On Animals and Humans with Susan Orlean
Factually! with Adam Conover #127 October 19, 2021
Bestselling author and acclaimed journalist Susan Orlean joins Adam to discuss our complex, often contradictory relationships with the animals we love (and those we eat). You can check out her new book, On Animals, at factuallypod.com/books.
Hear the Episode
Speaker 1 [00:00:22] Hello and welcome to Factually. I'm Adam Conover, thank you for joining me once again as I dive into some of the weirdest and wildest reaches of human knowledge with an incredible expert who's going to blow my mind, and who is going to blow your mind. We're going to have a great time together. Today, we are going to talk about animals. We have an odd and contradictory set of relationships with animals, as humans. First, there are some animals we keep in our homes. They become members of our family and they sleep in our beds. We spend tens of thousands of dollars on surgeries for them. Even though we know that maybe doing so is not quite advisable. We can't help it because we love these animals so much that we literally share a habitat with them. Sometimes I look at my dog and think, 'Is she living in my house? Or am I living in her kennel?' Because it smells more like the latter than it does like the former, frankly. Now that's what we do with dogs, cats and other animals we keep as pets. But there's other animals we love: like cows, despite the fact that we have also created a vast, stinking, earth destroying industry to kill them and consume their flesh with our friends and family. It's a pretty weird contradiction. How is it that we can find animals cute and still throw them into a system that, on its best days, murders millions of animals constantly? We will also go to such great lengths, as a society and as individuals, to save specific animals or specific species. We'll pass laws to protect an endangered species, or we'll go to great lengths just to save a specific animal that we saw a picture of because someone told us a sad story about it. Then after doing that, we'll go have a steak for dinner. My point is our relationships with animals are pretty contradictory, and when you start to look closely at them, they reveal fascinating things about us as humans like what we value and what our strangest obsessions are. It is fascinating stuff. On the show today to talk about it, we have someone I am so excited to bring on the show. She is without a doubt, one of the very best nonfiction writers we have working in America today. I am personally an enormous fan of hers. She wrote 'The Orchid Thief,' an absolutely life-changing piece of nonfiction. She wrote one of my favorite books of the last two years, 'The Library Book,' and she has a new book out called 'On Animals.' I'm so excited to have her once again. Please welcome the fantastic writer, Susan Orlean. Susan, thank you so much for being here. It's such a thrill to have you on the show.
Speaker 2 [00:03:00] Oh, thank you. I'm thrilled to be on.
Speaker 1 [00:03:04] I've been such a fan of your work for so many years. I just want to say before we get talking about your new book that your last book, 'The Library Book,' got me (as I think you said happened, yourself, in the book) using my local library again for the first time in decades, which is the L.A. Public Library. I love that book so much and thank you for writing it. That's all I want to say about that.
Speaker 2 [00:03:27] Well, I accept that, and I actually feel like the collateral impact of the book (namely, getting people to go back to the library) wasn't something that I had in mind as I wrote it, but as an after of fact, I feel like, 'Oh my god, this is fantastic.' I wrote part of the book at the library because, like a fool, I had been renting a WeWork space and then one day I didn't feel like going to WeWork, and I thought, 'I guess I'll just maybe go to the library.' I'm working at the library, and I thought, 'Why am I paying WeWork for essentially the same thing,' which is a desk and Wi-Fi. So I canceled my WeWork immediately and finished the book at the library.
Speaker 1 [00:04:23] The library also has (especially if you go to a central library like the L.A. Central Public Library that we have here in L.A) every book that you could possibly want to read on the shelves, and you can just take them off the shelves, use them at your desk and take them home with you if you want. I had the experience of going to the library and saying, 'Hold on a second, I can take all these home?' I had forgotten somehow, and it felt magical that I could do that. Then I started having the experience, again for the first time in many years, when I want to do research for a new project instead of just resorting to the internet, I went to the library and started pulling books off the shelves. I found so much more - I'm sorry this is turning into a PSA, which I didn't mean it to be, but I had a really wonderful, revelatory experience doing that, and I think a lot of people did from reading that book.
Speaker 2 [00:05:12] Yeah. One of the things about the work that I do, quite honestly, is I like to encourage people to look at something that they may have overlooked. There is a real mission attached to this and it can sometimes be something extremely ordinary, like a library. I mean, that's not an exotic locale, but I think part of what I wanted to do is to say, 'If you really look closely at these things, they're kind of amazing.' I'm also interested in introducing people to things they didn't even know existed. But there's something special about saying, 'This thing you've overlooked is actually really quite amazing.'
Speaker 1 [00:06:09] That's a quality that I really love in your writing, because it makes me reevaluate those things I've taken for granted in that way. So your new book is called 'On Animals.' Animals are obviously all over our lives. I live with an animal, I'm pretty sure you do as well. I'm sure many of our listeners do. What do you feel that we are neglecting about animals? What is that revelation in this case?
