On animals: a heartfelt defense, and a delightfully miscellaneous almanac

Animals and Why They Matter, by Mary Midgley. Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press. 158 pp. $14. The North American Animal Almanac, by Darryl Stewart. Designed by J. C. Suares. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang. 351 pp. $14.95 (paperback).

The English have always felt more strongly about animals and their rights than Americans, so it is not surprising that an Englishwoman, Mary Midgley, should write a book like ''Animals and Why They Matter.''

The title is somewhat misleading. You'd think, perhaps, that this might be a congenial but simple book defending animals' rights, an energetic piece of rhetoric about why it's wrong to use mice, rats, cats, and dogs in laboratory studies. But Midgley simply assumes the above to be true, and moves on to examine even more intricate moral and ethical issues.

''Animals and Why They Matter'' contains discussion of Kant and the Rationalist tradition, anthropomorphism, subjectivity and consciousness of animals, and figures on the order of Gilbert Ryle, Jane Goodall, David Hume, Plato, John Stuart Mill and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

This is a good and readable, though not easy, book, and it is written with such sincerity that it will force readers to consider more deeply the question of exactly what sort of rights animals - human beings included - have.

And how can one not like Midgley when she says: ''When some portion of the biosphere is rather unpopular with the human race . . . there are three sorts of human beings who are particularly likely to see point in it and befriend it.

''They are poets, scientists, and children. Inside each of us, I suggest, representatives of all these groups may be found.''

I think so, too.

The North American Animal Almanac is devoted to wonderful lists. The compendiums include: the world's largest snakes, animals that have become extinct since 1600, terms describing mammals in groups (a labor of moles?), the fastest land animals, endangered and threatened species, and animal gestation periods and litter sizes (258 days for a yak, one baby the usual).

In the appendixes, Darryl Stewart lists all the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and freshwater and exotic fish in North America, as well as all the national parks, wildlife refuges, zoos, natural history museums, and wildlife and environmental organizations in the United States and Canada.

But The North American Animal Almanac is more than a book of lists. There are roughly 150 drawings and nearly the same number of photographs, many fine anecdotes, and more facts than would seem possible.

This compendium of animal matter is divided by month, and at the beginning of each section is a calendar reporting the interesting or important things that happened on a certain date.

The entry for May 31 reads: ''Connecticut proclaimed the European praying mantis as the official state insect in 1977.'' For Dec. 12: ''Last reported Labrador duck shot over Long Island, New York, in 1872.''

The North American Animal Almanac was clearly a labor of love for Darryl Stewart, and his work is very nicely showcased by J. C. Suares's design. Delightfully miscellaneous, this is a book to dip into again and again and again.

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