The Curious Species Politics of Dinotopia

As a young reader, I loved James Gurney’s illustrated fantasy series Dinotopia. I vaguely remember the first two entries. I think the third was published after I’d aged out of the franchise. Certainly the fourth was.

I’ve mentioned before that when I get stressed out or start feeling down, I often use nostalgia as a salve. It’s probably not the healthiest behavior, but it’s what I do. So I recently checked out the first book from the library. Unfortunately, none of the others were available, even on interlibrary loan.

A Land Apart from Time tells the story of Arthur and Will Dennison, a father-son duo, who are shipwrecked on an undiscovered island in the 1860s, inhabited by dinosaurs and humans. In my memory, the book transposed animal domestication onto the backs of prehistoric creatures.

It does that, but the species politics are a little more complicated than I recalled. First of all, the dinosaurs can talk and seem to have human-like minds, which makes the analogy to modern animals imperfect. One stenonychosaurus manages a clock museum and gets in a conversation with Arthur about the nature of time!

Still, for the most part, the dinosaurs seem to be stuck with the menial labor. No small dinosaurs are riding around on humans in the way humans regularly ride on the larger dinosaurs. Also, not all the prehistoric creatures can think and speak like we can.

The pterosaurs, cousins of the dinosaurs, are depicted much more like the animals we know. As a result, their use is closer to the domestication we’re familiar with. Will learning how to fly on a quetzalcoatlus skybax is a central storyline in the book. The fictionalized species is supposed to be a pterosaur.

More interesting is the human diet in Dinotopia. When Arthur and Will first wash ashore, they share a meal with the Romano family, who work at a dinosaur hatchery. Arthur notes the breakfast includes “no milk, no meat and no eggs.”

Later, the father and son meet a survivor of another shipwreck, named Lee Crabb. He’s portrayed as a morally dubious character who wants to leave Dinotopia. “You’ve had your last grog and your last roast mutton,” he complains.

Is this because there are no traditionally-farmed animals on the island? Are the dinosaurs exempt from being eaten because they can talk? What about the pterosaurs, who can’t? I suspect there might be answers to these questions in the other books in the series.

At one point, in the first title, Arthur and Will plan to travel through an area of the island inhabited by carnivorous dinosaurs. The pair are guided by a group of herbivorous dinosaurs who pack shark and eel meat as an offering to the carnivores in exchange for safe passage.

One of the guides, a protoceratops, explains the preparations are an unfortunate necessity. “Tyrannosaurus rex is not evil,” she says. “Only hungry by nature, with no love for society, and no stomach for green food. That is why we carry fish.”

It’s unclear whether fish is available for the human residents of Dinotopia to eat. Arthur says he has no taste for shark and eel flesh. I’m a little sad my library system doesn’t have the other books in the franchise. I’d definitely read them.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at