Two books, many stories

My last two books for the year. A rather disappointing year when measured by how much I read. In this case, although there are only two more books to add to the list, they each contain many stories.

Symbol of a Nation (2017) edited by Fred Patten

This is a collection of stories about national animals of the past and present, edited by the late Fred Patten. Different authors have different interpretations of the topic; there are stories that are just about furry (anthropomorphic) versions of that species, some look at conservation of iconic species through genetic manipulation and others focus on the animal as an embodiment of a nation’s spirit. Two of the major themes, touched on by several stories, are conservation and national identity.

There’s a diverse mix of authors and the story quality is not entirely consistent. That said, most of them are pretty good. Mary Lowd, whose work I’ve read previously, has a story in here, but I’d say it’s weaker than I expect from her. My favourite story was Crossroads the Namib, written by Jako Malan, a fellow South African, and set in the Namib desert, which I visited in 2021. In most cases, I appreciated the stories less for their narrative than the questions that they raised.

I am opposed to the nonsense that says white people can’t write about black issues or that men can’t write about women. People can write about whatever they want to, regardless of their identity. That said, several stories here concern national animals and questions of national identity but are written by authors not from those countries, and I couldn’t help but wonder how well they know those countries and whether I was getting views that were common there or whether it was just part of a narrative device.

Vultures in the Hotel Continental (2021) by Miroslav Bobek

I have a complicated relationship with zoos. I love animals and the opportunity to see them up close, but there are many negative aspects to zoos and the way they treat animals as commodities. However, I do recognise that, in certain cases, they can be beneficial or even necessary. From what I’ve heard, Prague Zoo is one of the best zoos in the world with an emphasis on the animals’ quality of life as well as conservation efforts. So, when I had a friend visiting me in Prague who also loves animals, we visited Prague Zoo, where I picked up this book written by the director. The book is a collection of shorter articles written between spring 2018 and summer 2020 for Czech newspapers. There have been several Czech collections but, I believe, this one is the first available in English.

One of the great things about this book is that you really get to see the different conservation efforts. It tells of how Prague Zoo is helping with educational activities in Cameroon or with breeding and reintroduction efforts around the world. To name a few of the breeding programmes, many with stories of reintroductions as well, there are Lear’s macaws from Brazil, Egyptian vultures released in Bulgaria and Przewalski’s horses released in Mongolia. Near the end of the book, there are several stories about supporting Australia conservation efforts with funds raised by Prague Zoo after the 2019/2020 wildfires. But, when almost every story talks about the huge decreases in animal populations, for example the spotted fritillary butterfly in the Czech Republic and European eels, one wonders how we managed to get everything so wrong and how we can possibly fix it. To quote Bobek, when discussing the first hooded vulture chick hatched in Prague Zoo:

Yet at the same time, I cannot but feel the pangs of hopelessness. We are one of only four breeding facilities in Europe where hooded vultures managed to reproduce during the 2020 season – set against at least 1,600 dead birds in only a few months in Guinea-Bissau alone.

The chapters are varied and, if you don’t like one, you’re soon onto the next. Given all the different topics that are covered, Bobek must be a very interesting person. I learned about animals, what zoos do, conservation efforts around the world and Prague’s history. While not all the animals are of particular interest to me, there are beautiful photographs to accompany every chapter. I really enjoyed the book and can definitely recommend it.

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