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Book Review April 16, 2004
A Holy Book
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
You read a few of these descriptions and your sense of worshipful awe turns nervous--a sense of protective grief in advance. All these creatures, every one worthy of a lifetime's study, and so many will be gone, slipping from "critically endangered" to "extinct" before the next edition can go to print.

Read this book to see how terrible that loss would be. How glorious is our clan, Mammalia! There are familiar zoo mammals who, considered closely, are too glorious to be real, like the Sperm Whale, Giraffe and Orca; mammals who were good as novelty acts but are currently overexposed, like the Meerkat; mammals who are frankly overrated, like the sluggard Giant Panda; mammals so beautiful they deserve a whole planet to themselves, like the Lynx, Serval and Caracal; mammals who seem to have stepped off a Gothic cornice, like the False Vampire Bat -- pictured on page 90 with a thweet widdow thongbird gripped in its jaws (Score one for the mammals over those hammy featherheads!); and mammals far more lovable at first sight than any human, like the Western Tarsier and in fact most of the prosimians and lemurs. (Your newer primate is not necessarily your better primate, folks.)

Some of the most impressive species are the sort of small, discreet scurriers you'd never notice if you didn't have this book. Take the Feather Glider, a tiny arboreal marsupial: I once saw one climbing the vertical glass of its cage in the night zoo at Sydney. Or take the Armored Shrew ("also known as the Hero Shrew"): it's only five inches long, but its spine is so strong that a grown man can stand on it without hurting it. No wonder "local people believe that it has magical properties."

We're not all glossy fur and melting eyes, either. In fact, some of us are downright poison. Who knew there were so many venomous mammals? I knew about the hind claw of the male platypus, of course, but never imagined there were so many other venomous mammals. Take the Hispaniolan Solendon on page 79, which looks like a child in a shrew-head mask. This native of the Caribbean "...scrabbles on the forest floor for prey, sniffing it out with its long, mobile snout and stunning it with a poisonous bite, which it also uses for defence." All the shrews seem to carry poisoned daggers in their mouths; the Eurasian Water Shrew uses "a venom in its saliva," while the North American Short-Tailed Shrew kills with a "toxic bite."

Reading about the shrews cheers you up, because nobody's going to wipe out these little hitmen anytime soon. The small, mean and hyperactive always have an advantage, whether they walk on two legs or four. But for other, bigger, gentler mammals it's already too's hard to read about them without bitter grief and rage, and a longing for the mammal jihad which is so long overdue. Why is there a jihad for every wretched ethnic gang in the world, but no jihad for the mammals?

Some of these species are grief incarnate: the Musk Ox, saddest of all. The African Elephant -- your grandchildren simply won't believe it was possible to wander onto the savanna and actually see one.

But at least those species have had their moment of nature-documentary fame. Sadder still are the species which are going to vanish unnoticed. Topping that list is the Fossa, which may be the most beautiful predator on the planet (though the tiger and orca also deserve nominations). The fossa, which you will find described on page 271 of Mammals, looks like a vampire cat with phosphorescent Weimaraner fur, huge eyes and big paws full of very efficient, comic-book claws. It needs them for its vocation: hunting lemurs (lemurs! You should read the section on lemurs, especially the Aye-Aye!) in the trees of Madagascar. And of course the Fossa is vanishing, along with the lemurs and the trees. And for what? So that villagers can indulge their habit of producing ten children who will take the habit of slash-and-burn cultivation further and further into the last forests of Madagascar?

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The future of The eXile is in your hands! We're holding a fundraiser to save the paper, and your soul. Tune in to Gary Brecher's urgent request for reinforcements and donate as much as you can. If you don't, we'll be overrun and wiped off the face of the earth, forever.

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