Speaker 2 [00:06:32] This is a collection of 15 essays I've written over the last decades, and they examine everything from the American Humane Film and Television Unit; which oversees the treatment of animals on movie sets, to a teenage girl who was a pigeon racer. The story of Keiko the Whale, who starred in the 'Free Willy' movies. It really ranges far and wide, and part of the purpose is to illuminate the lives of these animals that either in a big way, like pigeons, or in a very specific way, like Keiko the whale who played Willy) are stories about these alien beings that we coexist with. I think the bigger message is about humans and about seeing deeply into humans in relation to these non-human creatures.
Speaker 1 [00:07:59] Understanding what about humans? Maybe we can get into one of the examples, actually, and use it to help us understand what you mean by that. A lot of these stories I have read (in my past decades of being a New Yorker reader) so I have a somewhat fuzzy, in some cases, memory of some of them. But yeah, let's talk about some of them. The one about the film and television industry (that's the industry I work in), how do you cover that?
Speaker 2 [00:08:28] Well, this is a perfect example of the kind of story that I love to do. I happened to be at the movies, and as the end credits roll and then up pops, the usual 'No animals were harmed' logo. Suddenly I thought, 'Oh well, wait, who knows that no animals were harmed? What does this mean? Who is awarding this Good Housekeeping seal of approval?'
Speaker 1 [00:09:00] We know this phrase, but where does it come from?
Speaker 2 [00:09:02] Yes, it's so familiar that it can almost be a punchline. We all know it backward and forward and suddenly I thought, 'Wait a minute, what is this, actually?' It couldn't have been more intriguing to do a little homework and discover that American Humane has this unit of people who go on set and monitor the way the animals are being treated. This evolved partly because animals used to be treated so badly in movies. If an animal died, it was just replaced by another one.
Speaker 1 [00:09:45] I used to watch these - Me and my partner, Lisa both love westerns and we were watching the old western, 'Stagecoach,' which is a wonderful western. It has these incredible horse stunts that they don't do now. But when you're watching them, she was like, 'You know how they do these? They strung up a metal wire and they run the horses through the wire, and so the horses would be tripped to simulate the horse being shot.' And it looks incredible, but you're watching horses die when you watch the movie.
Speaker 2 [00:10:12] Yeah and this was something that was just done as a matter of course. Yeah. Then was a famous movie, 'Jesse James,' in which a cowboy is shown riding his horse off a cliff. In the movie, you only see the very beginning of the horse jumping off the cliff. But the footage got out, showing the horse landing and breaking all its legs and then being euthanized. People were outraged. I think it was something about the vividness of this one image and realizing that this animal was just being sacrificed for a shot. There was a big uproar. And I will say as a side note that children weren't treated particularly well on movie sets either, at that rate.
Speaker 1 [00:11:12] Many adults, too. Currently we're having a lot of awareness of how poorly adults are treated on movie sets today, but not to the same degree. Sorry, go ahead.
Speaker 2 [00:11:24] It's not an accident that children and animals were lumped together, because they were not being protected. In the beginning, a lot of the focus was on horses, because there were so many westerns being shot and horses really were treated as disposable. They were treated horribly. It's a lot faster to trip a horse with a wire than to train a horse to fall on command. It was expediency. These movies were being cranked out a dime a dozen, pretty much. There was a real uproar and a bunch of people, including Roy Rogers, who signed a petition saying, 'I never treat my horse this way, Trigger knows that if he does a good job, I'll pat him on the nose and give him a lump of sugar. And I never use a harsh word.' I mean, it's actually this very touching letter that he wrote supporting this petition. Gene Autry and a lot of other TV cowboys who said, 'No, this is really terrible.' So there was a code written that basically said, 'You can't treat animals in a cruel way.' Even though the focus was initially on horses, it slowly extended to covering any living non-human being and that's the way it stands now. It protects worms, cockroaches, even mice.
Speaker 1 [00:13:17] Really?
Speaker 2 [00:13:19] Yeah, I mean there was a little bit of tongue in cheek as I wrote the piece, because some of the regulations seem crazy. But the feeling at American Humane is, 'If it's a living thing, it should be protected.' In fact, I asked the head of the film and TV unit, 'If you use a cockroach in a movie, can you squish after the scene?' And she said, 'No, you can't squish it. It's an actor.' And I said, 'What if you have a cockroach in your kitchen?' And she said 'Then I would squish it.'
Speaker 1 [00:14:00] That's really funny. So, I remember from this piece that if you've got a scene where a box of cockroaches is released (you can imagine a scene where you open a door and cockroaches run out or a horror movie where they crawl over someone's face or something) they have to count those and make sure that nothing bad has happened to any of them in order to qualify for that 'No animals have been harmed' seal?
