Keggie Carew / Abrams Press / 384 pages

Keggie Carew’s background is not in science (her career started in contemporary art), and it shows. Her book, Beastly: The 40,000-Year Story of Animals and Us, is not the first book to consider the combined history of humans and nonhuman animals, but it takes a unique approach to the tale.

Carew, who established the Underhill Wood Nature Reserve with her husband, Thomas, uses an artful prose one doesn’t often see in popular science books. At the same time, her wry and sometimes self-effacing humor (introduced in the very first sentence: “This damn book.”) also shines throughout. Her account of our history with animals, “a gargantuan” one, ventures far and wide, from cave paintings to domestication, our relationship with “pests,” and our study of animals in and out of the lab, including Henry Harlow’s chilling social isolation experiments involving infant monkeys and Robert Paine’s revolutionary study “hurling” starfish out to sea (through which he introduced the concept of “keystone” species).

Carew captures the beautiful and the horrifying, the sad and the enlightening of our relationship with animals. Her occasional melancholy passages beautifully capture just what we stand to lose as species and ecosystems disappear. The sheer variety of species she weaves into her prose is impressive, and she peppers her story with interesting human characters as well. (The story of Simona Kossak, Lech Wilczek, Korasek the raven, and Zabka the boar is alone worth the price of admission.) She leaves the reader a bit sad at the state of nature today, but also with an enduring wonder for what nature is capable of. You may have read other books about humanity’s relationship with the natural world, but you probably haven’t read anything quite like Carew’s Beastly.

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