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Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Paper Menagerie

Just about everybody loves the holiday season, whether for purposes nostalgic, familial, or (and let's be honest) material.  For me, one of the best aspects of the season comes about a month or so after the fact.  That's when, having gotten my finances back in order from the shopping, my schedule back in order from the traveling, and my gastrointestinal tract back in order from one month solid of very poor eating decisions, I can set to work on one of my favorite parts of the year.

I plop myself down in front of the computer with my shiny new gift cards - Amazon and Barnes and Noble - and begin buying books.

When I started a blog on the zoo and aquarium world, I knew from the beginning that one feature I had to include was a series of book reviews.  I've always loved books, which shouldn't be surprising - when I was young, before I was able to start volunteering at the local zoo, books were the link I had to the life of the zoo.  I would check out books from the school library and do something productive during class, instead of wasting time on nonsense such as gerunds or pre-algebra.

When I was away at college, hours from the nearest zoo (poor planning on my part, as I look back upon it), books were what I had.  Perhaps the best thing that college had to recommend itself - besides the degree, which I kind of needed to get a job - was the extensive library.  My high school had maybe twenty books on animals in the library.  This place had pretty much its own floor for zoology, ranging from brand new books stuffed with glossy color prints to dusty old tomes written a century ago with barely legible type.  I'd read the books.  Then, I'd find particular facts or anecdotes that intrigued me, and look up the sources in the bibliography.  Then I'd find those books.

Even as an adult, whenever I moved from job to job, the biggest hassle has been boxing up the book collection.  I keep telling myself that I'm going to stop getting more, that they take up too much space... and yet, here I am, spending my day off browsing for cheap bookshelves and wondering where I can fit them.

There are essentially three kinds of animal books that I purchase.  The first, and what I read the most when I was younger, were those written for a popular audience.  Gerald Durrell, Alan Rabinowitz, Jane Goodall - books by them, meant to convey an appreciation for wildlife and the need to conserve it to the general public.    A lot of my collection is taken up by these.  The best thing that ever happened to me, bookwise, was the invention of the Kindle, Nook, and other e-readers.  I can download these books now, taking up a lot less space and letting me take an entire library with me with I travel.

The second are the textbooks, usually devoted to a taxa (storks, turtles, felids) or a subject (hand-rearing, nutrition, reproduction).  These tend to be a lot more expensive, and a lot harder to find.  You certainly don't find them in most bookstores, so the rise of was a major game-changer for me.  I don't find the e-reader to be a practical solution for these - with the tables and charts and maps and diagrams, I feel like you need to have the book itself in your hand to make sense of them.  It's always a tricky decision to buy or not, however.  You have to weigh the value of actually having the tome in your hand versus the constantly expanding universe of information on the internet.

Lastly, there are some books which I enjoy mostly for historical purposes.   Some are records of naturalists studying a place for the first time, such as the early explorations of the Amazon, with all of their descriptions of wildlife never before encountered by European scientists.  Others are historical records of zookeeping, such as the very first guidebooks printed to the London and New York (Bronx) Zoos.  Sure, there isn't much of a practical value in some of these books - but they provide me with a link to the past that I find irresistibly fascinating.

A few years back, I started a tradition at my workplace where, on their first Christmas, I'd buy each new keeper an animal book, something I'd select personally for their tastes and interests.  It was sort of an attempt to help them start building their own library.  So far I can't say it's gone over that well - they open the present, look confused, say thanks, and then I see it sit on their desks until they get covered with the miscellaneous paperwork that zookeeping generates.

Still, I hold out hope that one rainy, snowy day when nothing else is going on (not that such days occur often), I'll poke my head out of my office door and catch one of them sitting at their desks, nose buried in a book.  Maybe that would be the first step for them to rediscovering that not all of a zookeeper's adventures are out in the park.

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