Speaker 2 [00:14:27] Yes. They're very serious about it being literally true: that this movie was made and no animal was harmed in the making of the movie. I think that we instinctively see a hierarchy of mammals to reptiles to insects and maybe feel - I mean, personally, if there were a mosquito in a movie, I'd be the first one to squish it. I have no sympathy for mosquitoes, but their attitude is, 'Look, these are animals that are being used in entertainment and we are protecting them. What happens to them when they leave the set is not as much our concern, but when they're on a set in a movie, they have to be protected.' The big concern, of course, is with mammals: with dogs and cats and bears and obviously, horses. In fact, I don't know if you remember this show, 'Luck' that ran very briefly. It was about a horse track and gamblers, and several horses were injured in the pilot. If they break their legs, Horses generally have to be euthanized. They really can't recover. So they were euthanized and the show was canceled. I think a big part of it was that they got into so much difficulty filming these scenes with horses and not injuring them, that they just felt they couldn't go forward.
Speaker 1 [00:16:24] Horse racing, itself, hurts and kills horses. Here in L.A. a couple of years ago there was a constant rolling controversy about the local Santa Anita racetrack. That horses kept dying at this racetrack and how can they stop the horses from dying? And it's like, 'Well, at the end of the day, horse racing kills horses. They're bred to run really fast, and they're very fragile and they're being pushed to their limit. And that's just what happens.' If you're doing that on a movie set, if you're having them run that fast then the same thing is going to happen, I would suppose.
Speaker 2 [00:16:56] Yeah. And I think that we all respond to real images of real animals in a movie versus CGI. But also, until recently CGI wasn't good enough to replace real animals. I don't know anything about what CGI costs, but I'm sure it's not cheap and it might be actually cheaper to use live animals, rather than a CGI animal. But there's danger inherent in some of the stuff we ask animals to do in movies, and that's where it becomes a pretty charged topic. The movie that I went on set to watch (which was actually hilarious) was a movie called 'Soccer Dog.' They call it 'light action' as opposed to medium action or heavy action. Because the biggest challenge for the dog in the movie was to bounce a soccer ball on his nose.
Speaker 1 [00:18:10] This is an 'Air Bud' kind of movie, got it.
Speaker 2 [00:18:16] Yeah. So it was a very benign environment, and it was actually pretty entertaining to go on that set. They had a representative from American Humane who was there overseeing it, making sure that the dog had water when he wanted water, got a break when he needed a break. It was funny, even though it was also nice that the dog had a good time being in a movie.
Speaker 1 [00:18:55] That does sound very sweet and benign, but you're right about how this illuminates things about humans and the way we are structuring our own world and our relationship with the animals. What strikes me is that on the set, you've got this representative making sure that nothing bad has happened to any of the animals on set. Yet, I'm sure at lunch they're serving beef, right? Something bad happen to the animals before they got to set. You can't kill a cow on set, but you can kill a cow at a meat processing plant and then bring it to set. By the same token, (just to say a little more bluntly) we're in the middle of a brewing labor dispute here in Hollywood, about how poorly crew members are treated and the growing problem of folks falling asleep behind the wheel because they were forced to work a 20 hour day and not allowed transportation. That sort of thing. It's interesting that all these measures seem great. I don't want animals to suffer in this situation. But then it begs the question 'Why is this the situation that we care the most about?' To have a monitor there just to get this little slogan at the end, there's no slogan that says 'No crew member was harmed in the making of the production' or anything like that. Why isn't there? I'm trying to puzzle it out.
Speaker 2 [00:20:20] I think it's a very interesting part of this dynamic, that we feel an important stewardship toward animals. We feel that as humans, we are above animals on the food chain. As such, we are charged with caring for them; in a way that we don't always find the capacity to feel that much care for other humans. It seems so contrary and weird. But to other people, you bring a whole host of issues and judgment: when somebody is having a hard time, part of our brain thinks 'Maybe it's their fault that they're having a hard time. Maybe they contributed somehow to their woes, and maybe they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take care of themselves.' I think we can bring to animals a very pure sense of empathy and care. I'm not saying this is a good human quality, but I'm saying that I think it is a human quality. That we can look at animals with very little judgment, and we aren't so good at looking at people with very little judgment. It's just not wired in the same way as our empathy for animals. It may just be the sense of superiority that people feel. Superiority is maybe not the right word, but we feel that we have much more power than animals do. So it's up to us to care for them. But I agree with you, a lot of what I focused on in the book was the confusing and very complex way we relate to animals; that sometimes we are our best selves with animals, which of course, is a good thing. But if we're at the same time, not our best selves with other humans, it becomes a little confusing. What does that mean about what we value? The story I wrote about Keiko, the Whale who starred in the Free Willy movies, was a perfect example. Millions and millions of dollars were spent on Keiko, who had been captured when he was a baby and had lived in captivity his whole life. There was a desire, after Free Willy came out and was a big success. People said, 'Well, wait a minute, what happened to the whale in the movie? Why doesn't he get to go free?' Warner Brothers was like, 'Oops, we hadn't thought about that.' Seriously, they were completely caught off guard. They thought the movie would really activate people's interest in wild whale conservation, but people instead were like, 'Hey, what'd you do with that whale?'
