February 20, 2014


Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual. By Kate Samworth. Clarion. $17.99.

Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa’s Fastest Cats. By Sy Montgomery. Photographs by Nic Bishop. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     An exceptional book whose profundity will likely escape the young readers at whom it is ostensibly aimed, Kate Samworth’s Aviary Wonders Inc. is a subdued, mordantly funny plea for preservation of avian habitat today from the vantage point of a not-too-distant future in which many birds have simply disappeared. The book really is structured like a catalog, beginning with a message from “company founder Alfred Wallis” that strikes just the right (and typical) corporate note of advocacy and self-congratulation, through pages that show bird parts “created” by the company and given the sorts of names that companies do indeed give to their wares every day. One feather, for instance, is labeled “Minimalist: Red, white, black, and bold,” while the page offering different bird bodies comments that “a change of scale transforms the everyday into the fantastic.” The catalog offers swimmers, perchers, birds of prey and waders, presenting parts of genuine birds as if they are made by Aviary Wonders Inc. and noting which birds really have become extinct – but doing so in a way that, as one would expect in a catalog, makes those samples seem even more exotic than the others. The “parts descriptions” are just right for an imagined catalog offering – showing the beak of an avocet, for example, the text says, “The upturned beak suggests aristocratic taste and elegance,” and a general note about this part says, “Because out artisans have complete creative control, each beak is crafted with passion and attention to detail.” There are explanatory pages here, too, such as “Legs Dos and Don’ts: Your bird’s proportions must be balanced,” which includes “correct” and “incorrect” choices. In addition to parts, “Flight Patterns” are offered, with the note that “Wing shape affects flying style. Choose wings accordingly.” There are also fancifully named “embellishments,” such as collars called Carnegie, Getty and Rockefeller. And there are eight pages of “Assembly Instructions,” which are simultaneously hilarious and bizarre, plus two “Troubleshooting” pages and an “Order Form” with an entirely appropriate corporate disclaimer about the company’s inability to guarantee quality of flight and voice and other matters. This is Samworth’s first book, and it is a beauty, gorgeous to look at in its full, vibrant colors, deceptively easy to read, and built on a foundation of so much heart and soul that parents will be at least as fascinated by it as their children will be.

     Samworth’s book is set in a near-future time when bioengineering has advanced and bird extinctions presumably have, too: the book’s subtitle says the company has been “Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031.” Other books, more factual but no less devoted, are dedicated to scientists who are trying to prevent further extinctions so books like Aviary Wonders Inc. will not become a reality. A new entry in the always excellent “Scientists in the Field” series, Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa’s Fastest Cats, is a case in point. Cheetahs are the most-endangered cats in Africa as well as the fastest predatory animals on Earth, and their sleekness and beauty make them natural “spokescats” for attempts to prevent the sorts of occurrences that threaten them and many less-photogenic animals with destruction. “The point of our work is not to have tame cheetahs. It’s to have wild cheetahs,” explains Laurie Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). But getting to the wild ones often requires a degree of taming at first, since cheetahs are a significant threat to farm animals and are therefore often killed by farmers – leaving cubs behind to be raised by humans until they can be released back into the wild.  Sy Montgomery explains that CCF has rescued some 900 cheetahs and returned most to the wild, but the inexorable pressures of coexistence with humans continue, and even with educational efforts to try to help farmers understand the importance of cheetahs to a healthy ecosystem, preservation of the big cats is difficult. This is a familiar story in many of the “Scientists in the Field” books – unremitting conflicts caused by the differing needs of humans and animals remorselessly push animals to smaller and smaller habitats and potentially lead to their extinction. As in other books in this series, there are no “bad guys” here: farmers often live at subsistence levels and cannot afford to lose some of their animals to wild carnivores. The balancing act of human and animal needs is what organizations such as CCF are all about. The scientists in Chasing Cheetahs have some interesting methods of preserving the cheetah population. For example, they arrange to sell protective dogs to farmers so the dogs can scare predators such as cheetahs away – and the sales are made at prices low enough for the farmers to avoid, and come with a contract under which CCF can take the dog back if it is not cared for properly. The specifics of the scientists’ work are, as always, fascinating, but the photos by Nic Bishop – also as always – are even more gripping than the text. A cheetah high in a tree, using its keen eyes to scan for prey; a scientist holding a tiny and utterly adorable cheetah cub; animals amid which wild cheetahs live, such as warthogs, antelopes and deadly puff adders; and many photos of the everyday life and work of the CCF scientists in Namibia, where the book is set – these are just some of the scenes. The book is packed with factual tidbits that make cheetahs even more interesting – for example, they are sight hunters whose sense of smell is so poor that they may not notice a piece of meat on the ground nearby unless they can see it. Beautiful pictures, a clear and interesting story, and a real-world conundrum that has no easy solutions – these are the ingredients of Chasing Cheetahs, as of many “Scientists in the Field” books. Taken together, they are a recipe for engaging reading and thoughtful contemplation.

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