I assumed when I grabbed Susan Orlean’s 2021 audiobook, On Animals, that it was more of a philosophical book — I try not to read the synopsis of a book/audiobook before reading/listening! I go in based on the title/what it appears to be, like animals with this one, another author’s blurb, a recommendation from a friend, the first sentence of the synopsis, and so on — and instead, it ended up being a quirky, zany book that at its heart is still philosophical. That is, “on animals” feels like a philosophical title to me, but Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker, instead, used her experiences over the years traveling and reporting around the world to talk about animals and what our interaction with them says about us. Her book is a collection of her essays on the subject, and consist of her travels, from Jackson, New Jersey to Morocco to Cuba to Africa to Iceland and back to her homes in New York and then California, to explore our interest in and use of animals of all kinds, from dogs and cats to mules and oxen to lions and tigers, orcas, and even racing pigeons. Those travels also took Orlean’s into the interesting worlds of dog shows, war animals, and taxidermists competitions.
I love animals. That is why when I grabbed Orlean’s book at random from the library and saw it was “on animals,” I checked it out. Like Orlean, I’m also fascinated by the human fascination with animals, and the ways in which we interact with and use them for companionship, work, travel, as hobbies, for food, and in less savory ways (uh, no pun intended), hunting. Orlean talked about how there is something innate in humans that draws us to other animals: curiosity, amusement, to have as company, that they are nice to look at, and well, as breakfast food. Kids demonstrate this innateness pretty early on, Orleans argued, which is why (my words) zoos, petting zoos, pet stores, and so forth, are always popular. On the philosophical front, Orlean argued that we feel a certain kinship and commonality with animals, and yet, they are also still alien in that cross-species way.
Humans are animals, lest we forget, albeit we exist within the animal kingdom and outside of it, which has always been our philosophical conundrum, but this book while ostensibly about animals as we would traditionally think about them, is perhaps more precisely thought of as a book about us, humans. Because humans and the way in which we interact with animals is deeply interesting. Whether it is Kevin Richardson and his surreal ability to be friends with lions, or the quirky world of pigeon racing, humans are as fascinating as our animal counterparts for why we partake in such activities, hobbies and interests.
The audiobook, read by Orlean, is bookended by her own experiences, and the beginning starts with her own budding interest in animals. First, when a a boy from school gifted her a pet mouse, and then she learned quite quickly how breeding works, as did her poor mother. Later on, she met a man after her divorce, and his Valentine’s gift to her was bringing a legit African lion to her apartment in New York City. I need to know more about how that worked.
Orlean has always been “animalish,” as she calls it. She owns cats and dogs (it took her a decade to acquire another dog, though, after her dog she had in college died), of course, but also chickens, which she calls a great starter and gateway animal (my colleague, who owns chickens, disputed this, given how much work chickens are), and turkeys. Interestingly, I didn’t know we had Martha Stewart to thank for the wider public’s interest in chickens and having their own chicken coops with the success of her first book in 1982. Even today, as Orlean explained, people are still fighting their city and township governments to allow chicken coops within those respective governmental boundaries.
Some of the interesting “characters” throughout the book included:
- Biff, an apparently ravenous for food and sex boxer show dog, who spent his time galivanting from hotel to hotel and show to show while making sure to exercise on the treadmill. Orlean talked to the owner, who estimated he is worth $100,000, but between travel, show fees, and upkeep for a dog like that, they were probably losing money on him. That raises the question for me of why they do it at all, which Orlean, I think, would answer: Because they enjoyed it.
- Joan Byron-Marasek, who by virtue of owning somewhere around 23 tigers in Jackson, New Jersey, at the time, had one of the highest concentration of tigers in the world. When a tiger seemingly got loose in Jackson, and is subsequently killed, all hell broke loose, mostly from homeowners who didn’t think they paid to live in Jackson, New Jersey with tigers. But Orlean also used this segment of the book as an interesting deep dive into the world of owning exotic animals, and particularly, those who hoard them and how nearly impossible it is to reign them in legally or even keep watch over them in a regulatory sense.
- War animals, like mules, who were eventually replaced by better vehicles and machines. Orlean relayed one baffling moment in American military history, I believe in WWII, where the American military thought they could train mules to … skydive?! So, they took some up in a plane, and pushed a few out of the plane to see what would happen. Um, they plunged to their death. But interestingly, mules are a lot smarter than I realized, and they realized what was happening, and the rest refused to be shoved out of the plane. I also learned that mules seem better as retirement animals than horses, because they are easier to care for.
- Pigeons! I was riveted by the chapter on racing pigeons, or honing pigeons. Orlean talked about how she and someone who owns such pigeons took them 100 miles from their home, released them, and then the pigeons beat Orlean and the owner back home. What?! How do they do it?! Science still doesn’t quite know, which itself is fascinating.
