“Well, for heaven’s sake, Susie,” Susan Orlean’s mother once told her. “You and your animals.”
Orlean has garnered well-earned acclaim writing about a slew of unlikely subjects, including orchid lovers, libraries, Saturday nights and more. However, she writes, “somehow or other, in whatever kind of life I happened to be leading, 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.”
Regardless of whether you’re an animal lover, On Animals is a fabulously fun collection of essays, most of which first appeared in The New Yorker, where Orlean is a staff writer. “Lady and the Tiger,” for instance, tells the story of Joan Byron-Marasek, who collected tigers on her Jackson, New Jersey, property—well before Netflix’s “Tiger King.” Tiger hoarding, it seems, is a thing, and Byron-Marasek had lost track of exactly how many she owned when a Bengal tiger weighing more than 400 pounds was seen walking through the nearby suburbs.
Orlean is such a virtuoso of unexpected joys and delights that she can make even the story of a lost dog read like a thriller, as she does with the unlikely dognapping tale of a border collie in Atlanta. When writing about a champion boxer named Biff in “Show Dog,” her trademark humor shines through right from the start: “If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, good-looking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools.”
In “Lion Whisperer,” Orlean profiles South African Kevin Richardson, who bonds with lions as cubs, cuddling and cultivating relationships through their adulthood, at which point they seem to accept him “on some special terms, as if he were an odd, furless, human-shaped member of their pride.” The essay blossoms into an especially intriguing tale with serious ethical concerns, which seasoned journalist Orlean duly explores. Her style seems meandering at times, but each essay always returns to its glorious point, even when following an aside about, in this case, a man who befriended a housefly named Freddie.
Whether she’s encountering a donkey laden with four televisions in Morocco, or extolling the global appeal of pandas, Orlean’s high-octane enthusiasm never wanes. After all, this is a woman who admits, “One day, I went to CVS to buy shampoo and came home with four guinea fowl thanks to a ‘For Sale’ sign I passed as I was driving home.” Likewise, Orlean’s readers will find themselves completely diverted by On Animals’ irresistible menagerie.