Category Archives: animals

Books about animals.

Review 176: Adventures Among Ants

Adventures Among Ants by Mark W. Moffett

Moffett knew from a young age that he wanted to be a field biologist – traveling the world in search of the most interesting animals he could find. And ever since his childhood, he’s had an abiding interest in ants.

And who could blame him? There are thousands of species of ants, found all around the world, and once you get down and really look at them, they display some amazing behaviors. They communicate through a series of smells, functioning almost as a group organism to take care of the nest, forage for food, and move from place to place. Some species of ants live their whole lives without touching the ground, while others ravage the ground they walk on, devouring everything in their paths. Ants are nature’s workhorses, utterly communistic in their behavior and presenting a model of order that humans should envy.

WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?!

We follow Moffett as he travels around the world to find the most interesting representatives of ant-dom. In India, he found the marauder ant, a vicious species of ant that goes on raids to find food near its nest. Connected by a complex system of trails, the marauder sends out every able-bodied ant it can muster, from the tiny workers to the (comparatively) giant soldier ants. They find, subdue, and dismember their prey with frightening efficiency, and carry it back to the nest, all without a leader to give them instructions or make sure they’re going the right way. Each ant just knows what her job is, and just does it. In that way, the ant super-organism takes care of itself.

In Africa, he hunts the famous African army ant, a species that is famous for its terrifying raids and voracious appetites. They swarm out around their nest, devouring anything in their path, sometimes raiding other nests for food and larvae. When army ants come, the lucky prey gets out of the way.

Ants are not confined to the ground, of course. The weaver ant is a tree-borne species that has mastered its domain with harshness and efficiency. The Amazon ant kidnaps pupae from neighboring nests and raises the young ants as their slaves. The leafcutter ant invented agriculture fifty million years before humanity even walked the earth, and the Argentine ant lives in supercolonies that cover hundreds of square kilometers and engage in violent, no-quarters war with each other.

Hey. So. How’s that picnic?

The sheer variety of ants on this planet is astounding, and Moffett shows an unstoppable enthusiasm for the little critters. What’s more, he’s an outstanding photographer, who has developed his technique and equipment to be able to get some remarkable shots of these tiny, tiny creatures in action. The hardcover edition that I have is printed on nice, glossy paper, pretty much in order to showcase Moffett’s photographic work, which he has regularly done for National Geographic Magazine.

What’s more, he continually seeks to find connections between ants and humans, who have more similarities than one might expect. We both live in large, complex societies, where individuals take on specific roles that often last that individual’s lifetimes. We engage in wars, slavery, and varied communal activities that benefit both the individual and the society at the same time. Like us, the ants build highways and infrastructure, communicate over distances, tend gardens, hold territory, plan for the future and learn from the past. And they started doing all this thousands of millennia before we even thought about standing upright. We are not the same as ants, of course – ants are unmoved by things such as status, greed, or ambition, but their instinctual dedication to the greater good of their colony is probably something that we could use a good dose of.

For all that, however, I don’t think this was the right ant book for me. Written by a person who truly loves ants, I think that would be the best kind of person to read it. I don’t have a particular fondness for the little buggers, and there were a lot of times where I had to stop and start over, or where I found myself looking for anything else to do rather than continue reading, which is never a good sign. It isn’t Moffett’s fault, I think. He put a lot of work and detail into this book, assuming that the reader would find ants just as fascinating as he does.

I mean I do, I DO! I’m so sorry don’t kill me!! (photo from Myrmecos.net)

And I don’t.

Oh sure – I find them fascinating in abstract, but not quite fascinating enough to get into the down-and-dirty details about how they construct trunk trails out of their nests, or the exact division of labor that exists between one class of ant and another. I’m not sure what I thought the book would be when I saw Moffett on The Colbert Report, but it wasn’t quite enough for me to sit down and devour the way I hoped it would be.

If you like ants – or you know someone who does – this is a great book, and it gives an excellent insight into what it means to be a field biologist (lots of staying in one place, apparently). For anyone who really loves insects in general, and ants in particular, this book will be a welcome addition to their bookshelf.

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“Is [an ant] intelligent? To my way of thinking, yes. We know a worker can evaluate the living space, ceiling height, entry dimensions, cleanliness, and illumination of a potential new home for her colony – a masterly feat, considering that she’s a roving speck with no pen, paper, or calculator.”
– Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants

Mark Moffett on Wikipedia
Adventures Among Ants on Amazon.com
Adventures Among Ants website

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Review 113: The Plague Dogs

The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

I really enjoy Richard Adams. Part of it is his writing – he has an excellent style and a definite gift for description. When he talks about a place, it is immediately obvious that he’s actually been there. He uses multiple senses to tell you what a place looks, sounds and smells like, the feeling of the damp earth and the rolling mists, the tastes that seep through the air…. Not surprising when one is writing a book where a pair of dogs are the primary characters.

And that’s another reason I like Adams. Lots of people write books about animals, personifying them and making them into almost-humans. But most of these writers tend to idealize the animals, put them into the sort of “noble savage” category which places humanity immediately in the wrong.

The fox is almost unintelligible. Enjoy that.

