A heartwarming tale of the bond between humans and animals, Running With Sherman (Knopf, $27.95), by Christopher McDougall—best known for his bestselling Born to Run—is another masterful, fun, and inspiring memoir. This time he tells the story of Sherman, an abused donkey McDougall and his family adopted and brought to their farm in the Amish Country. Sherman was not expected to survive, but after McDougall did as someone advised and gave him a job—the donkey began to thrive. The job was preparing for the World Championship Leadville Burro Race in Colorado, an annual marathon run by humans and donkeys, side-by-side. Full of the kind of kooky characters and long-distance runners typical of McDougall’s other books, this one is more than just a compelling, feel-good page-turner. It’s also a powerful argument for why animals matter in our evolution of society, and how damaged we humans become when we turn away from them.
In their second, stunning, collaboration, award-winning geographer James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti, former senior design editor for National Geographic, use big data to show us worlds we’ve never been able to see before. Where the Animals Go (W.W. Norton, $39.95) charts the creatures of land, sea, and air using the information generated by a wide range of new technologies, from GPS to DNA “barcoding,” DTAGs (digital sound recording tags) to fluorescent nanoparticles. Tailoring the technology to fit the environment and the creature, scientists have followed elephants and zebras over more ground than these creatures were thought to cover, tracked a wolf across the Alps from Ljubljana to Verona by way of Austria, sent drones to count orangutans on Sumatra by tabulating their nests in the trees, and traced seals under the Southern Ocean, a project that also yielded data on sea salinity and temperature—essential for research on climate change. Cheshire and Uberti have collected stories about the animals along with the data, and use both for the dozens of detailed, full-color maps that form the heart of their book. Just as technology is revising assumptions about many animals’ range, feeding habits, and other behavior, and giving conservationists evidence for new policies concerning wildlife, it’s also fostering these beautiful visualizations. Watch the spirals of a griffon vulture catching a thermal, or the flight of golden-winged warblers staying just ahead of a tornado, or measure the depth a whale dives when exposed to the noise of a submarine, and you come close to understanding what it’s like to be an animal on Earth today.
Wolves occupy a special place in the hearts of Americans, commanding admiration for their beauty and respect for their fierce predatory skills. Although these animals are inextricably linked to the rugged identity of the West, Nate Blakeslee shows that the reality of human-wolf coexistence is complicated and uneasy. With the immediacy of a novel, American Wolf (Crown, $28) tracks “0-Six,” a charismatic alpha female descended from a pack reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 (before which wolves had been hunted to near extinction). As she raises her cubs and faces down other wolves, 0-Six’s journey is depicted in meticulous and essential detail, providing the hook to a wider depiction of life in the northern Rockies. People feature prominently, including the watchers who track the wolf packs, the environmentalists who fought for their reintroduction, the ranchers losing livestock, and the hunters who resent the loss of elk, the wolves’ primary prey. Blakeslee is scrupulously fair in presenting the perspective of all those whose livelihoods are affected, and readers shouldn’t approach this expecting a “good guys, bad guys” narrative. Whatever conclusions you may reach, however, what stands out is the author’s esteem for an ancient species under pressure in the modern era.