Human Machinations around Animals, the Joy of Nature’s Eccentricities, and Other New Books

In On Animals, a new collection of old essays, veteran journalist Susan Orlean is almost the obverse of wonder-seeking naturalists like David Attenborough. Her focus is not on wild creatures and their swiftly disappearing worlds but on animals that live in human-dominated spheres: pets, working animals, and those kept as barnyard companions, livestock, or curiosities. Her subjects are the familiar denizens of the home, farm, zoo and marketplace.

Orlean explores the human machinations around show dogs and celebrity megafauna such as captive giant pandas and the movie star orca Keiko of Free Willy fame. She tells the unsettling saga of an American woman who kept numerous tigers, written long before the airing of the notorious series Tiger King. The differences between mules and donkeys are illuminated here, as are the decline and fall of pack animals in the armed forces and the poignancy of a young girl’s devotion to her homing pigeons.

Orlean deftly captures some of the ways in which categories like “pet” and “revenue source” or “food” overlap, sometimes painfully. And how in other cases, such as donkeys in Morocco’s medinas, working animals are seen as machines and unmourned when, after years of devoted service, they die. Some readers may be startled by her rosy account of a meet and greet with a privately owned African lion, brought to her New York apartment as an apparently charming Valentine’s Day surprise; it doesn’t stop to contemplate, as her story “The Lady and the Tigers” does, the ethical dimensions of personal wild-animal ownership. But in general, these well-researched and readable essays—originally published in the New Yorker and Smithsonian Magazine beginning in 1995—open onto a world of troubled human relationships with charismatic beasts.

In her introduction, a piece called “Animalish”—the only newly written material in the collection—Orlean describes her lifelong interest in animalkind and speculates that she has a rare affection for it. But there’s little evidence in the book of the author as an outlier. Clearly, she loves dogs, chickens, horses, and other long-time familiar companions and has gone to great lengths to make caring for many of them a focus of her wide-roaming investigative life. But the proposition that her affinity is outlandish lands with an oddly unexamined weight. Is a fondness for other animals strange?

Even in a culture willfully detached from the wild, animal sign is visible everywhere. I rarely enter a home, office or store that doesn’t contain a simulacrum of one of them—usually several. Animal forms, references and mimicries hover all around us, even in places where no living nonhuman animals are present (at least, beyond the miniature and microscopic). They populate our language with their richness, diversity and color and play a critical role in helping us raise our children.

So when Orlean asks the question, in “Animalish,” of whether her life among the other animals and her yearning for their company is atypical, I find myself wishing she’d answered the question in greater depth—wishing that, given this collection’s central theme, she’d examined how humanness is constructed through and around the existence of nonhuman animals. How our notions of personhood are built on the vast foundation of our extensive evolutionary and social history with the other species that define our lived experience. In a time of pressing and accelerating biodiversity crisis, it seems more urgent than ever that we grapple with the implications of our use and abuse of other life-forms, whether domesticated or wild—with how our love for them is mediated by, and subsumed into, our exploitation of their bodies and habitats. With how and why our culture has taught us that other animals are little more than useful idiots and that, therefore, our love of them is childish, hobbyistic or weird. When in fact, our stories, homes and minds are furnished with the artifacts of a far deeper love.

The best writing in On Animals—about Keiko the orca, say, or about donkeys or about Biff the prizewinning boxer—occurs where the mundane meets the tragic, at the crossroads between our compulsion to care for and be near animals and our dawning realization that those animals are always, finally, beyond our sphere of nurturing and control.—Lydia Millet

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In On Animals, a new collection of old essays, veteran journalist Susan Orlean is almost the obverse of wonder-seeking naturalists like David Attenborough. Her focus is not on wild creatures and their swiftly disappearing worlds but on animals that live in human-dominated spheres: pets, working animals, and those kept as barnyard companions, livestock, or curiosities.…

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