You love animals, but have you ever wondered why they have such a dynamic hold on you? If you’re like me, you ask “why?” about everything, so let’s get started.
A series of peculiar events—I won’t bore you—led me to become the host of a podcast called This Animal Life. I’m love it, and I’m blessed to work with graphic artist Sarah K. Martin, who created all the adorable images you see here. That job, because as a writer and educator, I’m used to calling poorly compensated work “a job,” requires me to think up super-cool things about animals, find experts, read their books if they have them, and research all kinds of willy-nilly information about animals.
I do it because the goal of each episode is to make you feel as if you’re sitting with two well-informed and passionate nerds who are joyfully geeking out about animals. If you like that kind of thing. I’ve got the passion, but the well-informed thing is a lot of work.
Thanks to the podcast, I’ve read studies on whether or not squirrels have personalities, in how animals dream and how we can prove it, how far you can trust a dog to tell you if a corpse was here, and the surprising social lives of sharks. I’ve only been hosting about six months, but already some amazing and reassuring truths are coming clear.
You’re made to love them.
Take my latest episode, “The Greatest Love You Lost and Never Knew,” in which I sit down with cartoonist and author of The Pocket Guide to Pigeon-Watching, Rosemary Mosco. Like many of us, she was drawn to animals since she was a child. Early on, she even tenderly rescued birds. Maybe that’s why children’s toys, books, games, and television shows all feature animals as main characters.
You’re born seeing yourself in animals, and you also crave interaction with them. That’s because you’re genetically designed to find out how to thrive on a planet teeming with other life forms—and so are other animals. In that unforgettably charming episode, Rosemary and I chat about our 10,000-year love affair with pigeons, how humans and pigeons first fell in love, why we bonded so deeply, and what caused the terrible falling-out. That devastating rift made us strangers, even enemies. Listening to Rosemary, reading her book, and learning more about pigeons helps you rekindle how naturally attuned you are to pigeons. It also restores your bond to birds in general and deepens your oneness with life on earth.
You love to be fascinated by what you hate.
Nowhere is that love-to-hate fascination more apparent than when we talk about wild dogs. Some people hate them as much as they love their best friend, the family dog. The upcoming episode on wolves with Rick McIntyre or the past episode about coyotes, “The Happy, Scrappy Super Genius Who Survives Better Despite You,” capture that conflict.
Some humans are only loving, loyal, and generous until they perceive a conflict of interest. And then our baser, and no doubt necessary, nature flares. They’ll do to that creature the very inhumane things that are outlawed when done to dogs and cats and other domestic animals.
It’s natural to become obsessed with hating, fearing, and willfully misunderstanding your sworn enemy. Doing so is hardwired into our brains and secures our survival. However, in the episode “Love, Loyalty, and Friendship Among Sharks,” you find out how wrong, how blind, and how tragic hate can be. Using the Show Notes as a kind of exclusive masterclass in expertise can lead you to spellbinding transformations, such as terrifying videos in which Jim Abernethy safely hugs his bull shark friends and reveals his intense love for them.
Animals surprise you.
Like other problem-solving creatures, you’re made to love learning. Although some of you grow “stuck in our ways” to protect tried-and-true habits, others remain flexible and creative novelty-seekers the rest of your lives to help the community evolve and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. To some degree or another, however, everyone enjoys the surprise of learning something unexpected. We need intrigue and this podcast is a safe and healthy way to get it. Animals, by the simple virtual of being alive, are full of surprises.
That’s because all living creatures, even lowly slime molds, behave unpredictably and blow your mind. Every episode delivers so many wonders and mysteries—why Jim the Wonder Dog seemed to read minds and still has people marveling nearly a century later. The podcast exposes amazing discoveries, such as how scientists are identifying bona fide genius dogs. It’s also full of riveting stories, such as the heartwarming, heartbreaking, and revelatory tale of how chimpanzees acted all the same ways we act during a pandemic.
Animals reassure you.
Because you were made to coexist on a planet teeming with fellow life forms, extinctions and habitat destruction can fill you with guilt and despair. Without animals, you can’t live your truest, most authentic life. This Animal Life has taught me that learning about other animals helps a lot, but dwelling on doom can paralyze you.
Participating in active conversations, even just by listening, connects you to the greater world. Hearing the voices of compassionate, well-informed people like Jonathan Meiburg, who traveled the world and wrote a book that’s a true labor of love for caracaras. Actively listening to people like him secures your part in the community that includes the creatures themselves.
Sharing the episodes sparks conversations with your friends. Communicating directly to me and my guests reconnects you to the timeless web of life through spoken language, which is the very essence of your humanity.
You’re a creature of sound and of language, and there’s much comfort in listening to people just like you tell you about their interactions and fascination for animals who are still with us, still thriving. It inspired me to hear the naturalist Sam Wilber say, “So much of ecology and biology is such a bummer in this day and age. There are so many things that are on the endangered list . . . it’s important to remember the species who are doing awesome. . . . Coyotes are winning against us, and I love that.”
You have a primal need to give and receive empathy.
It’s interesting that humans started looking for other life forms in outer space around the same time that we accelerated destruction of habitats all around the globe. Maybe what drives space exploration and science fiction is the intuition that we can’t handle the loneliness. The grief alone could kill you.
And so, reviving the old knowledge that other animals are intelligent, differently intelligent, emotionally intelligent, morally and socially intelligent, gives you a kind of homecoming. All humans are, in a way, the prodigal son, having ungratefully turned our backs to home and squandered the wealth we were given. Exploring concepts like Theory of Mind, mirror neurons, and radical empathy help you appreciate how interconnected you are. Visiting with my guests is a way of finally finding your way home (but let’s not kill the fatted calf this time).
Getting to know more about your greater family of earthlings can elate and restore you. That’s why I not only try to educate, but to help you imagine what it feels like to be each of these individual animals. What and how do they see, hear, think, feel? And do they imagine how you think and feel? The short but nonetheless mind-blowing answer is yes.
You truly aren’t alone. And you never have been.
Welcome, and make yourself at home in This Animal Life.
Special thanks to Sarah K. Martin for all her hard work illustrating and to Ann LaBar for getting us launched.