The best classic books on studying and living among wild animals

Erich Hoyt Author Of Orca: The Whale Called Killer
By Erich Hoyt

The Books I Picked & Why

The Year of the Gorilla

By George B. Schaller

Book cover of The Year of the Gorilla

Why this book?

George Schaller’s pioneering popular Year of the Gorilla, set in Rwanda, is part history, travelogue, and accessible behavioral biology. This book was my model for how to write about my own seven summers living with killer whales off northern Vancouver Island, Canada. Travelling with wife Kay, Schaller in his mid-20s was among the first to get into the field with primates when few even considered it. Rich with stories, his book included his own beautiful line drawings of gorillas and tantalising maps. The story uncovers a misty kingdom—he climbed the volcanoes—as much as revealing the intimate details of the gorillas, with their food gathering, nest-building, relationships, their emotional lives. This book has human and gorilla characters. You feel like you are right there.

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Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family

By Cynthia J. Moss

Book cover of Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family

Why this book?

Cynthia Moss started as a Newsweek journalist and fell in love with elephants on holiday in Africa. She quit her job and became a research assistant to the Douglas-Hamilton family of elephant researchers. Moss was entranced with the idea of identifying elephants from their unique ears and soon could tell them apart. Her life as an ethologist and conservationist runs through the wonderful writing in her various books. I identify with her and her work because, like Moss, I started as a writer and became a researcher. With my colleagues, we unlocked the social behavior of orcas identifying them from their unique dorsal fins. Once we began to know them and care for them, we were determined, like Cynthia Moss, to help protect habitat.

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In the Shadow of Man

By Jane Goodall

Book cover of In the Shadow of Man

Why this book?

Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees in Africa was a model for so many of us trying to make our way with field research, whether in forests, savannahs, or at sea. As a primate behavioral biologist, she was selected as one of Louis Leakey’s “Angels” (along with Biruté Galdikas with orangutans and Dian Fossey with mountain gorillas), but she has always remained a strong individualist, a rebel, working outside the establishment, doing things her way. She came to know the chimps individually and over the years uncovered their deepest and sometimes dark secrets. This book holds the rawness of those early experiences with the exciting promise of so much more.

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The Snow Leopard

By Peter Matthiessen

Book cover of The Snow Leopard

Why this book?

As a writer and naturalist, Peter Matthiessen gets you into the field and into the middle of things whether he’s writing fiction or nonfiction, whether he’s at sea, high in the mountains, or in a rainforest. His books explore the inside of his head as much as the world he encounters. With this book, he made me realize the importance of the journey, what you, the writer, and the student of nature, are feeling as you transit from your ordinary life deep into the subject of your research. As Peter Matthiessen reveals, you learn by getting out there, by doing, and that living is truly about the journey. Will it even matter if you ever see a snow leopard?

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Of Wolves and Men

By Barry Lopez

Book cover of Of Wolves and Men

Why this book?

Lyrical and personal, this breathtaking book leads you on a journey to discover sides of the wolf you might never have expected would exist. The way a deer signals to the wolf that it will give in to the chase, to become the wolf’s prey, and the wolf’s ‘reply.’ Lopez gets into the head of wolves and the social systems of wolf packs. Years ago, travelling through rural Washington State, USA, I met the endangered buffalo timberwolves close-up. I carried Lopez’s thoughts in my head to calm my nerves. After reading this book, I longed to learn as much about killer whales such that we could have this same intimate relationship with them, learning about their ways, understanding their signs. It took time but eventually, we did just that.

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