Animals. Creatures of the wild. Beasts or companions. Whatever we call them, we are fascinated by them. We are terrified by them. We love them, and we hurt them. And they have fascinated writers for hundreds of years – from their ability to express human emotion to their ability to survive the harshest parts of mother nature. In fiction, animals propel the story forward, save the hero or end up being the ultimate protagonist. In non-fiction, behavioralists, ecologists and other scientists offer up data and evidence about the animal kingdom that often reveals more about us humans than usually intended. Whatever you’re looking for, this list is an indulgence for animal lovers of all kinds.
Call of the Wild, Jack London
Originally published in 1903, this classic tale of survival features the story of Buck – a large St. Bernard mix breed dog. Taken from the comforts of a pampered companion dog and tossed into the chaos of the Klondike Goldrush, Buck has to learn how to make his way as a hard-working sled dog in the Yukon, Canada. While full of riveting scenes, gut-wrenching moments and epic adventures, it’s how the London weaves concepts of nature versus nurture throughout the book that makes this one a classic. Most recently adapted for the big screen in February 2020, it is evident that this story doesn’t waver, even 100 years later.
Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin & Catherine Johnson
Temple Grandin is well known as an animal scientist and an animal rights activist – often seen speaking out for the humane treatment of the large animals and livestock many of us encounter on a regular basis. She is also autistic. And in 2005, she, along with coauthor Catherine Johnson, published the non-fiction Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, to stunning reviews. And they are well deserved. She relies on her own personal experience and leans into her scientific knowledge to lay out a theory that autistic people often think the way animals do. This similar approach to thought puts these individuals in the unique position to translate “animal talk.” If you have ever wanted to explore more about how animals express themselves and why this might be the best first step of your knowledge quest.
Lily and the Octopus, Steven Rowling
Lily is a 12-year-old dachshund, and the octopus is her cancer. And no, that’s not really a spoiler. But instead, it’s the set-up to a poignant story about the bond between a human and a pet. As Rowling’s debut novel, the story between Ted, a single, aging gay man and lily is relatable, grounding and full of a kind of humor familiar to those who have had to love and lose a four-legged friend. Be warned though; this will make you cry, so make sure you have the tissues nearby.
The Age of Empathy, Frans De Wall
In today’s world, the call for greater compassion towards our fellow humans is louder than ever before. But, is it natural for us to be compassionate? Rooted in decades of fieldwork and laboratory research on several species of monkey and ape and a few other creatures such as dolphins, De Wall demonstrates how many animals are actually predisposed to take care of each other and help each other. Relying on plain language, meaningful anecdotes and wit, De Wall shows the reader how we as humans may indeed be destined to be humane.
The Dogs of Babel, Carolyn Parkhurst
Our pets are often the only witnesses we have throughout life’s ups and downs. They are there when we cry in secret, and they are there when we dance like no one is watching. Parkhurst’s 2003 debut novel explores how such silent witness can impact life when the narrator, Paul Iverson, comes home to find his wife dead, and the only one to see what happened is their dog Lorelai. The story follows as Paul becomes nearly-obsessed with teaching his dog to speak in a way that illuminates how grief is never an easy battle to wage.
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, Lawrence Anthony
Life changed for South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony when he was asked to welcome a herd of “rogue” elephants to his Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand. Against his better judgement, he accepted knowing that they would be killed if he didn’t. As he worked hard, often struggled and occasionally battled it out with the herd to create a bond, Anthony discovered that he was learning more about loyalty, life and what it means to be free from these giant creatures. This non-fictional book is heartwarming, funny, and meaningful in a way you didn’t know you needed.
Animal Farm, George Orwell
This list wouldn’t be complete without Orwell’s 1945 classic about a group of farm animals who rebel against their farmer who owns them. The rebellion aims to create a system where each animal is equal, free and ultimately happy, and all is going well until the pig, Napoleon, betrays the rebellion and establishes a dictatorship. Oozing with metaphor and insightful thought on how a society should function in relation to how it does function, this novel highlights how the animal world and the human world aren’t always as different as we first seem to think it is.
Born Free, Joy Adamson
Adamson’s story about a lion cub returning to the wild after being raised in captivity is a gripping tale about learning to make it in a world that you know nothing about. Describing an incredible bond between human and beast, this book is written in a way that belies her love and fascination towards the majestic lion. And while the story may have been published in 1960, its cautionary message about conservation still carries weight in today’s world as we continue to dismantle natural habitats.
With animals from land and sea captivating writers for decades, this list could go on and on. Each book out-there showcases common ground between the animal kingdom and humanity, inspiring us to be better versions of ourselves with each word.
Which books about animals do you think should be on this list and why?