Preconceived notions and lovelorn hippos: Lucy Cooke is making us rethink it all


“The Unexpected Truth About Animals” by Lucy Cooke, is a wild ride, literally. This book is all about the misconceptions we hold about the animals and the natural world around us. Cooke is a zoologist, writer, producer and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society who has also starred in shows such as “Talk to the Animals,” “Amazing Animal Births” and “Ingenious Animals.”
Cooke wrote this book so people would rethink the misconceptions they have about so many common species that we may not give much thought about in the first place, like eels, or species that always seem to be in the spotlight, like pandas. Over the course of 15 chapters and 13 species, which Cooke calls her “menagerie of the misunderstood,” covering amphibians, birds, fish and mammals, Cooke constantly keeps the reader guessing by just pulling one weird fact after another out of the box.
Most of the animals talked about are not exactly loved by the public, like hyenas, vultures or frogs, but Cooke writes about the extensive history of these animals and why we find them disgusting or ugly or just not fit for nature. Other species that she covers, like storks and bats, give an insight into the myths related to the animals themselves, like storks delivering babies and bats drinking human blood. Some of the more popular species talked about, like the panda and penguin, show why our thinking about these innocent and cuddly looking animals is completely wrong. So much of what Cooke covers has to do with how early explorers saw certain animals and how that still influences our thinking hundreds of years later.
I also should add that I absolutely loved Cooke’s writing style. Even though she is constantly talking about science and history, which could easily translate into looking like a textbook, she always does so in terms that are easy to understand with an added tincture of humor. I found myself actually laughing out loud at some parts, especially during the eel chapter where Cooke goes in-depth on how the eel’s gonads were missing for about 2,000 years.
Every chapter includes old drawings of animals that usually look nothing like the animals we know today, along with more modern pictures of the animals in either simulated or natural environments. Cooke consults experts, hunters and law enforcement from all over the world, while also testing her own limits by being chased after by drunk moose, jumping off a cliff to fly with vultures, eating beaver nuts and attempting to speak a few words in hippo and chimp.
When I finished the book, I felt like my whole world view was changed, and not just in the way I see animals but in the way I see people, too. While the focus of the book is on the animals, the reader cannot ignore the impact that mankind has made on species – whether that be almost driving them to extinction or giving them a bad reputation. Cooke put it best when she wrote, “Despite what we may think, we are not the centre of the animal universe.”