabbits, birds and snakes as well as cats and dogs. Filled with photos taken at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Colorado State University, ER Vets shows the tremendous attention and care given by veterinarians to all the animals brought to them at times of crisis – including ones that can be saved and ones that cannot. Even people who do not care for reptiles will be moved by the story of a pet snake named Lucy that could not be revived after it escaped into the dashboard while being carried in a car – and the temperature that night dropped too low for Lucy’s body to handle it. In fact, Jackson’s chapter called “Death of a Pet,” which follows the Lucy story, will be especially helpful to parents trying to support and comfort children when an animal is dying or has passed away. But most of ER Vets is about happier circumstances, as animals that would die without prompt and efficient care recover thanks to veterinarians’ skill. Amid the stories of injured animals rescued and restored to their families are well-done explanations of things that pet lovers should know in order to decide whether to get an animal to a vet – the four pages called “Is It an Emergency?” are especially helpful. ER Vets is ultimately an uplifting and hopeful book, acknowledging that some injured animals cannot be saved but showing that many can be healed and restored to normal lives through the skill of some very dedicated professionals.

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