- Film animals! Hollywood is replete with deplorable behavior throughout its history, and up there would be its treatment of animals for years and years, where studios considered many of the animals used in film and television as disposable, including horses. Eventually, though, relatively recently in the 1980s, the Screen Actors Guild demanded better treatment, and now pays the Animal Humane to oversee the treatment of animals, with its now classic “no animals were harmed” label at the end of a film or television show that uses real animals. And by all animals, quite literally all animals. One representative told Orlean, if a studio brings 22,000 cockroaches to set, it better account for all 22,000 cockroaches at the end of the shoot.
- Animals as actors nicely segued into a riveting story about Free Willy and the real orca used in the film, Keiko, and the pressure from audiences after seeing the film to free him, to the point where even Warner Brothers chipped in money to help make it happen. But the additional reason that was so riveting is because taking an animal that has known captivity from a young age and releasing them in the wild takes considerable work, time and money. You can’t just do it with good intentions and best wishes. He likely would have died immediately. (Sidebar, I thought it was interesting that the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where he went after being removed from captivity in Mexico, sued the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, which wanted to transport him to Iceland. In my opinion, they sued him not out of concern for Keiko, but because they stood to lose millions of visitors who were coming to the aquarium to see him.) Nonetheless, once moved to Iceland, his re-introduction into the wild eventually worked! Even so, it was bittersweet to learn that after one of the usual trips to cajole him back to the wild and mingle with other orcas, he just never returned to his human handlers, and one day turned into weeks and months, and forever.
- I had no idea how intricate and artistic taxidermy was, or that there is a world championship held every two years. I appreciate the skill and creativity, but I still find it icky. I would have zero interest in having a stuffed animal in my house. Or even going to look at them. But I appreciated diving into that world, thanks to Orlean.
- Perhaps the most appalling part of the book was the look into the treatment of tigers and lions in Africa, and how commercialized the hunting and breeding of them is, particularly “canned hunting.” I didn’t know what that was until Orlean mentioned it, but it’s basically where rich Americans fly to Africa and hunt intentionally subdued lions and tigers so as to make them easier to kill for use as trophies. That is disgusting. Or the process of cub breeding, where cubs, who are only controllable for a short time, are constantly being churned out.
- I didn’t think I’d be so fascinated by the rabbits portion, but today I learned (on the day I heard it), rabbits feign being healthy, so as to ward off predators who would think a sickly rabbit easy prey. That can be a confounding issue for those who take them as pets. But also, speaking of, rabbits, as Orlean explained, exist in a weird space of being the most popular pet after dogs and cats, but also, an animal still widely hunted and eaten. But also, quite the nuisance! It is illegal to have a pet rabbit in Australia after their numbers swarmed, and thereafter, the government killed like half a billion of them. There is also the problem of rabbit hemorrhagic disease, which continues to plague rabbits and can spread quite easily. Emerging in the 1980s, Orlean said RHD killed 144 million rabbits in China. The disease jumped to Europe, Africa, and the United States shortly after. Infuriatingly, and not surprisingly to those who understand American government bureaucracy, the United States Department of Agriculture didn’t want to import the vaccine for the virus, which was being used in Europe! A practice the Food and Drug Administration engages in with respect to human medicine, but I digress.
- Okay, I really want to roll around with a panda. But more than just how cute they are, Orlean outlined how much of an evolutionary curiosity these creatures are. What are they? Bear? Raccoon? And how the heck have these creatures, which rarely ever kill anything, and are famously lethargic, survived this long? But please, I need to pet a panda, if it’s safe for them (and me)!
- I laughed at Sherlock Bones, who Orlean interviewed I believe about the case of a dog who was inadvertently kidnapped by a car thief (the dog was in the backseat, along with a fancy instrument worth thousands the car thief likely didn’t even realize). But dogs going missing or otherwise astray is a real problem: Orlean said there are something like 65 million dogs as pets in the United States, and 10 million go missing, are hit by cars, acquired by new owners under assumed names, and so forth, every year. Or, one has to think, the higher-end breed dogs are actually stolen rather than inadvertently stolen. (They did get the dog back, by the way!)
As I mentioned, Orlean bookends these zany adventures around the globe with her own experiences. I have to say, I find it odd that she can own turkeys and still eat turkey! I mean, I eat turkey, but I don’t have them as pets. I can’t imagine if I actually took one as a pet, or a pig or a chicken, that I would still be able to eat turkeys, pigs, or chickens. And I can’t say I’m feeling inspired to use chickens as a starter animal, either, after what she said about the risk of Lyme disease, which she and her family experienced numerous times. Today I learned (when I heard it), that Lyme disease, due to the vagueness of its onset symptoms, is notably difficult to diagnosis.
If you are also still kid-like in your fascination with animals, as I am, and clearly Orlean is, I highly recommend Orlean’s book. It is, as I alluded to, very human because humans and animals are linked. There is no way to extricate us from them and them from us; even the notion of wilderness is sort of quaint, given how much humans influences and otherwise interfere with the wild, to paraphrase a point from Orlean. To be corny, it would be impossible to listen (or read) this book without learning, laughing, and loving something.