The best books about wild animals and the humans that care for them

Who am I?

As a child, let loose to wander the woods around my home, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by animals, not only the dogs and cats we kept at home, but the wild critters I encountered. As I grew, so did my admiration and respect for the creatures that live in the wild. When I volunteered at Oregon’s Washington Park Zoo, and met Senior Elephant Keeper Roger Henneous, a new level of interest opened up as I observed the relationships between the animals and those who care for them. It bothered me that I often read nasty things about keepers, when I knew that most are devoted to those in their care.


I wrote...

Elephant Speak: A Devoted Keeper's Life Among the Herd

By Melissa Crandall,

Book cover of Elephant Speak: A Devoted Keeper's Life Among the Herd

What is my book about?

“You can make an elephant do one of two things: run away, or kill you. But you can get an elephant to do a number of amazing things.”

Elephant Speak offers an unvarnished look at one man’s loving, compassionate, often frustrating, and occasionally life-threatening 30-year relationship with the largest herd of breeding elephants in North America. The story of Roger Henneous and the elephants at what is now the Oregon Zoo celebrates the extraordinary bond that can exist between humans and elephants, and examines what we owe them in order to assure their continued survival.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild

Melissa Crandall Why did I love this book?

This is probably one of the best known/best loved books about wild animals and those who care for them, and kept me almost literally on the edge of my seat wondering whether devoted animal conservationist Lawrence Anthony would succeed in rehoming a wild herd of “rogue” elephants. Along the way, he forges a bond with the animals, and soon realizes there is much he can learn from them about life, loyalty, and what it means to be free. But will his efforts result in success? Can he find a middle-ground on which elephants and humans can co-exist, or will Anthony have to step aside and allow their destruction? 

By Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Elephant Whisperer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a herd of "rogue" wild elephants on his Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand, his common sense told him to refuse. But he was the herd's last chance of survival: they would be killed if he wouldn't take them. In order to save their lives, Anthony took them in. In the years that followed he became a part of their family. And as he battled to create a bond with the elephants, he came to realize that they had a great deal to teach him about life, loyalty, and freedom.…


Book cover of Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II

Melissa Crandall Why did I love this book?

This bestselling book was published right at the time I began working on my book, and it helped to forge my life-long bond with Roger Henneous because stories of J.H. “Elephant Bill” Williams gave him his first insight into elephant psychology and physiology. Like Roger, Williams came to elephants with no prior experience, but captured by an unexplainable desire to be in their presence. Both men learned by doing—mourning failure and celebrating success—and opened themselves to whatever the elephants could teach them. 

By Vicki Croke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Elephant Company as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK

The remarkable story of James Howard “Billy” Williams, whose uncanny rapport with the world’s largest land animals transformed him from a carefree young man into the charismatic war hero known as Elephant Bill

In 1920, Billy Williams came to colonial Burma as a “forest man” for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence and character of the great animals who hauled logs through the jungle, he became a gifted “elephant wallah.” In Elephant Company, Vicki Constantine Croke chronicles Williams’s growing love for elephants as the animals provide him…


Book cover of Smiling Bears: A Zookeeper Explores the Behaviour and Emotional Life of Bears

Melissa Crandall Why did I love this book?

Part of my reason for writing my book was to understand what it means to be a conscientious zookeeper, and this book provides an intimate portrait of a woman deeply committed to the animals she loves. The first two questions the late award-winning animal management consultant Else Poulsen asked any creature she met were “Who are you?” and “What can I do for you?” She learned the answers by close observation and empathy. She nurtured bears in crisis, raised and comforted them, taught them, and learned from them.

By Else Poulsen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Smiling Bears as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A zookeeper's story of her extraordinary relationship with the bears she has rescued and her insights into their emotional lives. "An inspiring trip into the mind and reality of bears." --Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of When Elephants Weep Few people know bears as intimately as Else Poulsen. She has raised bears, comforted bears, taught bears, learned from bears, had bears communicate their needs to her, and nursed bears back to health. This remarkable book reveals the many insights about bears and their lives that she has gained through her work with them. In the eighties, Poulsen became a zookeeper in…


Book cover of The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness

Melissa Crandall Why did I love this book?

This is the book that made me love the octopus! With humor, brilliance, and empathy, naturalist Sy Montgomery explores the physical and emotional world of largely captive octopuses, and their impact on the caregivers and divers who encounter them. As Montogomery attempts to bridge the gap between her own human consciousness and that of the octopuses, they reveal themselves to be intelligent and spirited creatures with complex emotional lives.

By Sy Montgomery,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Soul of an Octopus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Sy Montgomery's The Soul of an Octopus does for the creature what Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk did for raptors' New Statesman
'Charming and moving...with extraordinary scientific research' Guardian
'An engaging work of natural science... There is clearly something about the octopus's weird beauty that fires the imaginations of explorers, scientists, writers' Daily Mail

In 2011 Sy Montgomery wrote a feature for Orion magazine entitled 'Deep Intellect' about her friendship with a sensitive, sweet-natured octopus named Athena and the grief she felt at her death. It went viral, indicating the widespread fascination with these mysterious, almost alien-like creatures. Since…


Book cover of The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature

Melissa Crandall Why did I love this book?

I’m captivated by this book every time I read it (and I’ve read it a lot). It brings to light the uneasy relationship we have with wild creatures, especially when we unwittingly invite them into our own backyards. A thought-provoking (and often nerve-wracking) narrative about the clash between the citizens of Boulder, CO and the local population of mountain lions, and the distressing expansion of human beings into the few wild areas remaining to them (and, in fact, to all animals). When those pockets of wilderness are gone, where are they supposed to go? How can we alleviate human/animal conflict over resources?

By David Baron,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Beast in the Garden as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

When residents of Boulder, Colorado, suddenly began to see mountain lions in their backyards, it became clear that the cats had returned after decades of bounty hunting had driven them far from human settlement. In a riveting environmental tale that has received huge national attention, journalist David Baron traces the history of the mountain lion and chronicles one town's tragic effort to coexist with its new neighbors. As thought-provoking as it is harrowing, The Beast in the Garden is a tale of nature corrupted, the clash between civilization and wildness, and the artificiality of the modern American landscape. It is,…


You might also like...

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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