In the early months of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic emptied our streets, forced us into our homes and turned down the volume on our noisy outdoor lives, species that typically existed on the periphery of our awareness wandered into view. Reports spread across the Internet of long-haired mountain goats gamboling through a town in Wales, jackals crowding a park in Tel Aviv and pumas venturing into residential neighborhoods in Santiago, Chile.
Evidence of these and other sightings may have long since fallen off social media feeds, but this year has seen a significant number of books whose authors emphasize the need to pay close attention to other species and never look away again. How little we actually know about animals — domesticated as well as wild — is a central concern of these books. “You don’t need much imagination to see that society has bulldozed a gorge between humans and wild, unboxed animals,” Catherine Raven writes in her best-selling “Fox & I.”
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What we desire from animals (companionship, meaning, meat) and what we owe them (care, respect, autonomy) have probably been debated since the time of the woolly mammoth. The best of this year’s books about animals and nature provide neither easy answers to age-old questions nor clear solutions to terrifying problems arising from the climate crisis and other side effects of human existence. With varying degrees of urgency, each of these books demands a reevaluation of our relationship with animals, natural environments and one another.
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“Although we may think of the animal world as something separate from us, like a moon orbiting around the earth, it’s more of a weave, with some animals farther away from the cross-threads of the human world and others closer,” Susan Orlean writes in “On Animals,” a career-spanning collection of essays from the author of “The Orchid Thief,” “Rin Tin Tin” and other bestsellers.
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In these pieces, most of which first appeared in the New Yorker and date back to 1995, Orlean’s interest falls heavily on domesticated animals. She writes with humor and generosity about the ark’s worth of birds and mammals she has brought into her life, from apartment-dwelling dogs to the disparate livestock (Angus cattle, turkeys and so many chickens) she assembled on her farm in Upstate New York.
“On Animals” is especially good when Orlean investigates the consequences of humans taking from other species what they are not prepared to give. The plight of the orca Keiko, star of the 1993 family film “Free Willy” who languished in amusement-park aquariums for nearly 20 years, remains as tragic and infuriating as when Orlean first documented it in a 2002 magazine story. Ditto two pieces that explore the “zoo economy” and the practice of discarding tigers, lions and other animals that outgrow their juvenile adorability and attractiveness to paying customers.
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“Why do we have such different rules for how we treat wild animals versus how we treat our pets and livestock?” journalist Emma Marris asks in “Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World,” a book that poses no shortage of difficult questions. Marris calls for a redefining of such terms as “wilderness” and “nature,” reasoning — as Orlean comes close to doing in her book — that such concepts have been rendered “incoherent” in a world so radically altered by the human species. (Michelle Nijhuis makes a similar point in her vibrant 2021 historical survey “Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction,” noting how debates about conservation “are almost always complicated by the use of terms that have come to mean very different things to different people.”)
Given how no species on the planet can escape our influence, Marris argues that we have an “enhanced responsibility” to animals whether they live in our homes or in the most remote ecosystems. “What that duty entails continues to bedevil me,” Marris admits, but her search for answers makes for necessary reading.
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Cal Flyn’s “Islands of Abandonment” is just as vital. Subtitled “Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape,” the Scottish journalist’s book looks at how wildlife adapts when people remove themselves from an environment. She does not romanticize those wild-animal sightings of 2020. “These were not so much examples of nature’s healing,” Flyn writes, “as nature finding the confidence to make itself seen.”
Flyn’s inquiry takes her to contaminated sites such as Chernobyl in Ukraine, where wildlife is abundant decades after a nuclear accident left it the most radioactive place on the planet; war-ravaged spots such as the Buffer Zone in Cyprus and Zone Rouge in France; and a forsaken botanical garden in Tanzania, “where nonnative species and native species alike are left to their own devices, without heavy-handed but well-meaning intervention.”
With the threat of mass extinction rising with the Earth’s temperature, Flyn offers cautious optimism for the fate of the planet’s species. She resists being paralyzed by fear and encourages people to “find faith enough to fight” climate change while “holding off from some of our most invasive, interventionist methods of conservation.”
Back on the domestic front, 2021 has brought two exceptional additions to the literature of human-canine relationships. Like countless previous books in this genre, Chloe Shaw’s “What Is a Dog?” and Rick Bragg’s “The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People” attempt to comprehend the minds of the often inscrutable, tail-wagging fur balls with whom so many people spend their lives. And while only the hardest-hearted readers will remain dry-eyed while reading these books, Shaw and Bragg resist cheap sentimentality and instead provide still more arguments for appreciating and truly acknowledging lives other than our own.
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“A dog isn’t an answer,” Shaw writes in one of her book’s many gorgeous sentences, “but something bewitched and infinite and other that so willingly holds you while you wonder, while you look.”
In Speck, the impetuous Australian shepherd that Bragg rescued in 2017 near his rural home, the Alabama writer dispenses with talk of magic and sees the animal for what it is. In this case, that’s enough:
“He is just something that happened to us, in a time of loss and sadness and sickness and uncertainty, when, as the boy Little Arliss said in ‘Old Yeller,’ we needed us a dog.”
Jake Cline is a writer and editor in Miami.
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