Susan Orlean Has an Eye for the Little Creatures

As an excellent example of the essays’ lasting appeal, Orlean’s story of what happened to Keiko, a caged killer whale who starred in the low-budget children’s film “Free Willy,” is provided here. Orlean’s trademark opening lines, which are so cleverly set that your attention is caught for as long as she intends to hold onto you:

“It was a hell of a time to be in Iceland, although by most accounts it is always a hell of a time to be in Iceland, where the wind never huffs or puffs but simply blows your house down.”

An great interest in Keiko, the whale actor who had not been freed as his fictional counterpart had, was sparked by the unexpected success of “Free Willy” (the film cost $20 million to make but made $154 million).

There was a public outcry and an attempt by Michael Jackson to buy Keiko for his ranch, a territorial dispute between the custodial aquarium and a foundation raising money for the release of Keiko, and a wealthy tech entrepreneur with an interest in promoting ocean health. One beloved but bedraggled whale with a pro was also included in Orlean’s report.

What this essay is really about, though, is a plea to contemplate the relationship between humans and the other animals with whom we share this world, rather than an update on the attempts to release Keiko. According to Orlean, “it wasn’t his fault that he was caught in the first place and put in a squalid tub in Mexico.”

The fact that he didn’t know how to do whale things like blowing a bubble net to trap herring, and that he had been torn from the bosom of his family at such a young age that now he was a little afraid of wild whales, and that they, in turn, viewed him as a bit of a freak was not his fault,” said the author. Keiko had nothing to do with it. Ultimately, we were to blame for the mishap.

Regardless of how much money was gathered to prepare Keiko for the wild, he will never be able to recover from the injury he suffered. The cruelty we inflict on animals has far-reaching implications, and Orlean illustrates this point without writing polemic.

You can bet that the writer who can’t stop thinking of clever ways to describe animals and humans is the one who sees the most important connections between the two. The book as a whole has a cumulative effect on the emphasis on interconnectivity that emerges from each individual article. “On Animals” has more to offer than linguistic pyrotechnics, genial humour or compelling storytelling.

For even though Orlean does not directly address the contentious issue of animal rights, and even though many of these essays were written before the general public became aware of the growing dangers of climate change and the dwindling biodiversity of the planet, what she understands about the human-animal bond is crucial to addressing both of these calamities: the fact that we belong to one another.

People and animals cannot coexist because we are all interconnected and what happens to one of us on this overcrowded world affects us all.