Speaker 1 [00:23:52] Well, the movie is literally about a whale in captivity, and there's a little boy who says, 'Oh, I want the whale to be free,' and then he jumps over the barrier and everyone cries in the movie theater. And so is the natural question is 'Well, is the whale who made the movie in captivity?' You, of course, want the same thing for that whale.
Speaker 2 [00:24:09] This was actually, to me, one of the funniest moments that I wrote about because the producers were like, 'Oh, oops we hadn't thought of that.' Even though it couldn't be more explicitly what the movie was about.
Speaker 1 [00:24:28] Never underestimate the stupidity of Hollywood executives. It's something I've learned in this industry. I think that really goes to show. Unbelievable. I'm sorry for interrupting, please go on.
Speaker 2 [00:24:39] They were really caught off guard and had to really backpedal and said, 'Oh, OK, we're going to raise money to move Keiko from this horrible aquarium that he had been in to a better aquarium.' They spent several million dollars moving him from Mexico to Oregon, and people still weren't satisfied and they were saying, 'Well, no, no, no, we don't want him in another aquarium. We want him free.' Never in the history of orca/human interaction has an orca been reintroduced to the wild. This has never been done. Millions of dollars were spent trying to teach Keiko to be wild and to introduce him to wild whales, get him used to wild whales, teach him to eat, catch fish, even though he really preferred frozen fish from the commissary. It was a cautionary tale. I would have loved Keiko to have gone free. It was not by any measure, a very likely outcome.
Speaker 1 [00:26:12] Yeah. How did it end? What happened?
Speaker 2 [00:26:17] He was moved to Iceland, where training continued to try to get him to spend more time on his own and to start catching fish. He was scared of wild whales, so mostly he avoided them. Then one day he thought, 'Oh, wait a minute, they look like me,' and he started hanging out with these whales. He then left Iceland and cropped up in Norway, which is the only country that allows whaling, so not a cool idea. But he hung out, he played with children. He was so used to people. He was very friendly. He let kids pet him and hang out with him. He then returned to Iceland after his little sojourn, I guess he just wanted to come back home. He came back to the pen in Iceland, where he had been kept, and unfortunately he caught pneumonia and he died. He was about 36 when he died, which is on the younger side for a wild whale to to die. So his story was really poignant. He did have a little time in the wild, though, which is more than most captive animals ever have.
Speaker 1 [00:27:50] Yeah but man, what a story. There's so many dimensions to that. It's such an interesting thing for us to want for an animal that (I don't know if you'd say he was domesticated) was raised in captivity who is intelligent enough to be trained, and to become accustomed to that. For us to then want the animal to be wild. I don't know, when we're talking about what we value about animals, we do value their wildness so much. But sometimes in ways that don't make sense, I suppose?
Speaker 2 [00:28:28] Right. I mean, the truth is that there were a lot of people who privately thought that this endeavor was foolish. That a whale that had been captured when he was so young, would probably never accustom himself to being wild. But there was such a tsunami of emotion toward him being repatriated to the wild, that it was as if they couldn't stop. Maybe the thing that would have made the most sense is keep him captive in the very, very best possible setting, but give up on the pipe dream of him going wild. I think that might have been the wisest thing to do, but people didn't want to give up on this. They really were determined to have this story conclude in the kind of triumph right of him heading into the wilderness.
Speaker 1 [00:29:45] We wanted the real Hollywood ending. But then that tsunami of emotion, as you put it, that's such a great way to put it because that is what we so often feel towards an animal, you know? The reason I have (or part of the reason I feel I have) a pet is to just be a love receptacle for something, for me to put emotion into. And collectively, that is so powerful, that tsunami of emotion is enough to get Hollywood film producers (who are very money conscious) to have this outside observer and screw up all their shooting days, make everything take way longer because they have to count all the cockroaches, or whatever, just to get that little credit. They look at it and they say, 'Well, we'll lose more money if we don't do it this way because people love animals so fucking much.' That's such a powerful force. And yet, on the other hand, that's not powerful enough for us to eradicate factory farming, seemingly.
