Book Review

Heartfelt stories from Jane Goodall

By Elizabeth Gehrman
Globe Correspondent / December 3, 2009

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Caring about the environment these days can be a depressing endeavor, what with polar bears drowning for lack of habitat, hormones and medications turning up in drinking supplies, a Texas-size trash vortex whirling around the Pacific, and - but there’s no need to continue. For the latest from Jane Goodall, the doyenne of the conservation movement, offers a cheering antidote.

“Hope for Animals and Their World,’’ co-written with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson, profiles the remarkable stories of nearly three dozen species that have either become extinct in the wild or been on the brink of extinction when they were brought back by the dedicated stewardship of a few caring individuals, often against seemingly impossible odds.

Consider the case of the stuffed-toy adorable black-footed ferret, whose story is typical of those presented in this book. By 1960, 98 percent of its prairie habitat was lost, and its population was being poisoned into extinction by ranchers who consider prairie dogs pests.

In 1971, a captive breeding program was begun, but four of the six ferrets chosen to start it died after being vaccinated against distemper. Three more were captured but one refused to mate, and another repeatedly produced stillborn litters. In 1979 the last captive ferret died of cancer.

Meantime, a distemper epidemic had hit the few remaining wild ferrets. Captive breeding was tried again, but bureaucracy kept scientists from trapping more than six for the program, and because one of the two males was a juvenile, half of the potential breeding was delayed. Finally, when there were only four of the animals left in the wild, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department relented and allowed scientists to trap them all.

At last, the program began to succeed, but many of the kits died after being released back into their natural habitat. After years of perseverance, however, breeding success and survival rates eventually increased, and portions of the habitat were restored and protected. About 3,000 ferrets have now been reintroduced, and the hope is that increasing tourism dollars will help to convince ranchers that preserving the prairies can be in their best interest too.

Goodall’s writing is straightforward and can seem annoyingly juvenile at times because of its over-reliance on exclamation points, more than one of which per book is probably too many. But what “Hope’’ lacks in stylistic flourishes and poetic metaphors is quickly forgotten in the pathos and suspense of the animals’ stories, and in Goodall’s ability to convey immediacy by relating her own experiences meeting the animals and the conservationists working to save them. Every time she is invited to see a program at work she inevitably writes that she was moved by the experience, and in reading her words, we, too, are moved. Because of Goodall’s inherent likability and her undeniable chops as a spokesperson for conservation, we begin to see even those exclamation points as an expression of childlike wonder rather than simply unskilled copy editing.

Like all books on ecology and conservation, this one has its heroes and villains. The villains, predictably, are often governments and big business, but their hand in the destruction of species is overshadowed by the heroic efforts of those working against the clock to save the animals and their habitats. By the final pages we are ready to join them, and Goodall provides an appendix that tells us exactly how and the reasons - including not only the resilience of nature but “the indomitable human spirit’’ - why our efforts will not go to waste.

Elizabeth Gehrman is a freelance writer living in Boston.

HOPE FOR ANIMALS AND THEIR WORLD: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued From the Brink By Jane Goodall

With Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson

Grand Central, 416 pp., $27.99

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