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Roger Caras, John Muir. A cameraman and a poet of wildlife

Animals in Their Places, by Roger A. Caras. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. 353 pp. $18.95. Muir Among the Animals, edited by Lisa Mighetto. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. 196 pp. $17.95.

JOHN MUIR, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, and Roger Caras, best known for his radio and television features about animals, grew up a century apart. Like all naturalists, they share a timeless credo. These two anthologies reveal a common respect for the ``rights of animals'' - a term Muir was one of the first to use.

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Admiring the intelligence and character of what Muir called our ``horizontal brothers,'' both authors further agree that the human race has committed grave errors (even sins) against nature.

But in style, and sometimes in substance, they show a distinctly different approach that reflects changes in the culture.

Our 20th-century naturalist, Mr. Caras, has traveled the globe - an estimated 4 million miles in 40 years - seeking out the wildlife he wishes to study. He was the first television journalist to report on the giant panda from the scene in China, and on the monarch butterflies from their secret valley in Mexico.

With the exception of his last essay - on pets - his stories are composed as if Caras were wandering among his various exotic animals as one of them. The pace of these adventures never wanes as one is swept up by Caras's technique of ``show and tell'' (his own description of his work).

In four consecutive pieces, Caras centers on the trying circumstances of a panther's life in the Florida Everglades. After struggling to maturity in the wilds of his marsh home, the panther confronts a more hostile element - man, in the person of an old hunter who has misguidedly decided to tame the big cat.

The outcome is tailored to fit Caras's moral: ``Freedom of movement, freedom of choice is the essence of being wild.''

If Caras seems to write from the viewpoint of a hidden camera, John Muir seems to see things through a poet's eye. In this collection of book excerpts and selected essays - some published for the first time - he speaks out just as indignantly as a modern environmentalist against ``the mean, blinding, loveless doctrine that animals ... were made only for man, to be petted, spoiled, slaughtered, or enslaved.'' And in his time this declaration required more courage to state than today.

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Muir's prose can come close to swooning, as when he writes, ``I joyfully return to the immortal truth and beauty of Nature.'' But the next minute he is inflicting his fury on hunters or sharing his encounter with a curious cinnamon bear, who examined Muir as studiously as the writer examined him.

In the first edition of Muir's essays, the publishers omitted his odes to predators such as bears, snakes, and coyotes, convinced that the public would not want to hear of these allegedly bloodthirsty creatures.

But it is part of Muir's character that he embraces all of nature impartially, like a good father.

Muir wrote before all the lines became pat. His successors, like Caras, might be too self-conscious to say what he said. His great influence, Thoreau, would have been too restrained.

But Muir saw nature - all nature - as the regenerating agent for the human race, and he asserted: ``In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world.''

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