Author: Susan Orleans
Avid Reader Press, 258 pages, $28
Susan Orlean has always had a thing for writing about animals or people who love animals. And legend has it that the first story she ever created was called “Herbert, the Myopic Pigeon”. When she was 5 or 6, she kept writing about horses, but don’t miss her chapter on mules, which she grew to like.
Anyone can write a story about animals, but it takes a serious writer to write a truly wonderful story with massive amounts of information about things you didn’t know about them. Mules may never have intrigued you, but you might want to see one up close. They can haul up to 300 pounds of cargo for three weeks at a stretch, riding around like it’s a “bag of balloons.” Orlean admits that a mule is much smarter than a horse. A mule will never die galloping over a cliff to death, but a horse will. It was our first president who started the mule farming craze, and for 150 years they were revered because they ate less, broke down less, and carried more supplies than horses. When the mules brayed too hard, they had to be “disengaged!”
It’s just one of 15 animals that Orleans features in “On Animals.” Other stories are about chickens, tigers, lions, rabbits, oxen and more. There’s also an amazing story about a lost (and found) dog.
If you don’t know much about taxidermy, you will know after reading his chapter called “Lifelike”. Orlean takes us for a ride to the Springfield, Illinois, Crowne Plaza Hotel, where the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships were held.
Not only were whole animals capped on pallets, but also “millions of eyes, boxes of bowls, some eyes as big as an egg” — or, she writes, some as small as a lentil. A good taxidermist must of course be good at sewing, sculpting, painting and hairdressing. It’s a $570 million business with hunters coming in with $200 for a pheasant taxidermy to several thousand for a grizzly bear. Three thousand daily visits are made to Taxidermy.net. There’s even a contest for kids 14 and under.
The history of chicken dates back to the 1800s and a remarkable kind of chicken called Cochin that meandered like a “walking powder puff”. This sparked a breeding craze “on a scale similar to the Dutch tulip mania and the Victorian orchidirium”. A pair of chicks was priced at $700, 10,000% more than the usual price. Their eggs weighed over a pound. The expression we use, “pecking order”, is reminiscent of the chickens that forbid themselves to step out of line in order to make their way to the head of the line.
And the pandas? The adorable panda eats his bamboo weight every day, but the fact is that he used to eat protein until he lost his taste for it: Reason? Unknown. We also read that panda babies at birth are no bigger than a piece of butter. A taxidermist confessed that working with pandas was not difficult. “He took two black bears and bleached one. He says he used “Clairol Basic Bleach and sewed the two skins together into a panda pattern.” With an Oral-B toothbrush, “he ruffled the fur on the panda’s face.”
These stories were first published in The New Yorker, dating back to 1995 (“Show Dog”) and as late as 2020 (“The Rabbit Outbreak”) and were generally considered prime New York articles. These are all the details that make Orlean’s writing shine. They make great reading any time of the year, but perhaps never more so than now, when we all need an enjoyable book to recover from the holidays.
Mims Cushing lives in Ponte Vedra Beach and has written three books.