On Animals by Susan Orlean

Guest book review by Gene Helfman.

“. . . are such rare, extraordinary kinships valuable because they remind us of a continuity with living creatures that we easily forget?” 

Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief (turned into an Oscar-winning movie starring Meryl Streep) and The Library Book (a must read for any bibliophile), titled her latest book On Animals when in reality it’s on the animal-human interface. On Animals is a collection of Orlean’s essays about how we interact with non-human species: the obvious, domesticated animals we ride, raise, work, milk, play with, and eat: dogs, cats, pigs, rabbits, chickens (lots about chickens), turkeys, pigeons, donkeys, horses (mules); but also kinships with wilder/tame lions and tigers and panda bears (and orcas). Each essay explores how we’ve come to familiarize ourselves with another species, seen through the lens of case histories – including some of her own — featuring amazing animals and often-equally amazing, often-obsessive people. We learn of a couple in New Jersey who hoarded tigers, twenty-three by their records, but only fifteen for which they could actually account (facts: the average animal hoarder keeps thirty-nine animals and the recidivism rate among convicted hoarders is 100%). By one estimate, there are perhaps fifteen thousand pet tigers in the U.S. alone, as opposed to only six thousand left in the wild. We learn that tigers breed happily in captivity, are cute as cubs, but become somewhat problematic as they age. The trajectory of care for pet tigers descends with age, leading to malnourished “surplus” animals living in deplorable conditions, or set loose on hunting ranches to become trophies, all via the enterprising and insufficiently-regulated Exotic Animal Market. 

We also learn variously that chickens “are the new hot pet” (thanks in part to Queen Victoria, P. T. Barnum,  and Martha Stewart); that a best-in-show male boxer (dog) can make $2400 a month in stud fees; that the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center teaches a course in how to load a pack mule (following on the heels or hoofs of 1200 mules sent to Afghanistan to help the mujahideen fight the Soviet invasion); that a champion racing pigeon can cost $30,000; that Rin Tin Tin had his own valet and chauffeur, unlike most other animal actors that were used, abused, and discarded: “tripped, shocked, raced into open trenches” and generally “considered cheap disposable props” until 1980; that there is a World Taxidermy Championship celebrating a $570 million annual business; that African lions also face a surplus problem from captive overbreeding and loss of interest when they outgrow their cute cub phase, hence “far more lions live in captivity than in the wild,” and the number of lions in Africa has declined 90% in the last 50 years; that rabbits – the third most popular pet in America and “the only creatures we regularly keep as pets in our homes that we also, just as regularly, eat or wear“ – are not protected by felony cruelty provisions, nor are they protected by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. 

“If therapists didn’t charge you and were willing to chase sticks, they would be dogs. Dogs, though, are more fun than therapists, more tender, more dear, and certainly more admiring.”

I came to On Animals inadvertently. A friend alerted me to one of the essays, Where’s Willy, about the sad history of Keiko, the killer whale enshrined in our psyche as a result of the movie Free Willy. I had written a novel, Beyond the Human Realm, about a male orca released into the wild, inspired in part by that movie. 

Keiko’s stardom instigated a public campaign to free the whale from hideous conditions in a Mexican circus aquarium and return him to the Icelandic waters from which he was taken as a youngster. The barriers to success were gargantuan as the whale had spent essentially his entire life in captivity, away from other orcas, without the social or hunting skills crucial to surviving in orca society. Millions of dollars were spent in the effort, as the whale was moved from Mexico to Oregon to Iceland to Norway. But Keiko suffered from something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, a former hostage who sought the company and affection of humans more than of other whales. Keiko died of pneumonia alone in a Norwegian bay less than two years after his “release.”  

Orlean’s essays have authenticity. As a staff writer for The New Yorker, her tales aren’t simple recountings of details gleaned from the web. She researches the history and background events, then embeds herself in the lives of the people and animals in question. And she writes beautifully, each essay as much a documentary of our intimate connections to non-human species as it is a lyrical exploration of the emotions these connections evoke: “With their parallel but unknowable lives, animals offer us relationships that exist in the realm of silence and mystery, distinct from the relationships we have with others of our own species.”

Categories: Animal Behavior, Human-Animal Relationships, Pets, Domesticated Animals, Lions, Tigers, Chickens, Dogs, Orcas, Non-Fiction, Avid Reader Press

Gene Helfman is the author of the award-winning novel, Beyond the Human Realm, about a male orca rescued from captivity and released into the wild, and the people and whales instrumental in his gaining acceptance into orca society. He has recently completed another eco-fiction thriller, FINS, a satirical, shark-friendly take on the shark horror genre, focused on the reprehensible activity of cutting off fins and throwing sharks back alive.

On Animals
Susan Orlean
Avid Reader Press, 2021 

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