On Animals

  • By Susan Orlean
  • Avid Reader Press
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Christine Baleshta
  • November 10, 2021

A warm, witty essay collection celebrating creature comfort.

Susan Orlean is “animalish.” No matter where she is, animals are always there — even if she doesn’t happen to own a dog or cat at a given moment. From the time she was a child, Orlean didn’t have to look far to find animals; they found her.

In On Animals, the popular journalist and author of The Library Book returns to one of her favorite subjects, gathering earlier essays from the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and Smithsonian Magazine into a delightful collection of stories about the animals she’s met over the years.

“Why animals?” she asks, before admitting there is no one explanation. Orlean simply finds them interesting, funny, and companionable:

“Some of my animals have jobs. My chickens lay eggs. My dog scares the FedEx man. The cats, by their arrogant disrespect of duty, serve to remind me that I have to schedule Terminix to come and chase the mice out of the basement. All of these creatures serve a purpose, even if that is to have no real purpose.”

Moreover, animals are enigmatic. People can be figured out, but animals are unknowable and mysterious, offering us “relationships…distinct from the relationships we have with others of our own species.”

Orlean chronicles her own journey with animals, beginning with begging her parents for a dog to marrying and moving to the country, where she gradually acquires a slew of four-legged or feathered friends. On Animals explores not only everyday interactions, but more unusual relationships people share with animals and why we find critters so fascinating and lovable.

The book spotlights a diverse menagerie of both the familiar and the exotic, each chapter/essay centering around a particular animal or group of animals. “The It Bird” provides a brief history of the recent suburban enthusiasm for raising chickens, as well as the author’s own obsession with the practice. She describes chickens as the perfect “gateway animal” leading to more chickens, and possibly to turkeys and ducks.

In “Riding High,” Orlean spotlights the military’s use of mules in wartime and applauds its comeback as a farm animal and pleasure-riding animal. “Little Wing” follows a young girl’s passion for the sport of pigeon racing.

While Orlean is drawn to all creatures, she is most curious about domestic animals and those that cross the line between the wild and domestic worlds. In “Where’s Willy?” she follows the career of Keiko, the orca captured off the coast of Iceland who became a movie sensation. The essay “The Lady and the Tigers” delves into the dark world of wild-animal ownership, while “Animal Action” discusses the sad history of animals used in film and the efforts of the Humane Society and the Screen Actors Guild to correct it.

Orlean writes with genuine appreciation for her subjects. She is quick to point out an animal’s admirable qualities, whether it’s the beauty of a chicken’s feathers or the work ethic of a mule. The book is littered with comical anecdotes — like the one about the resuscitation of a frozen chicken — and fun facts. Who knew there was a fashion show for rabbits? Throughout, Orlean manages to avoid anthropomorphizing (although it only adds to the charm when, in one essay, she describes an ideal boyfriend before revealing, paragraphs later, that it’s a dog).

Though not weighed down by gnawing issues like habitat loss and extinction, On Animals doesn’t ignore hard truths about the treatment of animals and humans’ role in their future. “Humankind has ended up mediating almost every aspect of the natural world,” Orlean writes, “muddling the notion of what being truly wild can really mean anymore.”

Underpinning these essays are difficult, possibly unanswerable questions. Should people be allowed to own wild animals? Should animals held in captivity be set free? How should animals used in films and on TV be treated? And what does it mean when we bond across species?

The last essay, “Farmville,” which chronicles the pleasures and pitfalls of Orlean’s life in the country, makes a perfect finale. In it, she hauls water to chickens while in her pajamas, battles ticks and Lyme disease, and shrieks with excitement over finding a deer antler. Many of the author’s experiences — recounted with her characteristic humor and delight — mirror those of any animal owner and touch on the dilemmas they all face, including the expense, the taking in of strays, and the angst of having to rehome animal companions. It’s here the book comes full circle, braiding the essays and Orlean’s emotions about animals together.

On Animals celebrates our relationship with other species, “living with them, loving them, hoarding them, using them,” and explores how that relationship “says something about who and what we are.” It makes for a witty and entertaining volume.

Christine Baleshta is the author of Looking for 527 and other essays. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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