On Animals by Susan Orlean 2021
Susan Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992 and she occasionally repackages some of her longer pieces from the magazine for books. Such is ‘On Animals’ in which 16 essays (12 from the New Yorker, one from the Atlantic, and three from the Smithsonian) from 1995 through 2020 are republished along with an introduction. Ordinarily, this would irritate me, but in Orlean’s case, it made for a fun and interesting read.
The woman can really write. Funny, great metaphors, and the kind of esoteric yet fascinating facts that Orlean seems to specialize in digging up made for an excellent book. Topics are wide-ranging from the household pets dogs, cats, and chickens to the unusual as in donkey markets in Morocco, tigers being kept on a farm in New Jersey, mules being trained for military duty in Afghanistan, and homing pigeon racing in Massachusetts, Orlean fulfills her need for and emotional investment in animals which she describes as ‘living with them, loving them, hoarding them, using them, and how our relationship to animals says something about who and what we are.’
The chapter about Keiko, the orca who starred in the movie Free Willy was especially interesting and touching, but every chapter had some nugget of information, humor, or just plain good writing. I especially identified with the chapter about the tick-borne illnesses that her family has experienced by living in close proximity to deer—Lyme and erlichiosis which I have had as well. The final chapter describes her and her husband selling Farmville in the Hudson River valley and moving to LA. It made me sad, thinking about how one day our ‘farm’ in Vermont will likely go the same way as we become too old to make the trip back and forth to Cambridge. But until then, it’s back to the garden, the ticks, the deer, and the rest of the resident fauna.