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A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 212 - Summer 2009

Book Review

What Species of Creatures: animal relations from the new world
By Sharon Kirsch

Vancouver: New Star Books, 2008, ISBN 9781554200405, $16 US/£13.68 (less from Amazon).

IF YOU THINK YOU KNOW all there is to know of the fascination and folly, the ignorance and cruelty with which mankind, throughout history, has viewed his fellow creatures, perhaps you do. But wait. Isn’t every relationship a two way street? Here is a study of another kind. Here is An Observation of the Observer by the Observed. Ah, now we have something we can dig our teeth into (pun intended.)

The early European visitors to North America were indeed awed by the experience of an untamed wilderness in which foxes walked beside Indians and beavers curled upon the laps of their children. With their Old World preconceptions threatened, and their curiosity at a peak, they none the less held firm to the old ways, hunted and skinned, played games with and eventually ate whatever living creature they could catch. But this was indeed a New World. And the animals watched. The animals observed. What species of creatures is Man?

In this richly creative scholarly work, replete with accounts and sketches from the pens of the earliest European visitors to present Canada, and in spite of an admirable nod to Academia, a preponderance of four-syllable words, 20 pages of sources and references, a glossary, a dictionary of the animals encountered by humans and brief biographies of the personalities encountered by the animals, it is unquestionably the author’s own background as an accomplished travel writer, coupled with an irrepressible wit, that brightens the pages and delights the reader time and time again.
Here is a taste of Man (pun intended again): ‘For the purposes of study, this animal has been classified. It goes by the name Homo sapiens: Homo for man and sapiens for wisdom. That the animal named itself may account for the inflation of its attributes.’

In An ABC of Animals we find, ‘Man is a nondescript. His membership involves shes and hes, the hoary and the sleek of pelt, the vengeful and the gentle. Man eats sitting upright. He has no tail. He bears one, maybe two young. He most often lives in company but, like a bachelor beaver alone in its wash, may be solitary.’
Continuing in the same chapter: ‘Man is endowed with only two eyes, like many a beast with a backbone. His vision is imperfect. Each of Man’s eyes furnishes for him a slightly different image, most especially when the object of his vision is close and not far. This may be why Man labours so hard to see what’s right under his nose.’

Although heavy with detail and perhaps too scholarly for some, the book is a delightful read for anyone interested in a new, forgiving, and creative way to look at the animal-human adventure. It’s bound to make you smile.

B. L. Anderson

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