Lucy Cooke’s extensive travels, research and sense of humor make “The Truth about Animals” a fascinating modern bestiary. She will appear April 22 at Westside School in Seattle.
British zoologist Lucy Cooke is an award-winning filmmaker, author and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society. Yes, there really is one with its own blog, website and Adopt a Sloth app. While on a research tour in Costa Rica, she visited a sanctuary for these famously slow-moving animals and fell in love. And the romance was triggered by more than that enigmatic furry smiling face.
In Earth’s long history, Cooke notes, countless animals have come and gone, but somehow natural selection has passed this mammal over for extinction for 30 to 40 million years. Six species in two genera survive. Two-toed sloths “look like a cross between a Wookiee and a pig, turned upside down and with hooks for hands.” On a diet of leaves that provides barely 160 calories daily, their average cruising speed is a blazing 0.19 miles per hour.
As with the other 12 animals Cooke aims to demystify in her revealing new book, “The Truth About Animals,” sloths have long been misunderstood and maligned, typically regarded as lazy and stupid. But their long necks allow them to feed without having to move, and their pelts — which host algae, fungus, mites, moths, ticks and beetles — serve as clever camouflage in Central and South American jungles that teem with predators.
Yes, sloths have poor eyesight, crummy teeth, can’t hear well and seem to spend their whole life sleeping or eating. Research at the Max Planck Institute found, however, they snooze an average of 9.6 hours per day. Their “wakeful but inactive state” is necessary for energy conservation. Cooke’s account of these amazing creatures, which so beautifully adapted to their habitat, is an eye opener.
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Much of the persistent misinformation about animals, she shows, recurs from early writers and medieval bestiaries (collections of descriptions of real and imaginary animals). For example: since a moose has no knees, it sleeps standing up and leaning on a tree; the hippopotamus snorts fire; swallows spend the winter underwater; some birds fly to the moon until spring and others transmute themselves into another animal, according to Aristotle.
In fact, truth can be more intriguing than fiction. Bats were considered bloodsucking vampires associated with plague and smallpox, yet many survive merely on fruit. Acting as key pollinators, they “save us billions of dollars every year by eating insects that cause devastating diseases and destroy our crops.”
Nearly hairless hippos aren’t fire-breathing dragons after all, but protect their sensitive hides with gooey, reddish glop from glands under their skin. In addition to sunblock, it also serves as bug repellent and antiseptic.
When Cooke was a zoology student, she was taught hippos were closely related to pigs, not horses (hippopotamus means river horse). Wrong. Scientists studying teeth and bones have discovered hippos’ closest relatives are whales. And, like whales, they communicate underwater.
And what about those birds that disappear when autumn arrives? A stork that returned to Germany in 1822 sported an African lance through its neck, completing its migration only to be shot by a hunter. This discovery was good for science, Cooke writes, since it introduced the idea that birds flew south. Gradually, ever more sophisticated tracking methods supported the premise.
Cooke’s extensive travels, research and delightful sense of humor make “The Truth about Animals” a fascinating modern bestiary.
“The Truth about Animals — Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife” by Lucy Cooke; Basic Books; $28; 337 pp.