Not Adams. His animals are animals. In Watership Down, which was ostensibly a book for children, the animals live through fear, terror, despair and war. There is blood and death and pain, mostly because there is blood and death and pain in the natural world. He does acknowledge that he over-humanizes his characters, but without that, there would be no story.

This book is about the intersection of animals and man, and asks a very important question: what is humanity’s responsibility towards the animals? While he may not know what the true answer is, Adams definitely knows which answers are wrong. The book begins in a scientific research lab, in the quiet hills of northern England, where any number of experiments are performed on any number of animals. Some of them are paid for by outside interests – cosmetics corporations, for example – while others are performed to, in the mind of the lab’s directors, further the scope of scientific knowledge. Adams’ utter contempt for this kind of activity is immediately evident when you read it, and he spares no detail in describing what happens in these experiments. Animals mutilated, burned, shocked, frozen, exposed to poisons in their air, water and food. Kept awake, asleep, isolated…. all just to see what would happen. And when they die, they are disposed of with no more thought than one might dispose of a burned-out light bulb.

Like this, only worse.

One of the subjects is a large black mongrel dog which is being used to answer the great burning scientific question of, “What would happen if we kept trying to drown a dog but never actually let it die?” Rowf (having never had a master, his name is just the sound he makes) has a single companion in the lab, in the cage next to him – a small terrier who, having had a master before, has a name – Snitter. Snitter has been the subject of a far stranger experiment, and the brain surgery has left a deep scar across his skull and a deeper rift in his mind.

The two dogs manage to escape from the lab into the outside world, where they manage to survive, if only barely.

Poor, crazy Snitter....

And normally, that would be the end of the story. But then Adams reveals his antipathy for bureaucracy and the modern media, for where both of these intersect, terrible phantoms and ghouls can arise. Worried farmers, whose sheep are targets of the two hungry dogs, call their representatives to get answers from the recalcitrant lab. The ministers talk and talk about it, and when word leaks out to a well-known London tabloid, the story explodes.

WAS the lab not working with many kinds of animals the night the dogs escaped, it asked. Among those animals, were there not RATS? And were those rats not the subjects of tests involving the horrible BLACK PLAGUE? CAN the laboratory ASSURE the taxpaying public that there is ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE, none at all that the dogs are not infected with the virulent PLAGUE?

The newspaper’s answer, the one that will sell more copies, of course, is NO. And so, the two dogs, who were lucky enough to escape and canny enough to survive, become known nationwide as the Plague Dogs, subjects of a hunt which escalates beyond reasonable proportions.

Poor, miserable Rowf....

As much as this is an animal adventure story, a kind of twisted version of Homeward Bound, it is also commentary. There’s a lot of dog philosophy in here, for one of Adams’ gifts is being to get into the heads of the animals he’s writing. The two dogs agree on one thing – it is a dog’s place in the world to serve humanity. But how? Snitter, who’d had a good master once, believes that they are there to make humans happy, to bring love to a home. Rowf, however, having known nothing other than the laboratory, believes that dogs are there to be abused by humans for their unknowable purposes, and that by running away from the lab and the water tank, he has become a Bad Dog.

Also, looking at the world from a dog’s perspective is interesting. Snitter, for example, believes that the newspaper-boy delivers a paper to the Master’s house solely so the Master and Snitter can play a fun game. Isn’t that boy nice? And having known only suburbia, he is shocked that humans have ripped up the world and replaced it with all these green things and mountains and deep holes filled with water – which, of course, Rowf believes are used to drown unthinkably huge animals much as he was drowned. Adams asked himself the question, “How would a dog interpret the world?” and got a lot of great ideas from it.

And, as I mentioned before, there’s a lot of talk about humanity’s responsibility towards the animals. Should we use them for whatever purposes we wish? Of course not. Are we necessarily “better” than the other animals? More skilled, yes, more clever, certainly, but better? No. We are animals, and as such we cannot allow ourselves to place ourselves above the great interconnected web of life. We may never know what our purpose in Nature is, but we can know what our purpose is not.

Not quite the end....

One really interesting part of the book is a wonderful section near the end where the Writer and the Reader argue about the fate of the dogs. It’s a little meta-fictional, but it’s an acknowledgment by Adams that he knows how the story should end, and he knows how his readers want it to end. Reading it, it appears that Adams clearly thinks the dogs should die – not because they were Bad Dogs or anything like that, but because the vision of humanity that he constructed for the book demanded their deaths. Most of the humans in the story want the dogs dead, and letting that inevitable ending take place would be his way of saying, “See? I told you so.”

If I had to guess, though, he showed the original, “Dead Dogs” version to someone – his wife, his editor, his agent – and that person said, “No. Uh-uh, no. No no no. No.” And so Adams grudgingly breaks the fourth wall with a short narrative poem which is essentially him saying, “Fine, have your happy ending….” It’s a wonderful part, and I admit to getting a little choked up every time I read it.

Just a little, mind you.

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“It’s a bad world for the helpless.”
Mr. Ephraim, The Plague Dogs

The Plague Dogs on Wikipedia
Richard Adams on Wikipedia
The Plague Dogs on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, animals, dogs, England, ethics, fantasy, friendship, media, morality, Richard Adams, society