On Animals

Susan Orlean / Avid Reader Press / 256 pages

Susan Orlean is a gifted and well-read writer. I enjoyed reading The Library Book and therefore approached On Animals with eager anticipation. Less than a quarter of the way through it, my eager anticipation changed to bewilderment. How could a person who describes herself as “always a little animalish” and who states, “animals have always been my style” be so clueless and seemingly lacking in empathy with respect to the creatures with whom she claims such affinity? 

In the first chapter, Orlean describes her husband’s courtship of her. His winning move: surprising her on Valentine’s Day by bringing a pet African lion to her door (accompanied by the owner and three off-duty police officers). She was delighted to be in the presence of such a magnificent creature. There is no mention of how a wild lion would experience being a pet. Her chapter on how she began acquiring chickens provides an informative history of attitudes toward chicken farming and includes the observation, “A chicken was a good investment. … A hen in her prime … could produce an egg every day or two in the laying season, and once she stopped laying, she could be cooked.” 

Other chapters are devoted to taxidermy, a woman in New Jersey who hoarded tigers, the usefulness of mules in warfare, and Keiko, the orca featured in the movie Free Willy. Keiko endured 23 years in captivity, first in Iceland, then in Ontario, where he developed skin lesions (an indicator of poor health), and then at a rundown park in Mexico City, where the 21-foot long animal was kept in a pool 22 feet deep, 65 feet wide, and 114 wide long, with water that often was too warm. He is described by Orlean as a whale “who has lived most of his life as a large pet.” 

If you have an interest in reading about how animals have been used by humans, you will find this an interesting book. Otherwise, I would avoid it.

by Mary Lou Randour, PhD

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