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Scientific adventuring through Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand

Whether she is “Walking With the Great Apes: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Birute Galdikas,” canoeing the Sundarbans for tigers (Spell of the Tiger: The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans), or, in this case, exploring Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos seeking the golden moon bear, Sy Montgomery single-mindedly seeks out rare animals, refusing to limit her searches to “safe” areas. Facing land-mines in Cambodia, warring tribes on the Thai border with Myanmar (Burma), poachers in Laos, and a poverty-stricken Laotian society in which people eat virtually all insect and animal life, Montgomery attempts to track down a golden bear with Mickey-Mouse-type ears and a black mane, thought to be a variety of moon bear, and unlike any other bear known to science, possibly “the scientific finding of a lifetime.”

Frustrated by a search in which all the animals she seeks are found in cages in the city or living, confined, in remote refuges and zoos, Montgomery tries to identify and find the bears’ native habitats, describing the bears’ importance in local culture and the myths and legends which have grown up around them. Through interviews with native wildlife experts, local tribes, and even Hmong refugees in Skokie, Illinois, she tries to capture their fading memories of bear types to see if there is, in fact, an unknown bear species.

A writer, rather than a hard scientist, Montgomery is often lyrical in her descriptions, romantic (some would say excessively so) in her observations and imagery: “Emerging from the deathly still of hibernation, out of gravelike dens, bears rise, Christlike from the dead.” She tends to anthropomorphize her subjects–a bear “reminded me of a street waif,” a civet “stared at us defiantly,” and a pleated gibbon was “stunned and hopeless.”

Less clearly focused and concentrated than her other books, Search for the Golden Moon Bear becomes less a search than a travelogue by the midpoint of Montgomery’s book, as she and the scientists and aides who accompany her continue their explorations into remote and dangerous areas of southeast Asia. Montgomery fans will undoubtedly find this latest adventure fascinating, despite its disappointing conclusions and ominous implications for the future.

Notes: The author’s photo appears on http://www.paulagordon.com, which also contains stories about the author.

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