“In a thousand ways, kids’ lives are safer and healthier,” Mintz adds, “but perhaps not in the ways that matter most.”
Maybe not, but it’s still pretty hard to ignore the numerous errors in judgment included in The Golden Book of Wild-Animal Pets. Isn’t it, for example, simply rude—if not immoral and destructive—to encourage thousands of young readers to remove baby screech owls from their nests? And why on earth would the author who writes “Monkeys have always been popular as pets, but they seldom work out really well” also explain where and how to procure a monkey?
Some of the book’s smallest details are especially unnerving. In a brief line, Pinney instructs his child readers to collect freshwater clams as a snack for their bottle-fed raccoons. Consider the logic of this: Not only would his readers have the time to train a raccoon to a bottle, not only would their parents allow them to wade into the Chesapeake unsupervised, but the kids would also be able to find and identify those tasty clams.
These assertions no longer work. Numerous studies indicate that children in the developed world spend far less time outside in unstructured play than kids did a generation ago. They’re building zombie-flesh farms on Minecraft, not cages for their pet raccoons. And even if today’s kids had both the raccoon and the time, most species of native clam are either endangered or entirely gone.
Pinney wasn’t clueless, however. He knew that children had caring and protective parents. He also knew that the wild animals of the world faced numerous perils. Other Pinney titles from the ’60s include Vanishing Wildlife and Wildlife in Danger. These well-meaning books paid homage to “unexploited nature’s infinite variety” and explained the threat of species extermination. Perhaps they even played a small role in bringing the crisis of extinction to national attention. Unfortunately, they are so boring they will make your teeth itch.
That’s a shame, because Roy Pinney himself was not boring. He flew his own WWII-era BT-13 airplane around North America reporting stories for Life and Colliers. He was friends with pinup model and photographer Bunny Yeager, and he took photos of her taking those famous pictures of Bettie Page in a cheetah-print bikini. Shortly before he died in 2010, he had more than a hundred snakes (some of them poisonous, many of them uncaged) in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Supposedly, at one time or another, he kept as a pet almost every animal mentioned in his Golden Book.
Other than a paycheck, what did Pinney want from a book that encouraged children to carry flying squirrels around in their pockets and offered instructions on how to treat mange at home?
Being a kid is something that just happens, preferably without an excess of cruelty or pain. But childhood itself is an invention, one that’s remade by society again and again. “We may think of childhood as a biological phenomenon,” Mintz writes in Huck’s Raft, “but it is better understood as a life stage whose contours are shaped by a particular time and place.”
In The Golden Book of Wild-Animal Pets, Pinney did his best to invent an American childhood that was tactile, immersive, and misery-free. In his world, no kid would ever be without an animal in their hands, and the worst thing that could happen is your armadillo would get sick. There were no negligence lawsuits, no creepy neighbors, no extinction alerts, and—best of all—you could drop your possum off at the zoo as soon as you got bored with it.