Speaker 2 [00:30:45] That's where it gets very confusing, and where humans seem to be able to maintain two realities simultaneously: that they can feel deep emotion about one particular whale going free but even in a more direct way, would not feel nearly as impassioned about adding to the conservation of habitat. Because you don't have the emotional payback when you say, 'Well, I'm going to work and donate money to habitat protection for wild animals.' You think, 'Well, where's the love in that?' Where do you get the the feeling of connection that you get when you think 'My goal is to see Keiko go free?' Similarly, you can be passionate about seeing Keiko go free, but not question (as you say) something like factory farming. Somehow you don't connect all of these different experiences of the animal world in the same way that would seem logical, but we just don't. I was just talking to my neighbor, who is a huge animal lover and there's a gopher in her garden eating her garden, and she said, 'I'm going to get a gun, and I'll just blow that fuckers head off.'
Speaker 1 [00:32:43] And you're like, 'How could that be? You love animals. You have a cat,' or whatever. How do you square that?
Speaker 2 [00:32:53] Look, I'm not saying I'm above this in any way. I have contradictions in my life that are absolutely along the same line. But we compartmentalize in ways, and in the animal kingdom is huge. Obviously, your dog is not the same as a possum with rabies. This is an enormous universe, and it seems absolutely fitting that you would have different feelings about different members of this universe: that you can love a dog, but set a trap for a rat in your basement. Those things can coexist in the same human meat sack.
Speaker 1 [00:33:55] That contradiction within us is what that story reveals, that is so cool. I really want to hear more of these, but we gotta take a really quick break. We'll be right back with more Susan Orlean. OK, we're back with Susan Orlean. I'd love to hear some more stories from this book. I know you did a story on taxidermy, which is a very strange topic when it comes to our relationship with animals; why taxidermy would be something that we would want to do. So explain. Well, maybe it's not weirder to have a dead animal in your house than it is to have an alive animal in your house. I'm not sure which one I think is stranger, but tell me about this story.
Speaker 2 [00:34:46] Well, this story came about in a funny way. I did not spend much time in my life thinking about taxidermy, and I was visiting a friend. He's an artist who paints a lot of animals, a lot of natural history sort of subjects. He had a five inch thick taxidermy supply catalog sitting on his coffee table. Now, at that time, I thought that there were maybe two or three taxidermists in the world. I just did not think of it as a thriving industry. Yet here was this huge supply catalog, which to me would be indicative of a large and robust industry. So I thought, 'Whoa, this is crazy,' and I went home and I googled taxidermy. Thinking the phone number of the one taxidermists in the world would come up, and instead I got eleven and a half million hits. I was taken aback thinking, 'OK, I guess I underestimated this.' And lo and behold, one of the first things that popped up was that the World Taxidermy Championships were coming up in about a week; in Springfield, Illinois, and I thought, 'I have met my story, and here I go.'
Speaker 1 [00:36:25] Let me just say, it sounds really fun to be you and to write about the things that you write about. To see something and then say 'That's going to be my story. I'm going to go track that down. I know I'm going to meet some characters there.' It seems like a really fun way to work.
Speaker 2 [00:36:37] Oh my god, it's the best. It's the best, I love it. What could be more fun than to see something that you don't know anything about and say, 'Oh, I'm going to go learn about that.' Just to show up in a place that you would never go otherwise. In my life, as who I am, the Venn diagram of my life (as one would expect) and taxidermy does not have a huge overlap. So it's a place that in a million years, I would never have found myself. So I have the best job, and I love writing about things I know very little about. So I have that experience, often, of being in an environment where I look around and think, 'I cannot believe this is my job, that I'm in Norway with a whale or I'm in Springfield, Illinois, with a bunch of people stuffing rabbits.' I have the best job I really do.
Speaker 1 [00:37:49] I'm intensely jealous of you and what you do, but please tell me what you found when you went there.
Speaker 2 [00:37:54] Well, it was amazing. First of all, part of what was so funny is it was being held in a Crowne Plaza hotel, which is the most generic and middle management-y hotel chain in America. It's where very ordinary things happen, like sales conferences. It couldn't be more boring and more ordinary. But you walk in, and the first thing you run into is a guy carrying a huge moose head and a guy carrying a giant mount of a beaver. My favorite thing, actually, was waiting for the elevator because the door would open and you wouldn't know what animal you were going to encounter because people were carrying their mounts around all over the place. And so, the elevator would open and there would be a guy with a tiger cub or a wild turkey on a log, and it was visually such a hoot. It was also really interesting on two accounts. Number one, taxidermists love animals, and I think you go into it thinking, 'Oh, they deal with dead animals, and that's so awful.' But actually, they love animals and they love looking at animals, and they love making these animals look alive. So that's the other part of the observation, which was that they are doing the thing that we humans find the most intriguing and spooky and fascinating, which is to bring something back to life. Some of these mounts were so lifelike, that you would get a little spooked. You would see a snarling cougar and you would inch away a little bit because they looked so real. There's something of a black magic quality that I found so interesting. That as humans, this has forever been our persistent question is, 'Can something dead be brought back to life?' They're trafficking in this world of occult and spookiness (and religion, obviously), where
Speaker 1 [00:40:40] This deep down desire and fear that we have, of the reanimation of the dead. Yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:40:47] And, you know, fascination and horror simultaneously. The other thing that I was really drawn to is (and it's something that I love writing about) that there's a real passion for perfection. Taxidermists are like so many of us, they want to master this thing that they're passionate about. They want it to be perfect. It's funny, I do a piece of writing and I want it to be perfect, and then I forget that somebody who's doing a mount of a squirrel has the exact same impulse, which is, 'I want the squirrel to be perfect. I want the whiskers to be really at the right angle and not sticking out too much. But, you know, at the exact angle that a squirrels whiskers should be at.' That kind of unrequited desire to make something perfect really interested me.
