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The Truth About AnimalsReview - The Truth About Animals
Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife
by Lucy Cooke
Basic Books, 2018
Review by Roy Sugarman, PhD
Sep 3rd 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 36)

Lucy is a zoologist with a subtle and wicked sense of humor which comes out constantly across the chapters of this entertaining book. She does set out however with a serious attempt to educate us to the amazing facts that will in some cases challenge our long-held views about animals, such as vultures and hyenas. As someone from Africa originally who knows a lot about these animals in particular, I can tell you I knew a lot more than you are likely to, and NOTHING compared to Lucy and her collaborators.

This is the kind of book that makes you want to dominate the dinner conversation and start spouting facts, such as that hyenas give birth via their female penis-birth canal, sometimes killing them and the baby in the process, and have fake testicles, and that vultures smear antibiotic feces on their feet, and that…..okay, you see the problem. Dinner parties will never be the same, but neither will you after you learn that hippopotami bleed sunscreen from the folds of their skins, and so on.

The book covers each animal in a chapter, spiced with Cooke’s humorous observations, and these include: the abovementioned animals, eels, beavers, bats, frogs, storks, moose, pandas, penguins, chimps. This book has been reviewed ad infinitum, and I will have to reach hard to match these, offer something new, and not give away all of the readable take-home fascinating facts.

So: eels, well we didn’t know and still have an issue finding their genitals, and Freud’s first published work attempted to cover this issue. She laments that it is anyone’s guess how much those long hours spent slicing open phallocentric fish in a fruitless search for their gender influenced later penis envy postulations, and as we know he avoided the slippery slope and went on to the human psyche, which has apparently held less challenge for him. You can see how she writes, can you not? This chapter is peppered with sly comments on how slippery the eel’s study can be for naturalists. The mystery is not confined to the eel’s naughty bits: we have yet to find an eel egg or find out where they actually mate and come from in the sea. Hence, they may go the way of the dodo species and disappear if we cannot work out how to protect them, and just eat them to extinction.

Beavers get the same treatment as she moves through their secrets, and as in each chapter, she takes on the writings of antiquity, and pokes fun at the particularly hilarious postulations of proto-zoologists who didn’t seem to wield much logic in interpreting animal behaviors. This includes here the well held idea that beavers, prized for their sexual excreta, would bite off the offending organs when pursued, and throw them at the hunter. In Cooke’s case she did, curious as she was, order some on the internet and I will let you read the book to see what she did with beaver balls. Presumably, this was from a beaver flattened by a tree it was harvesting for building materials. Perhaps you can work out why she did such a thing, apart from a curiosity which led her to smell odd when meeting Shirley Bassey.

Sloths. Well, their secret is that they are upside down, with hair parting on their tummies to allow rain to run off, and they are useless on all fours, with a digestion to match (mouth to anus is 50 odd days) but upside down hanging on a tree is just perfect for their blood and muscle movement against gravity, with sticky Velcro inside their ribs to keep the stomach topside and avoid crushing their lungs. Secrets indeed, including the ability to heat themselves by raising their metabolic rate when needed. Their coats are encrusted with crud, insects, algae and fungi, making them both sort of camouflaged and second of all diminishing the appetites of predators, moving silently. Poo is an issue, but don’t worry, that only happens once every week or so, and they go down the tree to do it, and it has another function, not like the vulture, but…. Well, read the book.

Hyena, much maligned, get defended here, as being closer to elephants in terms of brain value, and related to cats more than dogs for instance. Yes, they are clever, and have interesting social lives. As with us, they don’t hang out with more than 130 or so others, as they probably can’t remember the names of more than that…oh, that’s us. Nevertheless, creatures that socialize widely in evolution land up with bigger brains, and this has made them highly organized and brainy. Also, this was the predator who competed with us, and hence when they find little left of us in the fossil record, it is that slinky-looking dude to blame, or at least a female with an 8-inch clitoris. These chicks with dicks can even get erections (her words).  Males have to get their appendage into hers for mating, and how they manage that is a testament to male’s desire to do sexy stuff in the savannah.   They can count, namely in response to animal calls, and people in Africa can easily see how the dead get to heaven via the digestive tract of the hyena, hence the impoverished fossil record as we have it. And while on the subject of hyenas, some of whom are scavengers, we move to the afore-mention filthy-footed vultures.

