At the start of my freshman year in college, I found myself roped into an aggressive game of “Hot Seat.” If you’ve never played before, the rules are simple: for one minute, you must truthfully answer every question thrown your way. It’s easy to imagine how quickly a game of Hot Seat can devolve.
“Best kept secret about yourself?”
“Craziest thing you’ve done in bed?”
And then—with an air of desperation as the juiciest questions run out—“If you could pick one animal to exterminate from the face of the planet, what would it be?”
Yes, I unequivocally said, “Dogs.”
Immediately, I was besought by waves of indignation, outrage, and horror. I’ll be honest, dogs aren’t the animal I hate most—spiders come much closer—but I rationalized that arachnids were basic, and dogs were overrated anyways. Besides, I left a distinct impression.
Then Covid-19 hit and I returned home. Removed from the quintessential freshman urge to leave impressions on everyone I met, I realized: perhaps dogs aren’t so bad.
Susan Orlean’s book, On Animals, published in 2021, reminds me why we are drawn to all sorts of animals.
Through a collection of essays, she describes her move from an urban setting to farm, the irresistible pull of chickens as pets, her obsession over donkeys awakened on a trip to Morocco. Interspersed between these are her entertaining and informative nuggets of research. She seeks to provide a fascinating exposé on the knowledge we can discover from animals—and the limits to such knowledge as well.
What struck me most was twofold: first, the presentation of her research as engaging, vibrant wildlife stories, tangible to even the most urbanized reader, and second, the suggestion that animals can live in much closer proximity than our careful, man-made boundaries suggest.
She taught me that more tigers live in captivity than in the wild. Apparently, compulsive tiger owners become inevitable breeders more often than not. I learned that show dogs have the life Hollywooders dream about: glamor, sex, and food, with a controlled health regimen as well. I realized I enjoyed the quiet lives of oxen much more than I assumed. My jaw dropped with her story of a lion whisperer—I’m still undecided if he’s bold or simply a fool—and I smiled at the narrative on pandas.
In each of these cases, she taught me the facts I didn’t know I cared about, but now get a thrill whipping out at the dinner table or during a long car ride. A lull at dinner is an opportunity for me to teach everyone the tragic fate of too many homing pigeons; born with an innate sense of home, if their owners move, they must remain cage-bound lest their homing impulse tear them away.
It was her pulling together facts and stories that asked me to reevaluate the harshness of my opinion on dogs—and, more generally, animals—as she showed their lives beyond the food trough. Oxen are perfectly consistent in their habits. Pigeons are mysteriously faithful to their first home. Donkeys are not the ass their name suggests; they are reliable means of transportation in cities too cramped for much else. I eagerly consumed her book wondering what facts and lessons I’d glean from the lives of animals around the world.
At the same time, she acknowledges the limit to our understanding of animals. We can’t talk directly to them; we must rely on body language and observations. She wonders why her cats fight and remarks on the therapeutic silence of her dogs, and decides they are “an ideal foil for examining the human condition.” She can’t ask her cats why they’re fighting or find out why pigeons are so stubbornly homing, but she recognizes the same impulse to return home and love led by emotions. She writes, “I trust in the fact that animals are pure in their hearts, efficient in their emotions.”
As to her second point on the potential closeness for human-animal relationships, her storytelling is what endeared such relationships to me. She holds up the beauty of the animal world up close. Orlean writes of the utility of the mule which is still used by the U.S. Army today; the famous and highly disputed life of Willy the whale; the way chickens are “something of a gateway animal…it’s hard not to slide into thinking you have plenty of room for a few more of something.” I was struck by the discovery that my country’s military wasn’t entirely automated technologies. Willy was an orca whale often abused in captivity. My heart hurt for Willy yet grew frustrated that people seem to rally more quickly for an animal than a child. I resonated with her gateway animal—my mom came narrowly close to coming home with a baby pig one afternoon after acquiring a few more chicks. By reading On Animals, I remembered my animals.
Growing up, my family consistently had a number of chickens fluctuating between two and half a dozen. Our gateway chicken was a black Silkie, popular and famous in the pet world for its fluffy feathers, and popular and famous in Chinese restaurants for its dark meat. When I learned that, gazing at the frozen packages in Chinese markets, I was duly horrified. That was my pet.
Eventually, I began to realize my pets—from chickens to fish to rabbits— seemed to have an unfortunate place beyond the yard: the pets I loved so much often appeared on menus too. Realizing this only made me hold them a little closer.
A female peacock came our way but was declined after less than 24 hours on the basis of its beauty (far less than her male counterpart). Ducks were reluctantly turned away due to our lack of a large enough water source. We kept the occasional beta fish, presumably because the only water source they required was a small bowl. After chickens came rabbits. I pined after a pet rabbit for the year leading up to my 8th birthday, enthralled by visions of fluff, fun, and bunny cuddles.
I am allergic to rabbits. Of course, I was blissfully unaware of this happy fact until I got my first two rabbits.
Stubbornly, I persisted. As I was simultaneously on a Hawaiian kick, I named her—white fur, blue eyes, floppy ears—Aloha. The second—a suspect Netherland dwarf due to her not-quite dwarf size—was christened Shaka.
As a rabbit owner, I tried to walk them on rabbit leashes, which was unsuccessful due to their delicate bone structure and insatiably curious nature. I baked them rabbit treats—semi-success, too much honey—and tried having Aloha befriend Shaka. Try as I might, my endeavors were futile. I learned another fact then: rabbits are much more territorial and aggressive than their furry, doe-eyed exteriors suggest.
And so, as Orlean argues in On Animals, I have found the potential for relationships between humans and animals to be true. I might not be a lion tamer, hedgehog homer, or horse whisperer, but through my pets I learned to walk more in-step with the natural world. Too often I find myself stuck in a world of the concrete and quantifiable. Problem sets and essays consume my immediate bubble; trail running, urban hiking, and bravely petting a big dog’s head remind me to pay attention to nature’s details. Brown squirrels scampering through trees, ladybugs clinging to a fence and papering its entirety, a butterfly softly fluttering over the grass—these are animals that help me reacquaint myself with the rhythms of curiosity, slowness, and gaiety.
In a game of Hot Seat today, my answer about dogs would be different. Golden retrievers are loud and German shepherds are scary and chihuahuas remain annoying, but I have realized that huskies, malamutes, golden dachshunds, and chocolate morkies can redeem dogs in my eyes. Huskies and malamutes are beautiful, walking around with an air of ancient wolfishness; golden dachshunds have the cute factor of small dogs without the small dog syndrome; chocolate morkies are friendly and affectionate. The pandemic has forced more neighbors and pet owners outside—walks becoming a primary pastime during quarantine days—and as I witnessed an increase of dogs in my hometown, I remembered how much I truly love animals.
By reading Orlean’s work, I have learned to consider more closely the lessons and stories animals offer. I’ll never squawk, chirp, bark, or snuffle (unless I’m sick), but I’ve learned to value them all the same. Dust hangs in the air for long seconds after being ruffled up—a chicken fitting into its environment one dust bath at a time. Rabbits enjoy sloping hills and sunny patches of earth asking to be napped on. The tragic endings of fish—whether being flushed or dropped down the drain—seem a pointed reminder of life’s quick pace. We might have the attention of a goldfish, but we can pause to look at the other fish in the tank.