June 02, 2011


Rescuing Rover: Saving America’s Dogs. By Raymond Bial. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

Friends: True Stories of Extraordinary Animal Friendships. By Catherine Thimmesh. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

     There are few stories more heartrending than tales of lost, abandoned, abused and mistreated dogs and puppies: human-dog interaction has existed for so long that we feel a kinship with this very different species that produces tremendous empathy when a canine suffers. So Rescuing Rover, despite its uplifting title and generally positive outlook, will be a difficult book for young people (and their parents) to read. But it is an important one, too, because Raymond Bial – himself the owner of four dogs and a cat described as an “honorary dog” – balances historical information on animal rescues with material about the great need for these rescues today, including clear explanations of how any reader can participate in this tremendously important process by becoming an adopter. Of course, to discuss adoption and explain why it matters so much, Bial has to explain how (if not why) some people so often mistreat dogs, and in what poor condition pups are often brought to shelters and foster homes. Sensitive to readers’ likely aversion to too much detail about what can and does happen to dogs, Bial avoids highly graphic descriptions of seriously malnourished and abused animals, and there are no photos here of the truly horrible shape in which some barely alive dogs make it to a rescue center, if they are lucky. But what Bial does show is upsetting enough, such as a picture of the filthy, stacked-high cages of a puppy mill, most of which contain one or more adorable, sad-eyed pups. On the facing page, a closeup of one puppy-mill dog is enough to make a sensitive reader want to adopt every single one of them. Bial does explain how puppy mills came to be big business after World War II, “when the United States Department of Agriculture encouraged farmers to raise purebred puppies for profit” in a classic case of government overreaching with severe, negative unintended consequences. He explains how to fight the proliferation of these puppy mills – which, unfortunately, are largely supported by pet stores, to which they generally sell their animals, and by Web sites that may look good but that sell malnourished and mistreated dogs that are dressed up to look good, if only temporarily, for purchase. On a much more positive note, Bial shows behind-the-scenes photos of animal rescuers at work, explains just how much work organizations such as the ASPCA and Humane Society must do, and offers plenty of pictures of staff and volunteers alike caring for, medicating, feeding and playing with the animals that they will offer to “forever” homes. Old photos of the ASPCA headquarters in New York City, of hounds bred specifically to hunt, and of other canine-human history enliven the book, while explanations of how shelters work (and why they are called “pounds”) provide an interesting historical and modern-day perspective. Information on how the adoption process works will be especially helpful to families that, after reading this book, decide to do their part to help rescue a dog by adopting one as a companion. Hopefully Rescuing Rover will save many dogs’ lives – our longtime companions deserve no less.

     Companionship of another and more surprising sort is the basis of Friends, in which Catherine Thimmesh briefly recounts stories of unlikely animal pairings – some brief, some long-lasting. The topic is naturally attractive and the pictures, by a wide variety of photographers, are excellent; but the book’s structure does not quite work, so it gets a (+++) rating. Simply looking at the photos will give anyone a smile and a sense of being uplifted: a tiny macaque gently stroking the back of a pigeon, a Vietnamese miniature pig and Asian camel nuzzling each other over a fence, a giraffe and ostrich putting their heads together, a polar bear sprawled on its back to play with (rather than eat) a nearby sled dog. Structurally, though, the book seems not quite sure what it wants to be. Part of each page explains what the photos show, and that portion of the text is a delight. But above the explanatory material, in larger type, some not-very-good poetry about friendship makes the book seem like a larger-size version of those little “friendship gift books” and their treacly sentiments: “No matter if spotted or dot-less and white, a friend gives protection through day and through night.” Furthermore, Thimmesh offers some questionable characterizations of animals (e.g., calling a frog’s skin “craggy”) and makes an occasional error (an Anatolian shepherd dog is described twice as “Antolian”). It is, however, easy to overlook these flaws by simply focusing on the sheer visual impact of Friends. Kids and parents alike will delight in seeing a tawny owl perched atop a basset hound, a mouse riding on a frog, an Asiatic bear protecting a stray cat, and a baby orangutan hugging a tiger cub – among other heartwarming and thoroughly endearing scenes that, surprisingly, actually occurred not only in wildlife sanctuaries but also, in some cases, in the wild itself. Certain animal interactions, whether or not the human word “friendship” really applies to them, can clearly be amazing things.

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