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Susan Orlean gathers her beastliest writing in ‘On Animals’

Laura Liedo for The Boston Globe

Back in journalism school, we studied an essay published in Esquire in 1966 titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Frank Sinatra refused to be interviewed — so author Gay Talese instead relied exclusively on interviews with members of the singer’s large entourage. Rather than a bunch of blank pages, as Talese had initially feared, the result was an unforgettable story.

In her new collection of previously published essays, “On Animals,” Susan Orlean is faced with a similar problem. Her subjects won’t talk. Animals, she writes in her introduction, are “alien, unknowable, familiar but mysterious...”

“People can be figured out,” she insists, but animals are so inscrutable that “the best we can do is try to understand them through the lens of people living with them or using them or raising them or wanting them.”


Personally, I can’t figure out people at all (how can he possibly be afraid of mice? Why would she eat an octopus?) while the behavior of most animals makes perfect sense to me. But I very much enjoyed Orlean’s perspective in these original, perceptive, and clever essays showcasing the sometimes strange, sometimes sick, sometimes tender relationships between people and animals.

Take, for instance, Orlean’s deft profile of Keiko, the real-life orca star of the 1993 Warner Brothers blockbuster “Free Willy.” Even though she traveled to Iceland, where the formerly captive whale had been released, Orlean never got to meet her subject. But to research her story, originally published in The New Yorker in 2002, she did interview dozens of the people involved in Keiko’s eventful life — those who bought him and sold him, those who loved him and profited from him, those who cared for and trained him, and those who funded and managed his $20 million release.

Like Frank Sinatra, Keiko was a celebrity, larger-than-life (which is pretty big, given he was a 12,000-pound whale), with an outsize impact on millions. But unlike Sinatra, Keiko never sought this fame; even as he was being trained for his release, this fabled killer whale retained a heartbreaking innocence and delicacy. As an exercise in his pre-release pen in Iceland, Orlean tells us, a trainer had asked Keiko to retrieve something, anything, from the bottom of the bay. “They expected him to bring up something like a boulder,” she writes, “but instead, he presented them with a tiny puffin feather. When he accidentally dropped the feather, he dived back down and brought up the same feather.”


Another individual profiled in this collection is a show dog boxer named Biff (who wears “the earnest and slightly careworn expression of a small-town mayor” and has a tail “about the size and shape of a half-smoked stogie.”) Not all these essays are portraits of individual animals. But whether Orlean is writing about one couple’s quest to find their lost dog, the lives of working donkeys of the Fez medina in Morocco, or a man who rescues lions (and happily allows even full grown males to gently chew his head), her pages are crammed with quirky characters, telling details, and flabbergasting facts.

Readers will find these pages full of astonishments: There are more pet tigers (15,000) in American homes than there are registered Irish setters. Knee replacement surgery and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan both proved to be blessings for Tennessee’s mule economy. (Yes, Tennessee does have a mule economy.) And there really is an event called the World Taxidermy Championships — where snippets of conversation range from “Acetone rubbed on a squirrel tail will fluff it right back up” to “My feeling is that it’s quite tough to do a good tongue.”


Orlean excels as a reporter. In a chapter “Lady and the Tigers” about a woman who kept about two dozen tigers at her home in Jackson, N.J. (“about” because the lady in question did not appear to remember the exact number, only that the tiger who had been found wandering loose about town surely wasn’t one of hers), Orlean reveals several other reasons why the tiger lady might be less than trustworthy. She perused court records and discovered the defendant testified she was born in 1955 and enrolled in New York University in 1968 — which would have made her a 13-year-old college freshman. Orlean even found the qualifications the woman listed in an application for a wildlife permit. She mentioned, among other things, that she had “read many books about tigers,” including “The World of the Tiger,” “They Never Talk Back,” and “Thank You, I Prefer Lions.”

Such thorough reporting made me long for updates on some of these stories. Her exquisite profile of Keiko, for instance, does not mention that the orca died, sadly, of pneumonia in December 2003 at age 26 — some killer whales can live to be 90 — after having failed to integrate with pods of fellow orcas in the wild.


But even this criticism only testifies to the delight of each of the urbane and vivid stories in this collection. Even though Orlean claims the animals she writes about remain enigmas, she makes us care about their fates. Readers will continue to think about these dogs and donkeys, tigers and lions, chickens and pigeons long after we close the book’s covers. I hope most of them are still well.


By Susan Orlean

Avid Reader Press, 288 pp., $27

Sy Montgomery’s most recent book is “The Hummingbirds’ Gift.”