If you type the words "Zimbabwe" and "leopard" into Google's search field, Autocomplete's first suggestion for the next term will be "hunt." I learned this trying to look up the Texas cheerleader who recently gained Internet fame for taking down one of these big cats as a trophy. For the record, leopards are not endangered; their classification is "near threatened." If you are wealthy and so inclined, it's within your legal rights to travel to parts of Africa and hunt even endangered species with a guide boasting "100 percent success."
Amid such realities, Alison Hawthorne Deming offers "Zoologies," her "secular prayer for the beauties and beasts of Earth." Disturbed by the unprecedented rate at which we are driving other species into extinction, primarily through habitat destruction, Deming wants to draw the reader's attention to what currently survives. She would like for us "to feel the spiritual force of animals as one might encounter or contemplate them on any day and in any place." "Zoologies," then, surrounded by sadness, is marked by its gratitude. The book is an appreciation that understands "one of nature's many little tricks is that our better intentions can be fueled by the simple contemplation of natural beauty."
Most of the 30-plus short essays are devoted to single species — whether thriving (lobster), vulnerable (cheetah), extinct (Tyrannosaurus rex) or mythical (dragon) — that Deming considers in a mix of first-hand reporting, research and wise reflection. The beauty she encounters, whether in a forest or in her own consciousness, transfers easily to her prose.
Typical of her method is the essay "Black Vulture," which finds Deming in Punta Chueca, Mexico, hiking to Isla Tiburón to camp with students "interested in learning how the loss of native language was eroding the Seris' knowledge about indigenous plants and animals." At one point on the hike the women in the group stop while the men go ahead. As the women rest, a black vulture circles above them. When the men return, one jokes that the vulture thought he'd found a meal. The guide counters with this interpretation: "If the men had gotten lost and not returned, anyone from the village a mile across the water would have seen the vulture and known where to find us. … What was black suddenly looked white, what was harbinger had become protector." "Zoologies" means to affect the way we relate to animals, in part by showing how much we already have in common with them.
Scott F. Parker's most recent book is "Conversations With Ken Kesey." He lives in Minneapolis.