Speaker 1 [00:41:55] Yeah, that is a very universal human quality that I think about all the time; that for any human endeavor, there are people trying to to do it perfectly, trying to do it the most excellently, trying to do it the most quickly, trying to do whatever it is. You found that again through looking at our interactions with animals, that's so cool. Did you feel you came away understanding taxidermy a bit more, because I think it has a reputation as like, 'Why would people want that?' That's a lot of people's first reaction. Did you come away from it going like, 'Maybe I should get some taxidermy from my house?'
Speaker 2 [00:42:32] Well, I have to confess, when you do these immersive pieces of narrative nonfiction, the hunter gets captured by the game a little bit. I thought, 'Oh my God, I want taxidermy,' and I started collecting taxidermy and my husband was a little put off. You can get taxidermy that's really good, and then you can get some that's really bad. And I mean, some of the bad taxidermy is almost more interesting than the really good ones.
Speaker 1 [00:43:10] What is bad taxidermy? What does that look like?
Speaker 2 [00:43:13] Where the expression looks like the animal was electroshocked or where its eyes are bugging out, or it has a very weird stance. Where they get the expression all wrong.
Speaker 1 [00:43:29] Because it's almost half sculpture as an art or something, where they're trying to create a scene and an emotion and a moment in time. The same way a sculptor might, in a way.
Speaker 2 [00:43:43] Oh, exactly. In fact, taxidermy in the olden days was very static. You would just mount a deer head, and that was that. Taxidermists call it 'fish on a stick,' which I love. Just this absolutely expressionless, no movement, no motion in the animal's body. And then starting maybe twenty years ago, they began doing very natural taxidermy. The desire was to make the animal really look not only alive, but as if it was in motion (in the case of the animals that the entire body is used) and also on a mount that was something other than just a square of wood. A panther mounted on something that looks like an icy rock. So it is absolutely sculpture. Even in its crudest forms, it's sculpture. But the focus, increasingly, is on making something that is, in itself, artistic. It's not just that it's an animal, but that it's a piece of art.
Speaker 1 [00:45:12] Yeah. So you are now a taxidermy collector, as a result of this.
Speaker 2 [00:45:21] I kind of maxed out. I had a fox, I had couple a couple of birds. I was sort of getting obsessed with it and my husband said, 'Once you fill that shelf, that's it. It's too much.' So we maxed out the shelf, and then when we actually sold the house where we had the taxidermy; it was out in the country and it seemed appropriate to have taxidermy. When we were packing up and I looked at the taxidermy and I tried to picture it in L.A. in my house, and I kind of had an out-of-body experience. I thought, 'I don't know, that doesn't seem quite like the right setting for a stuffed fox.' So I actually ended up selling the taxidermy. This is the nature of being a reporter who writes about a lot of different stuff. I have the flotsam and jetsam of many stories that have accumulated in my life.
Speaker 1 [00:46:36] But this is (I know it's not your pandemic hobby, but this is maybe one of the better examples of this that I've heard of) something I'm curious about. Where were you? You develop an obsession and start to collect it and then suddenly shake out and say, 'Wait, what was I doing?' Yeah, extremely, extremely funny.
Speaker 2 [00:46:53] And I do think that I love writing about obsession. So inevitably, I'm around people who truly believe they've found the single most important thing in the universe. And if you're really trying to dig into their minds and feel some understanding of what motivates them, suddenly you find yourself thinking, 'Wow, that's kind of cool.' This has happened to me with almost every story, that I've found myself getting so close to the subject that I began feeling that same urge like, 'Wow, I kind of want to do that.' Maybe it's partly because the people doing it seem so happy, they are really into stuffing squirrels. And you think, 'Wow, maybe that's the key to happiness.'
Speaker 1 [00:48:01] Well, if your goal as a reporter is to understand someone else's point of view and to work your way into it, how could you not (once you understand it fully) adopt the point of view, right? if point of view is commensurate with any other, of course, that's what ended up happening to you. You're writing feeds this need in us, that we look at other people and go, 'That person seems so happy doing that. Why are they happy? Could I be that happy?'
