The New York-bred journalist and television commentator Shana Alexander, who has written biographies of checkered-career socialites Bess Meyerson, Jean Harris, and Patty Hearst, may seem at first blush to be an unlikely student of Loxodonta africana and Elephas maximus. Yet she has been an attentive devotee of elephants since witnessing, on Easter Sunday 1962, the birth of a 225-pound elephant at the Portland Zoo, an event she covered for Life magazine--and one that captivated countless readers.
Elephant is an unabashed celebration of these mysterious creatures, whose closest living relatives are the dugong and the hyrax. "They have," Alexander writes, "essential nobility, grace, serenity, sagacity, loyalty and playfulness, a simple goodness, a lack of animosity--unless provoked." While, she admits, elephants can pose particular dangers to unwary humans (she recounts tales of circus trainers of her acquaintance, some of whom fell in action), they are too often the victims in any interaction with people. The elephant's fortunes have long been declining: where only a few thousand years ago several species roamed the earth, by 1980 the combined wild populations in Africa and Asia numbered fewer than 100,000 individuals.
Alexander writes with a light hand about the curiosities of elephantine biology and social life, among them the phenomena of musth, where young males challenge their elders; flehmen, that curious teeth-baring smile exhibited by so many mammals in the course of mating; and the uncanny ability of elephants to communicate with each other over great distances. Citing published reports and drawing on extensive interviews with scientists and conservationists over the last four decades, she champions the elephants' cause in an admirable and engrossing book. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Set apart from other creatures in the animal kingdom by size, dexterity and emotional range, elephants have fascinated humankind for centuries. They've tantalized Alexander since 1962, when, on an assignment for Life magazine, she witnessed the first-ever elephant birth in an American zoo. This passionate book chronicles her three-decade obsession with the pachyderm. Following her curiosities down a seemingly random course, Alexander (whose previous books--Anyone's Daughter, for instance--were mostly biographies) explores humans' interest in the gentle monster, from cave paintings to ancient myths, from circus shows to scientific research. She tells of how 19th-century circus promoters regularly killed off the male elephants in their care, details the place of elephants in Hannibal's famous armies and profiles the scientists who have devoted their lives to learning about these creatures by, for example, analyzing gallons of their urine. Meanwhile, Alexander corrects common myths about elephants' character and culture--they have neither graveyards nor a fear of mice--and supplies in their place a series of equally astonishing truths (elephants communicate over miles at subaudible frequencies and resemble humans in their remarkable expressions of emotions, like grief and concern for others, and intelligence). Written in clear prose that mixes technical jargon with colloquialisms, this book is a stampede of emotion and information, and--though a bit disorderly--a gripping account of one species' obsession with another. 16-page photo insert not seen by PW. (May)
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