Andrew Bleiman’s new book, ZooBorns, pulls off the difficult task of being cute and interesting for people of all ages while also being informative. Many books seek this lofty goal but most fail.
What catches your attention first, of course, are the photos — pictures of new animal babies in zoo. But then you stop and read the text accompanying it and learn that some of the new borns — zooborns, get it? — are on the endangered species list. Some are more endangered than others and this, too, is noted.
This danger of extinction has an interesting result where you see an animal and think “wow, how adorable” and then read and realize how endangered the animals species is and think “wow, how horrible,” which is exactly what the co-authors had in mind when they put together the book.
When I received this book I requested an interview and the following is the result, an interview with co-author Andrew Bleiman, co-founder of ZooBorns.com and co-author of the ZooBorns books. The book’s other co-author is Chris Eastland.
Scott: How was this idea for this site and then the book, well, born? At one point did you guys decide to turn the site into a book? And did I read right that there are actually two books coming out (one for kids and one for adults?) If so, can you say more about what the difference is between the editions?
Andrew: ZooBorns was born out my love of zoology and Chris Eastland’s love of design and photography. More specifically, I had another blog prior to this on Seed Media’s ScienceBlogs network. The site was called Zooillogix and focused on bizarre zoology news. My brother Ben and I would read biology research and translate it for the general public in an irreverent, and frankly juvenile, way. It wasn’t long before zoo biologists started sending me their research and, once I was on zoo PR lists, I also started receiving cute baby animal updates.
A snarky bizarre zoology blog wasn’t the right place for all these adorable pictures, but I realized that there should be a right place. For this project I partnered with my old middle and high school friend, artist, designer and photographer Chris Eastland, because I knew he could bring a high level of creative professionalism to ZooBorns.
There are two books: a version for young children, which hit shelves last week (Nov. 19th) and a version for all ages, which arrives in stores Nov. 2nd. The book for young children features 15 animals and is written in what I might call little-kid-talk. The all-ages version features 53 animals and is written to be accessible for adults and older children. They are both chock full of devastatingly cute pictures.
How did you and Chris put the book together? Did you do the text and he did the art?
I’m a lifelong animal nerd and an English major (not that that means much) so writing the copy fell into my court. I wrote everything with the exception of the little-kid-speak language for the young kid’s book. Simon & Schuster’s toddler-talk experts did a great job with that.
Chris Eastland did all the design and layout for the all-ages book. He used to be the photography editor for Quest Magazine but this was his first book. Frankly, I cannot imagine someone with more experience doing a better job. It looks outstanding.
For the young kid’s book, once again, Simon & Schuster’s toddlerologists stepped in and handled the design, although Chris Eastland consulted on it. It came out great.
How many photos did you have to comb through to decide which ones to use? What were the criteria for an animal’s inclusion in this book?
We combed through about 600 different births comprising maybe 2,000 photos and whittled it down to about 150 photos and about 60 animals. At one point the walls of Chris Eastland’s apartment in Brooklyn were literally entirely covered with baby animal pictures. It was overwhelming.
While the selection process was far from scientific, we tried to rate each photo on sheer intrinsic cuteness (A-F), compelling activity (e.g. is the baby nursing from a bottle while balancing on a beach ball or looking bored sitting atop a pile of dirt), and overall picture quality (i.e. professional Nikon SLR or camera phone).
What did you learn doing this book or, if you learned a lot, what were some of the biggest lessons?
#1 For us, the photos were king. Copy was subservient. Illustrations and design elements should just get the hell out of the way.
#2 If you know your subject matter and have design skills, you can do an outstanding job of creating your own book even if you haven’t done it before. It’s not nearly as complicated as we anticipated.
#3 Remember to give credit where credit is due. Publishers typically bury photographer credits in the back of their books. For ZooBorns, zoo and aquarium photographers are our lifeblood so we made a special point of making their credits prominent.
Is the idea here partly that you will draw people in with the cute photos and then educate them on the cold sad facts?
We’d prefer to describe them as fascinating, vital, and enlightening facts, but yeah, that’s the idea. We aim to educate while we entertain. No one wakes up in the morning and says “I want to visit a zoo to learn about conservation!” But after their zoo visit, they probably know more and care more about how to protect these species in the wild and what the zoo is doing to help. ZooBorns operates the same way. You visit because you want to see an orphan sea otter pup going for its first swim at the aquarium. You leave knowing that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program has rehabilitated over 500 wild otters since its inception.
The book has so many cute photos – should it be consumed only in parts for fear you’ll get a sugar high or something if you consume it all at once?
These are the cutest animal books ever created. No joke. You can get cute headaches from our books. It’s just like eating ice cream too fast. You’ve been warned.
Some of the proceeds for the book go to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Can you explain what happens from there or, put another way, what is the money used for?
Ten percent of all ZooBorns revenue from the books goes directly to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Conservation Endowment Fund. This money is then doled out to accredited zoos and aquariums to fund conservation programs. The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago helps protect the lions of the Serengeti from dog born illnesses like distemper. The Oregon Zoo raises and releases western pond turtles in the Columbia River Basin. The Point Defiance Zoo works to restore the critically endangered red wolf population. The AZA’s Conservation Endowment Fund supports programs like this. Everyone wins — the animals, the zoos, the public, and ZooBorns.
Can you explain about the different extinct status categories? I was confused to see some animals listed in a category/status of “least concern” – is that like “least endangered”?
The status of Least Concern is conferred by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and means that the species has been studied and the survival of that species does not appear to be currently threatened. This does not mean that portions of the population are not threatened in particular areas or that there are a large number of those animals. In some cases, species are native to only a very small geographic area (like an island) and while there are not many of the critters in total, the population is currently at the level the ecosystem can sustain.
I know some people who think of zoos as terrible places because of the argument that it’s taking animals from their natural habitat but I’m guessing you have a different take since without the zoos some of these animals might have gone extinct? Am I right? Can you elaborate?
Wild animals are meant to live free. The more active and intelligent the species, the greater the challenge of providing that animal with something close to a fulfilling life in captivity. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the greatest threat to wild animals is human indifference. While some of us may be intrinsically motivated to protect rare species in far flung locations, the vast majority of people are not. Responsible, accredited zoos serve an invaluable role in forging connections between humans and animals, building empathy and educating people about ways to help. Additionally, as I mentioned before, many of these zoos are doing groundbreaking, impactful conservation work.
In my eyes, all combined, the net good accredited zoos and aquariums do far outweighs the cost of keeping a wild animal in captivity as an ambassador for their species. I should note that I know a great many zoo employees as well and, for the most part, the animal staff have biology degrees and put their animals’ welfare above all else.
Can you tell me about your minor, referred to in the book as something like baby animal-ology?
Yes. I have minor in baby animalogy, which I received from an online university based out of Myanmar or Somalia or somewhere. It qualifies me to pontificate about the cuteness of any given species. I am available for conference gigs.
Lastly what questions did you hope I’d bring up that I didn’t. Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.
I care about animals. How can I help protect species I love?
Visit an accredited zoo or aquarium (you can look here – http://www.aza.org/findzooaquarium/ or look at the North American zoos listed on ZooBorns.com) and ask them how you can support their conservation efforts. Maybe volunteering at your local zoo is an option, or helping them get the word out about conservation efforts is another way to go. Whatever you do, sharing your passion for conservation makes a difference when you get involved — and zoos can be a great place to start.