Of all the mammals, the naturalist George Shaw (no relation) wrote when he first described it in 1799, the platypus ‘seems the most extraordinary in its conformation’, exhibiting ‘the perfect resemblance of the beak of a duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped’. Last week, the first near-complete platypus genome was published.
‘It is probably best not to take advice direct and unfiltered from the animal kingdom,’ Katherine Rundell wrote recently in the LRB – ‘but lemurs may be an exception.’ And so may rats, dogs, snakes, primates, wolves, sheep, pigs, cows, crows, ravens, double-crested cormorants, salmon, sharks and octopuses, according to the contributors to our second app-only special edition of the London Review (the 15 pieces are drawn from the paper’s archive), published to fill the four-week summer break between issues, and give those who’ve signed up to our sale of two cities (with the Paris Review) something to read, right away.
The last dodo was sighted late in the 17th century near Mauritius, but the creature’s place in popular culture was cemented by its appearance in Alice in Wonderland in 1865. After Alice and various animals fall in the Pool of Tears, the Dodo makes a suggestion. ‘The best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race,’ it suggests, and makes them all run round in circles. When asked which of them has won the race, the Dodo is stumped for a moment, but then declares: ‘Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’ Natural selection is a more brutal game: extinctions are inevitable.
A perfect farm animal, according to the 18th-century agronomist Robert Bakewell, would be shaped like a hogshead cask, ‘truly circular, with as small and as short legs as possible’. Bakewell’s ideal was founded ‘upon the plain principle that the value lies in the barrel’. There was no need for long limbs or lean necks: ‘all is useless that is not beef.’ This applied not only to cattle, but to pigs and sheep too, which after 1750 came to be reared as ‘production line animals’.
There used to be a vicious old Boxer dog on my round. He lived at the end of a long drive with a gate. There was a post box outside where I used to leave the mail. Occasionally the owners forgot to close the gate and left the dog out. It would spot me as I was parking my bike, and begin padding in my direction, head down, growling, until it got close enough to launch itself at me.
French law requires that a purebred dog or cat – that is, an animal belonging to one of the breeds listed in the Livre des origines français or the Livre officiel des origins felines – be given a name beginning with a prescribed letter of the alphabet, determined by the year of its birth, rather like the way British car registration plates used to be organised.
On a visit to the Natural History Museum a few years ago, my eye was caught by a small exhibition of animal products confiscated by British customs officials: snakeskin belts, crocodile skin bags, wallets made from the skins of protected species, stuffed baby alligators, stuffed toads arranged around miniature pool tables, clutching cues. As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, I then noticed that at least half the exhibits seemed to come from Nicaragua, where I live.
Today, as if there wasn't enough sadness in the world, the Guardian gives us more to shake our heads about. Has the dignity of the dead hedgehog fallen foul of efficiency accountants? Apparently, the taking-away-roadkill department didn't turn up in time, so the road painters painted on according to schedule. Even penguins (who I haven't mentioned nearly recently enough) go round a static object, rather than over it. A spokesman for Hartlepool borough council said, clearly with a degree of satisfaction and relief: 'This is obviously an unfortunate incident, but it was the only one reported during the massive project.' But all may not be what it seems.
The news of a fox attacking nine-month-old twins less than a mile away has caused much excitement in Hackney. The fox is assumed to have entered the house through a patio door left open on a warm Saturday night, then wandered up the stairs and into the bedroom where the babies, Lola and Isabella Koupparis, were asleep. Afterwards, three foxes were trapped in the family’s garden and killed.
Local feeling has been appalled, but also thrilled – perhaps rather more of the latter than decency would dictate, given that the children’s injuries turned out to be far more serious than initial reports suggested (Isabella spent several days in intensive care, and a week on remains in hospital). In part, this is the ordinary frisson of having been in the vicinity of, but not directly affected by, calamity; but it seems to me that the real thrill has come from a revelation of nature, red in tooth &c., on our doorstep, from seeing it proved that, as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, 'Life finds a way.'