As with hyenas, the hatred of these two scavengers is all down to their lousy PR companies across the years, but they really are fantastic animals, and this 8-foot wingspan bird is no exception. And to start, no, they do not have great sense of smell, only some of them hunt by smelling rotting corpses, but they all hunt by sight (fact: only twice as good as ours). They see the other vultures spiraling vertically, and go for that neighborhood, and being clever creatures, they learn to scavenge from mum and dad. Also, their food should not be too rotten, and they prefer dead herbivores, as we do. However, don’t upset one: their defense is to puke up their rotting dinner and belt you with it.  By the way, using them to seek out dead bodies that may be missing in the hope of beating police bloodhounds didn’t work. Also, they are likely to eat the deceased murder victim rather than dialing 911. Flying is awesome a at 36,000 feet, one is known to have nearly brought down a jet via ingestion in its engine, and often they drop their prey in mid-flight, leaving aircraft mechanics wondering how a dead rabbit landed in an engine at 15,000 feet.

Don’t get her started on bats. Their PR didn’t run too smoothly, considering their cave-based toilet habits. Given their value as pollinators however, we need them more than they need us, including the vampire bats that didn’t help their reputation either. And yes, they have massive penises and testicles, to get the promiscuous females under control, who in turn can store sperm and only self-fertilize when the time is nigh. And here it is folks: bats are one of the few mammals to engage in oral sex. Both male on female and female on male and male on male, which action effectively removes the competition via blow by blow accounts of sucking the rival dry (her words). I will leave it there, apart from a mention of how bats were given bombs to carry during WWII. Apart from some dead bats and the occasional badly damaged scientist, this was not a great idea. In fact, a batch of mutineering bat bombs nearly burned down a whole US base. Let us go to frogs.

Poor frogs that look like human scrota get blended in blenders as a form of Viagra. Tadpoles were revered by the communist Chinese as contraceptives just pre-copulation (didn’t work, hence more Chinese). How they bred was also interesting for scientists and even today, makes silly reading. But froggies got injected with female blood to see if they were pregnant, and so they did have some connections with fertility, as my Cape Town ancestors found out. Sadly these got let out in various countries in the world, such as South American states, and they took out the opposition big time. The stork soon came to those whose frogs, after injection with their blood, popped out eggs…… the stork came to visit.

Storks, we know, bring babies, but also demonstrated the house underneath was loading with adulterers, which lead to their near extinction. Almost like the vultures that nearly set off another Israeli-Arab war (read book), these storks needed to arrive with African spears and arrows in them to indicate where they came from to arrive in Europe.

I’ve mentioned my hippo relatives and the first cousin to the whales secretion to their skin as noted above is a great sunscreen.  They too made it, as pets for a drug lord in Medellìn, and live happily there while terrorizing the locals (Escobar’s crimes).

 

Moose. As with other myths, they, like elephants and Marula, do NOT get drunk on rotting fruit, as it would take too much for them to eat to get tipsy. I will leave them there, and go on to pandas, and the fact they only are receptive to sex 2 days a year, and you got to get in there at the right time. The Chinese, abandoning tadpoles, have to artificially inseminate pandas to get their great numbers up, with great success, as pandas are too busy smearing urine on their fluffy ears to get it on. One of the problems is that isolated females imprint on their human keepers, and not on visiting pandas, so love is blind…

I will not spoil penguins and chimps for you, and trust me, I have only given you the tip of the iceberg of Cooke’s encyclopedia of oddities. It really is required reading, and will sexy up any dinner party, providing your timing is better than mine, and you don’t get fellow diners emulating vultures and their dinner defense. I think it was the birth via clitoris that destroyed the last one, prompted by us eating spring roles at the time, which prompted my recall.

Cooke is funny and informed, and has a passion for what she does, and sloths. You have to read this, it is fun and inspires curiosity, page by page, as to the secret life of our fauna friends.

 

© 2019 Roy Sugarman

 

Roy Sugarman PhD, Director: Applied Neuroscience, Performance Innovation Team, Team EXOS USA


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