I would not normally pick a book of this genre, but thanks to my book club, I had this opportunity to educate myself on a topic outside of my realm of knowledge and awareness.
There was a lot of information in this book and everybody agreed it was a challenge reading through it quickly. Fortunately, the chapters were well-defined, and one could read the chapters in any order one chose. The topics spanned from how animals use poisonous plants to cure themselves of sickness, what they do to keep off mites, to how they deal with births and deaths.
It was apt for the host, who selected this book, to ask everybody what she found most interesting given all the information. The most vote went to the fact that animals eat earth to keep themselves healthy, and then they eat leaves with barbs to get rid of the worms that they have swallowed with the dirt. We were also amused by how animals get high with fermented fruits, that animals cover broken bones with certain leaves to help them mend, and that elephants put leaves over their dead.
I grew up in a culture in which herbal medicine was frequently used. The book revealed to me that the white powder that was put on my wounds after scraping myself when I was a child was discovered, according to a legend, by a farmer who followed a snake to discover what it ate after being wounded. I also related to the comments that even in the animal kingdom, bitterness was a measure of how effective the plants was for healing, and I remembered well the dark and bitter herbal drinks I had when I was young.
Given all the interesting facts, the book has also left us with many questions. The author is a biologist, and biologists are experts in documenting and categorizing factual findings. Engel undoubtedly has consulted many references, scientific or legendary, to write this book. However, after educating the readers with a lot of “what”s, we cannot help questioning the “how”s and the “why”s.
It would be educational to know to what the extent the animal behavior to maintain health is due to evolution and how much it is a learned behavior, either from growing up with their parents or learning by trial and error. Another unsolved mystery is the author referring to the “minds” of the animals when she discusses how animals react to stress or seek for pleasure. Little do we know about the minds of human beings, let only wild animals. Conceptually, an explanation referring to the “brain” of the animals is more tenable, particularly based on available animal studies in the laboratory about the pleasure centers and biochemical changes in the brain under stress.
We also had a discussion on our reactions to zoos after reading about the richness and diversities out there in the wild for the animals to maintain their health and to heal themselves when they are unwell. There was a consensual feeling that zoos should be designed to reflect the natural habitat of the animals as much as possible. What we now know about health behavior of animals can help us provide a better diet and environment for them, even when they are kept in captivity by man.