For Baltimore Zoo director, a childhood filled with stories of adventure, animals

Books: As an adult, Roger Birkel enjoys reading about the environment and issues relating to his job.

Reading Life

October 03, 1999|By Nancy Knisley | Nancy Knisley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Roger Birkel was young, he imagined himself talking with animals as does the boy Mowgli in "The Jungle Book."

"I was fascinated because Mowgli was part of the animals, not a human apart from animals, but one of them," Birkel says, remembering that he also found Rudyard Kipling's animal characters compelling.

"He presented animals as having personalities. The animals were all individuals. That's a very powerful thing."

As an adult, Birkel works with animals -- as executive director of the Baltimore Zoo. And one of the best things about that real-life role, he says, is learning that "all animals have personalities and predictable behaviors."

"It becomes really special when you get to know animals," he says.

Birkel, 53, says his love of animals began when he was quite young -- as did his love for reading. "When I was young, I read all the time. I still do. I love to read."

He remembers his St. Louis boyhood, "going on Saturdays, by myself, on a streetcar or riding my bike, to the library. I had my own card. I would spend hours reading in the library. I would read anything about travel, books about foreign places. I loved the exotic -- Africa, Asia. I read about wild and foreign places and animals."

Recalling those reading experiences, he says, "The library stands out. I can still see and smell it."

Beyond "The Jungle Book," the Hardy Boys series, Tarzan and books about dinosaurs were among his favorites. Early on, he also read books by Ernest Hemingway, over and over again -- "for the adventure, the all-out-there feeling," even though he may not have understood their many nuances.

Birkel says he also had a good home library, and laughingly recalls how he got his mother to buy him one book. While on a family trip, "I threw a temper tantrum to get a certain dinosaur book, one of the early books put out by a museum, which had wonderful dinosaur dioramas."

He still likes adding to his personal library. "I'm in a bookstore at least twice a week. I want to be around books."

They are always piled up around the bed, Birkel says, noting that the subject matter leans toward the environment and issues relating to his job.

He recently read "The Hungry Ocean," Linda Greenlaw's book about swordfishing; "Tuesdays With Morrie" by Mitch Albom; and chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall's "Reason for Hope."

He also reads lots of magazines, particularly lesser-known ones with "outstanding writing and photography." He pulls out a copy of the magazine Orion, turns the pages and observes, "Isn't this wonderful photography?"

Birkel is an accomplished photographer, as evidenced by his photos accompanying Philip Macht's animal poems in the recently published book "Photozoo."

He reads and collects photography books. "Not how-to books," he says, "but books by photographers, photographic art books."

But he also enjoys collecting young children's books. He says he loves "the way they distill everything to three lines and illustrations." He also notes their accuracy, opening by way of example one of his favorites, "Antarctic Antics" by Judy Sierra, and pointing out its appealing illustrations and humorous, but accurate, poems about all aspects of penguin life.

"Who would have ever thought that a poem could be written about this?" he says with a smile, then begins reading one called "Regurgitation."

Other children's books Birkel recommends include: "Dear Children of the Earth -- A Letter From Home," by Schim Schimmel; "Unseen Rainbows, Silent Sounds -- The World Beyond Human Senses," by Susan E. Goodman; and "The Beauty of the Beast -- Poems From the Animal Kingdom," by Jack Prelutsky.

For family reading, he recommends "The Sense of Wonder" by Rachel Carson, which he remembers reading in high school. He commends its "wonderful thoughts about nature and the environment."

"Carson was one of the first people to point out we had problems which could come back to us. She's a poet. Her words have emotion. She writes what I would want people to feel about the zoo -- a sense of wonder about nature."

Birkel doesn't remember when he began to read, but is sure his mother started "the right way" -- by reading to him before he was talking. He says he has started to do the same with his daughter, Olivia Simone, who is almost a year old.

She likes "colorful books," he says -- and maybe someday she'll like the book she received 11 copies of when she was born: Dr. Seuss' "If I Ran the Zoo."

Pub Date: 10/03/99

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