Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: A Menagerie of 100 Favorite Animals

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

Published by Ballantine

426 pages, 2006




If You Could Talk to the Animals

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


Like so much of his writing -- Raising the Peaceable Kingdom and Slipping Into Paradise to name just two -- Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's latest book is exactly what it should be; exactly the book you wanted but didn't know to look for. In Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras, Masson writes about animals in a way that is neither too scientific nor too esoteric. Grouped alphabetically, these are the 100 animals the author likes best and each creature is given a short essay with little beyond facts the author has gleaned and the impressions that he has of them. In the preface, he explains where all of this has come from:

My idea was that if I were to sit down with you for an evening, and we began to talk about animals, and you were to say to me, "What is your favorite animal?" I could honestly answer, "Well, I have at least a hundred favorite animals but we have all night, let's talk about them." I meant this book to be a conversation, or at least the beginning of one.

Masson is the first to say he is not an animal expert. Rather, he is "an amateur in every sense of the word. Somebody fascinated by them, who reads what I can on find on them, ponders them, talks to people who know far more than I about them, and then writes up what I feel."

Each creature's section begins with a black and white photo of the animal and both the common and Latin name of the beast under discussion. ("Great Horned Owl/Bubo Virginianus" and so on.)

Each animal is then given a few pages -- at most four -- and quite often begins with a description of the animal as though you've never seen one before. ("Meerkats are a species of mongoose. They are small, agile animals with slender bodies and short limbs.") This is followed by whatever Masson thinks is important. In the case of the meerkat, he mentions their earliest archeological sighting, follows that with a literary reference (in this case, a Kashmiri Sanskrit text) then adds an academic reference or two, one from an Oxford animal behaviorist, then rounds it all up with knowledge that seems to be Masson's own: tidbits he's collected and here chooses to share:

In zoos, meerkats seem to thrive. (The crucial word here is seem -- how would we ever know without a control study and direct questioning of the research subjects?) It's a familiar sight to see a single meerkat raising himself to his full height to get a good look at his surroundings and standing sentinel duty.

While some might prefer a more scholarly look at these 100 creatures, Masson's approach works very well. A conversation, as he says, about animals. His impressions, the rich benefit of his reading and the eloquence of his thoughts. Crammed with facts and stuffed with esoterica, you might be able to put Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras down, but I'm not sure why you'd want to. | November 2006


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.