Who knew? I certainly never dreamed that my longtime friend, Rob Laidlaw — spelunker, chartered biologist, world traveller and founder and fellow director of Zoocheck Canada — had this secret talent: He’s a terrific writer for kids. It’s a talent I learned about just two years ago with the publication of his first book, “Wild Animals in Captivity,” a finalist for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award for Nonfiction, placed on the School Library Journal’s best books of 2008 list and on the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association Top 40 list for 2008.
He’s done it again, this time with “On Parade: The Hidden World of Animals in Entertainment.” Rob’s technical writing and advocacy on behalf of animals have long been well known to me, and he and I often have assisted each other with various pedantic texts, but his ability to write for kids is something else and a talent I would not have predicted he possessed. I mean, he’s not a parent, he’s not a teacher or involved with any young people’s groups or associations, and yet he has this wonderful ability to connect with youthful readers. I’ve written professionally, always about animals and nature, for nearly 40 years and although I’ve occasionally tried to write for children I know that I can’t. It is not easy; it’s a very special and important talent.
Rob does not talk down to young readers and does not preach. He tells them specific things that have happened to animals used to entertain, or about things he has personally encountered, and lets his readers judge whether this is how animals should be treated. He also explains the more abusive things done to animals in order to make them perform for the movies, circuses, TV shows, rodeos, sporting contests and other forms of “entertainment.” He discusses all kinds of animals, even invertebrates and reptiles, without ever overstating the issue, or resorting to sensationalist rhetoric or sickeningly graphic photographs.
He also provides readers, including adults, with information that can help them determine for themselves if animals are abused in the interest of entertainment.
More important, I think, is that this book empowers young people by giving them various ideas on what they can do to help animals. The assumption that many would want to is based not only on what I’ve heard kids tell me, but by my memory of the frustrations of my own childhood, when I saw things I didn’t approve of, but never knew what I could do about them. Page 47 succinctly lists “ten ways to help animals in entertainment,” all quite available to teens and preteens.
Rob also provides information on what other individuals, and organizations, have done for animals and how to contact such groups.
I think one of the best features of the book is a two-page section entitled “arguments and answers.” Many defenders of animal abuse (although they never describe themselves in such fashion) have a tiresomely predictable litany of rationales they love to parade out to justify the use of animals in entertainment. Rob presents these arguments and succinct replies with information that kids easily can grasp and remember.
That said, I want to emphasize that “On Parade” is not a simple polemic. It is a concise exploration of the largely hidden world behind the very public view we get of animals used by various parts of the entertainment industry. Most contemporary kids have seen the Harry Potter movies, for example, but how many know that in April 2009, the falconer who provided the owls to the filmmakers pled guilty to 17 charges of cruelty to animals, his birds living in conditions one veterinarian characterized as “filthy” and “squalid”?
The book is filled with such information from around the globe, including places likely to be encountered during holidays, or featured on TV documentaries and uncritical news blurbs. “Maybe,” says Rob in the text, “it’s sometimes possible to train animals humanely, and there are probably some trainers who are thoughtful and responsible, but a growing mountain of evidence suggests that these cases are the exception, especially when wild animals are involved.”
That “growing mountain of evidence” is overwhelming even to those of us who daily toil on behalf of animals. There is nothing overwhelming about this book. It is clear, precise and provides what I think is just the right amount of information to help kids to have the knowledge and the empowerment necessary to best understand and respond to the issue. The book is fully illustrated with color photos, has a glossary of terms, costs less than $15 and is published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside and distributed by Ingram in the United States. It strikes me as being appropriate reading for children ages 8 and older
Barry Kent MacKay