‘On Animals’ not just for critter lovers

By Ted Ayres | February 25, 2022

“On Animals,” by Susan Orlean (Avid Reader Press, 2021, 237 pages, $28.00)

Susan Orlean is one of my favorite writers, and that kind of enthusiasm for her work is widespread. A staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1992, Orlean was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2003 and received a Guggenhiem Fellowship in 2014.

Having enjoyed two of her previous books — “Rin Tin Tin, The Life of a Legend” (2011) and “The Library Book” (2018) — I was happy to find a copy of her latest work at the bookstore (and autographed at that). “On Animals” is a collection of articles that Orlean penned for The New YorkerThe Atlantic and The Smithsonian Magazine between February 20, 1995 and June 28, 2020, with some updating for the book.  

The book is about animals and the people who love them, care for them, train them, work with them and even stuff them. Mules, homing pigeons, oxen, lions, rabbits, pandas, killer whales, donkeys, cats, dogs and turkeys are a few of the species Orleans delves into.  

Orlean writes that animals “have always been my style. They have been a part of my life even when I didn’t have any animals, and when I did have them, they always seemed to elbow their way onto center stage.” I think non-animal lovers will appreciate the book as well.

Many of the stories deal with Orlean’s personal experiences as a cat lover, “chicken rancher” and all-around animal person. But she also takes her readers to places such as Jackson, N.J., to meet a woman who kept two dozen tigers in her backyard; Bridgeport, Calif., where U.S. and foreign military personnel learn how to use pack animals in war; Cienfuegos, Cuba, to meet a team of oxen; and Springfield, Il., home of the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships.

There are too many endearing stories of amazing animals to list in the space I have here, so let me just close with Orlean’s description of leaving a farm in the Hudson Valley: “I had reveled in the animals’ friendship and their strangeness; the way they are so obvious and still so mysterious; their colors and textures, their fur and feathers; the sounds and smells of their presence. I liked the way their needs set the rhythm of every day, and how caring for them felt elemental and essential.”

Contact Ted Ayres at ted.ayres@shockers.wichita.edu.