A moving and informative account of the plight of trained elephants in the U.S. and the efforts of those who have created an...

A behind-the-scenes look at the life of circus and zoo elephants.

While centered on the story of one performance elephant, Billie, Bradley (Saving Gracie: How One Dog Escaped the Shadowy World of American Puppy Mills, 2010) exposes the seedy, harsh world that all circus and zoo elephants endure in order to learn the unnatural tricks that entertain the public. Vivid descriptions of the history and evolution of the performing elephant world, where brutality by human trainers, substandard living conditions and isolation have forced elephants into submission, merge with the personal storyline of Billie, who was captured as an infant. First used to provide rides to children, Billie soon entered the circus world, where she was trained to do tricks along with four other elephants. "For five months,” writes the author, “Billie had divided her time between the back of a truck, a makeshift yard outside the circus arena and, for a few minutes a day, performing." As the years passed and Billie was trundled back and forth across the United States, she became testy or "snappy." Bradley identifies other elephants that also became angry and turned on the bullhook-wielding trainers, who were badly injured and sometimes killed. During the 1990s, animal rights activists and a few elephant trainers became angry at the cramped and unhealthy living conditions of elephants across the country, and Bradley enlightens readers on the development of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a nonprofit reserve that harbors aging elephants. With the sanction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Billie and many other “retired” elephants were moved to the sanctuary, which provides them with a safe and peaceful place to live their remaining years. Graphic details of animal abuse may offend some readers, but the overall story is worth enduring those passages.

A moving and informative account of the plight of trained elephants in the U.S. and the efforts of those who have created an asylum for them.

Pub Date: July 22, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-250-02569-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: June 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014




A quirky wonder of a book.

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020



Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Feb. 29, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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