Speaker 2 [00:48:35] People who have a focal point of their lives have always fascinated me, because when I wrote 'The Orchid Thief,' I met one person after another who felt that they had figured out the key to feeling happy was being absorbed completely in the world of orchids and collecting orchids and thinking about orchids and going to orchid shows. It's a very soothing worldview, in a way. It makes things very simple, because you have the answer (always) to the question of 'What's important, what's life all about?' Well. It's about collecting more orchids.
Speaker 1 [00:49:34] Yeah, there's something so transfixing about it, and when I'm thinking about people like that, I often wonder if that's what's missing from my life. Have I not found the perfect hobby because I'm I feel like a classic dilettante. I get interested and I'm very much a cliche. I learned how to bake sourdough bread over the pandemic. I got really good at it. I spent six months at it, and then I got good and now I can bake a good loaf of bread. If you asked me to bake you a loaf of bread, I could do it, you know? But I sort of topped out, and then I'm on to the next thing. I have I have 100 different things like that. I picked a bird watching. I enjoy bird watching. I do it a couple of times a month. I'm not flying around the country to do a big year in the famous book or movie about that. But then I think, 'Is that the wrong way to live? Should I instead devote myself to one thing? Do I have it within me to do that? Am I missing out?'
Speaker 2 [00:50:36] I think that that has always interested me that I feel like I am by definition (proudly or otherwise, I don't know) not a joiner, and I can't quite imagine saying 'I am a sourdough person. That's who I am and I'm really into it and I'm on a sourdough message boards and this is my identity, and I feel comfortable having my individuality subsumed by this greater interest.' So when I meet people, because I meet a lot of people for whom that is actually what they want, they enjoy and they find comfort in it, they find meaning in it, they find identity in it to say 'I am a ______.' Whatever it is, that is the way their decision tree is built: always with this central principle, and I envy it. I don't think it's anything I could ever do, but I certainly envy the logical order that would give your life.
Speaker 1 [00:52:02] Yeah, man. Well, let's come back to animals for the end of this interview. Did I not see you tweet that you have a puppy? Did I see this?
Speaker 2 [00:52:14] Yes. Well like you, I was playing pandemic bingo, and I felt that besides doing a jigsaw puzzle and baking bread, I should get a puppy. We already had a dog and a cat, and I suddenly felt like I had to get a puppy. It made no sense, I certainly was pretty well padded with animals, but I couldn't stop thinking about it. So we went and got a puppy and you get a puppy and you think, 'What was I thinking? They're like crazy people.' But he is also absolutely hilarious and adorable and a huge time sink. I had sort of forgotten because my dog is 11 and she is completely trained and she's very chill and she doesn't require a lot. I mean, basically, I say 'hi' to her all day long and she hangs out with me and we're at peace and the puppy is like somebody dropped a nuclear bomb in our house.
Speaker 1 [00:53:36] There's just so much to do. But, as a result of this, (and I know you've done this reporting over many years, so you've been thinking of these issues for a long time) when you are interacting with that puppy or when you're looking at your own desire for the puppy, do you have any insight into what exactly is going on? To the mystery of why we want these animals in our lives in the first place? Do you look at that puppy and think, 'Ahhh, here's something I can draw from my reporting on that to help me understand what the fuck it is I'm doing right now?'
Speaker 2 [00:54:08] Yeah, yeah, for sure. I adore my grown up dog and I love my cat. Getting a puppy is a different experience. But the sensation of being in love with this puppy is so delicious. I love being in love. I love that feeling of 'He's so cute. I just want to hug him and squish him and kiss him.' It frees you up. I love my husband and I love my son. It's complicated, loving people. You don't always have that feeling of just, 'You are so cute. I could just squish you.' That feeling is so exhilarating. We feel good when we feel that pure affection and emotion, and that you need nothing more than to have that feeling, you don't need anything back. You don't calibrate according to whether you're a little bit mad at the person or not, or whether they clean their room up or not. Even when the dog is bad (and we've had all sorts of trouble housebreaking this dog) you can't quite do it. It's like you forgive them, you sort of go beyond it and think, 'Oh, he's so maddening, I can't believe he's still not housebroken and he's so cute, I could just squish him' and it's a great feeling. I think you feel enlarged by that emotion. It never feels diminishing. It feels like this way that your heart is enlarged by that sensation of affection.
Speaker 1 [00:56:21] Yeah. It feels, often, that they are fulfilling some deep emotional need in us that we often don't even get from our own family members. My partner and I don't intend to have kids (at least certainly not any time soon) and so sometimes we're like, 'Oh yeah, our animals are our children.' But actually, I don't even think that's the case. I think that if we had children, we would still want to have the animals, because they are fulfilling something in us that is separate from that. That's kind of irreplaceable. If I were to put on my my evolutionary biologist hat, it's like they have somehow tapped into this need; we're the ants milking the aphids. They've somehow parasitized us because we have this desire for them. I don't know, that Michael Pollan book about the tulips and how the tulips took advantage of our need for beauty to propagate themselves. It's like that thing. But it's necessary to human life, in some way.
