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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review: Sailing with Noah

Whenever I move (and this profession has made me move for than I care to think about), one of the biggest headaches is lugging my library from one residence to the next.    I’ve accumulated a lot of zoo books over the years, some dealing with specific aspects of the job (exhibit design, training), others with specific animals.  I also have a fair number of books about zoos in general – books that offer a wonderful first introduction to the world of zoos for folks outside of our industry, while still providing lots of entertainment and enlightenment for those of us on the inside.

Of all of these books, my hands down favorite has always been Jeffery Bonner’s Sailing with Noah: Stories from the World of Zoos.  Written by one of the luminaries of the zoo and aquarium world – formerly of the Indianapolis Zoo, now CEO and President of the Saint Louis Zoo, Bonner’s book contains all that you would expect from a zoo man’s memoir.  There are funny tales of animal escapes (luring an escaped chimpanzee in with carry-out pizza), scary tales of animal escape (a cobra on the loose), births, acquisitions, and rescues.  His heartbreaking chapter describing the infamous Christmas Eve primate house fire in Philadelphia – resulting in the deaths of 23 monkeys, lemurs, and apes – will chill the soul of anyone who has ever worked with primates.

Bonner is a good writer – and a funny one, at that – and his book reads so easily that it’s easy to miss the true importance of his work.  Between all of these anecdotes and yarns, he offers the reader a vision of why zoos and aquariums matter.  It’s one thing to tell visitors vaguely that their visit contributes to conservation and education in some abstract sense, and another to confront them with the realities.  Zoos make a big difference in the fight to save endangered species, a message that Bonner drives home chapter after chapter.  He recounts all of the famous (at least famous among zookeeper) examples – he tells of black-footed ferrets and golden lion tamarins – but he also introduces several much less renowned species, teetering on the edge of extinction, from American burying beetles to Armenian vipers.  I picked up this book expecting to read about primates and carnivores, but it was Bonner’s chapter on the Partula snails of Polynesia which stayed with me as the most fascinating text.

Sailing with Noah is a wonderful book, one which I would love to see have a wider distribution.  Zoos and aquariums engage in very important missions – captive breeding, education, research – all geared towards ensuring animals a place in our world for future generations.  It’s always been a source of frustration for many zoo professionals that few people outside of the zoo community recognize or realize what we do.  Perhaps with more storytellers like Jeffery Bonner, we can start getting the word out a little more.  I urge anyone interested in zoos, animals, and conservation to read this book… and then recommend it to all of their friends.

1 comment:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your review of this book and it is a classic. I'm thankful to promote it at every opportunity.