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Further Reading: Awe-Inspiring Animals

By now, you’ve surely heard of Knickers, the oversized Australian cow. If you haven’t, that’s really too sad for you because Knickers was the viral internet story we so desperately needed last week. Measuring 6’4” in height and weighing in at 1.4 tons, Knickers is large—too large, in fact, for the abattoirs, and thus destined to live out his days as a popular animal oddity. People the world over were divided in their responses to Knickers: some were curious how many burgers he would yield, while others felt compelled to bow down and worship his divine gigantism, and still others wanted to ride him into battle. The twist (there’s always a twist) is Knickers isn’t really as abnormally large as he seems. Holsteins are dairy cows, and steers like Knickers typically aren’t allowed to live into maturity. At seven years old, he’s more the twice the age at which steers usually go to slaughter, so he just kept growing. While Knickers is big, he’s not big by that large of a margin—and he’s definitely not record-setting big. Alas, this runaway story just wasn’t as magical as it first seemed. For those trying to chase that feeling, here are some heartwarming works of nonfiction about awe-inspiring animals that were, or could have been, viral stories themselves.

 

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence—and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, by Irene M. Pepperberg

Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence—and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, by Irene M. Pepperberg

Alex, an African gray parrot, died suddenly in his thirties and was mourned the world over. Pepperberg, Alex’s owner and researcher, limns the importance of Alex’s life and her work with him on the subjects of intelligence, cognition, and language. Pepperberg started her academic career pursuing a doctorate in chemistry, but she changed her focus to animal communication. Choosing to work with an African gray, due to their reputations as clear talkers, the author had the pet store choose a bird for her so the choice would be random. The result was Alex, a parrot that would forever change the way science looked at the cognitive abilities of birds.

 

Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, by John W. Pilley

 Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, by John W. Pilley

Chaser arrived in the author’s household as an eight-week-old puppy, destined for the dual role of pet and research subject. From the start, she demonstrated a quick ability to learn, a strong herding drive, and an open and accepting personality, all of which made her the ideal dog for training and for advanced learning. In a folksy narrative style, Pilley describes the steps he took in teaching Chaser her remarkable vocabulary; when the author and a colleague published a scientific paper on Chaser’s achievements, her fame went viral, and she was invited to demonstrate her genius on TV.

 

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter

 Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter

Hearing a strange sound coming from the book drop one frigid January morning, Myron, director of the Spencer Public Library, thought, “this can’t be good.” But the discovery turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to the kitten, Myron, and the tiny Iowa farming community beset by an unrelenting string of economic challenges. Filthy, shivering, and frostbitten, the kitten was in dire need of TLC; fortunately, the library staff, patrons, and townspeople had plenty to spare.

 
 

The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation, by Elizabeth Letts

The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation, by Elizabeth Letts

In 1956, Harry De Leyer, a riding instructor at a Long Island girls’ school, spent $80 on a horse that was bound for the slaughterhouse. He thought the animal might make a good horse for his students. But the horse, named Snowman by Harry’s four-year-old daughter, turned out to be much more—a champion show-jumper.

 
 
 

Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top, by Carol Bradley

 Last Chain on Billie: How One Extraordinary Elephant Escaped the Big Top, by Carol Bradley

Like the majority of captive elephants, Billie was captured as a calf, surfacing in the U.S. in 1966 as a four-year-old. After several years in a private zoo, she joined the circus, where she was trained to perform. Although she learned difficult tricks and was a star, Billie rebelled and began to be known as a difficult elephant, gaining a reputation for attacking her trainers. Meanwhile, two former elephant trainers had grown disenchanted with circuses and the distorted lives that circus elephants lived, and they decided to found a sanctuary for former performing elephants in Tennessee. The story of how Billie got to the Elephant Sanctuary, and of how the sanctuary overcame the prejudices of both the circus and zoo communities, is both heartrending and uplifting.

 

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Helfer Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Helfer

Bram Gunterstein was born in a small German village to a family of circus-elephant trainers. On the same night, in a barn on the Gunterstein farm, Modoc the elephant was born to an elephant trained by Bram’s father. The intertwined lives of man and elephant form the heart of this book. Starting her life with a small German circus, Modoc is sold to an American circus owner. Bram stows away on the ship carrying the animals to the United States, and when the ship sinks in a typhoon near the Indian coastline, he is able to rescue Modoc. From then on their adventures read like an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. The pair eventually get to the United States, are separated, and—through fortuitous chance—become reunited after a period of 20 years.

 

A Street Cat Named Bob: How One Man and His Cat Found Hope on the Streets, by James Bowen

 A Street Cat Named Bob: How One Man and His Cat Found Hope on the Streets, by James Bowen

Only a heart of stone will not be moved by the love of a London street musician for the gorgeous ginger tomcat he found one day in his apartment building. The cat, soon called Bob, was injured, so Bowen took him in but planned to nurse him only for a short while. A recovering addict and himself only recently off the streets, Bowen fixed Bob up—and fixed Bob—taking him along every day as he played guitar at the usual corner spots he’d claimed for himself. A beautiful story of second chances and a poignant testimony to how caring for someone—or some feline—can give you renewed direction when you’re down and out.

 

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About the Author:

A former Booklist intern and current Booklist reviewer, Ellie is a reader and writer based in Chicago. She holds a BA in writing from Wheaton College (IL) and is the assistant to the president at Browne & Miller Literary Associates.

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