Speaker 2 [00:57:32] Yeah, and it is really different. One could say it's more superficial than the love you feel for a human. But I would say, rather than comparing them because they are very different, there is a way that you are flooded with a sense of joy and pleasure, when your dog crawls in your lap while you're reading and snuggles with you. It's pure endorphin joy. It's as uncomplicated an emotion as I think you can have, and people are more complicated and our relationships with each other are more complicated. Maybe you feel that when you first meet someone and you first have fallen in love and as you are with a partner for longer, as it's been borne out by scientists that you feel a different kind of love for them. It's not the same as what you feel in the first 6 weeks when you meet someone and you're giddy. I think with animals, you can keep having that feeling to some degree; that pure giddy sense of it. Even my 11 year old dog, I sometimes just look at her face and think, 'Oh my God, she's so cute. I can't stand it.' It's a great feeling, and I adore my husband and I don't look at him and go, 'Oh my God, he's so cute.'
Speaker 1 [00:59:24] Oh yeah, no, it's true. With Lisa - Whenever our dog is doing something cute (like when she wants attention) she rolls on her back and puts her paws in the air. And every single time I can go, 'Look at what the dog's doing' and Lisa goes, 'Oh my God, look at that.' Twice a day, we have the exact same conversation and we never get sick of it. And that's not true of anything else in our lives, that we could say the same thing over and over again.
Speaker 2 [00:59:53] Oh my God. This is a conversation that I have with my husband so often, where we will look at our puppy and say 'That dog is so beautiful,.' We say it as if we have just discovered this and yet we will say it twice a day. Then the next day again, it's like this revelation. 'Oh my God, that dog is so beautiful.'
Speaker 1 [01:00:27] You wouldn't do that if you had a painting. If you had a Picasso in your house, if you had a Monet in your house, if you had the Mona Lisa hanging on your wall; you wouldn't say twice a day 'Look at the Mona Lisa. It is so beautiful.' But you would say that about your dog.
Speaker 2 [01:00:42] Right! It gets you in some very primal way. I think the feeling is is very primal. It's something elemental; where you just feel flooded with some joy (because to me, it feels very joyful) where you just feel giddy with the incredible discovery that the dog is so cute, even though you said it six hours earlier.
Speaker 1 [01:01:21] What's funny is, all that we're describing right now are facts about humans, not about animals themselves. This is our response to them, which is really interesting to me because your book is called 'On Animals,' it sounds like it could be called 'On humans.' That's a worse title. But that is what you're really writing about. Am I wrong?
Speaker 2 [01:01:42] Oh, absolutely. Writing about animals completely subtracted from the human world is something that a naturalist might do, or a zoologist. It would be a journal of observations of an animal behavior. Once you enter into some kind of relationship with the animal, even if it's a wild animal, it becomes so much a reflection of you as the observer, or you as the owner of the pet, you as the zookeeper, you as the horseback rider and how you navigate that relationship across species. Which when you think about it, is a pretty amazing thing: that we have relationships with non-humans. Some are very simple relationships, some are very complex relationships and we do it without the power of language and without really knowing how their minds work. Yet we do we do manage it somehow, and it tells you a lot about us. Without a doubt.
Speaker 1 [01:03:06] Yeah. When you put it that way, it's such an incredible thing that we do it at all. Which brings us back fully around to the point you made at the beginning, which is that your work illuminating these things that we take for granted and taking another look at them and appreciating them. I feel that you've really done that for me over the course of this conversation. I can't thank you enough for coming on to tell us about the book, Susan. Once again, it's called 'On Animals.' It's available, I assume, wherever people can get a book.
Speaker 2 [01:03:35] Yes, absolutely anywhere that you can get a book and thank you for having me on the show. I've enjoyed it so much.
Speaker 1 [01:03:44] Oh, I'm so glad. Thank you so much for being on, Susan. The next time you write a book, we'll have to have you on again. Or earlier. Well, thank you once again to Susan Orlean for coming on the show. Wasn't she incredible? Wasn't that an amazing interview? I had such a blast talking to her. I hope you had a blast listening to it. If you want to check out the book, go once again to factuallypod.com/books that's factuallypod.com/books. Remember, when you buy a book there, you'll be supporting not just this show but also your local bookstore. I want to thank our producers, Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Our engineer, Ryan Connor. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest, for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I'm recording this very episode for you on. You can find me online at AdamConover.net or @Adam Conover wherever you get your social media. Thank you so much for listening, and we'll see you next time on Factually.