Susan Orlean talks about animals - the cuddly, the comforting and the kooky - at the Morgan Library

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Orlean spoke at the Morgan Library (Lauren Kirchner)
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Last night the writer Susan Orlean was asked why she writes so often about animals—whether for The New Yorker about the chickens she raises on her farm upstate, or about Rin Tin Tin in her latest book.

She said she wasn't sure how to answer; she finds it hard to express why her curiosity about animals is so endless.

“If someone told you Martians had landed on Earth, and they didn’t look like people, but they had some of the same senses and behaviors we had; they didn’t speak the way we think of speaking, but they do speak; they had some of our same abilities; and they had certain abilities that were far more acute than ours … wouldn’t you be curious?” she asked the crowd that had assembled for a lecture at the Morgan Library and Museum.

That’s how she feels about animals, she said; they are both amusing and fascinating.

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“They are ‘The Other,’ in the most intriguing way,” she said.

Orlean's lecture was entitled “Animalish,” and was presented in conjunction with the museum’s latest exhibit, In the Company of Animals: Art, Literature, and Music at the Morgan. It is a relatively small but surprising collection of drawings, prints, manuscripts, and other objects that explore different roles animals have played in our lives and in art through time. It explores how and why animals are so often used as muses for art and literature, symbols of human characteristics and experiences, and teachers of moral lessons.

The exhibit includes birds by Robert Motherwell, Charles Seliger, and Jim Dine; there is a gorgeous John James Audubon watercolor of rabbits with big, sad eyes; there are regal-looking lions and tigers (a stunning one of these by Eugène Delacroix) just about everywhere. Hand-written manuscripts and letters with animals as their subjects—by writers such as John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, and Beatrix Potter—are placed next to much older curios, like illuminated manuscripts featuring goats and elephants, reaching as far back as the 12th century.

Captions throughout the exhibit asked questions like, Why do we attribute human motivations to the animals around us? If animals can’t talk, does that mean that we can’t truly understand them? Is our love of animals selfish? That is, do we value animals because they give us unconditional love, or because they serve as mirrors to our own vices and virtues?

Orlean, by way of answering some of those questions, ran through an abbreviated history of pet-keeping. Her stories proved that the indulgent pet owners and groomers of today are far from an anomaly. Pet-keeping in the Victorian era, for instance, was extremely expensive.

“If you were a proper person, your pet had a full wardrobe of shirts, gowns, bathing suits, underwear, calling cards, stationery, and, to kind of top it all off, dog weddings were common,” necessitating all kinds of formal wear, she said. “This suggested that Victorian English people were high. All the time," she said, deadpan. "I hope that there are no Victorian English people in the audience here who would be offended.”

Later, when talking about her chickens, she mentioned that in the early, unsmiling days of photography, women used to bring their best chickens and roosters in to the portrait studio with them. At that time, while men were most often charged with raising a farm’s cattle and horses and other animals, chickens lived in the female realm. A good-looking, healthy chicken was a source of pride and ownership for a farmer’s wife; why not take a formal photo together? “This was in America, now, so we have to own this,” she joked.

The fun of Orlean’s talk, beyond the excellent jokes, was her habit of going off on spontaneous tangents from her roughly chronological outline. She kept distracting herself with funny stories from her research or from her own life—for instance, describing the “interspecies politics” that goes on in her family, a unit that includes two adults, a child, one dog, three cats, eight chickens, four turkeys, four guinea fowl, twelve cattle, and three ducks. The audience loved it, as evidenced by the prompts that made up the question-and-answer period afterward (“Tell us about your cats!”). But as funny as it was, her lecture aimed at the deeper meanings inherent in our relationships with animals through history.

She spoke about the timeless plotline of Disney’s 1963 film The Incredible Journey—and every film and TV show and book like it—featuring pets who are separated from their owner and then go to great lengths to be reunited. Why is this so appealing?

“It is something wired into our belief about what animals feel about us,” said Orlean. “The idea is that animals are loyal to infinity, that there is nothing that would come in the way of an animal’s loyalty and devotion.”

She explained that this plot line became prevalent in our culture around a time when Americans were making the transition from country to city, from farm life to suburban life. Animals played a less utilitarian role for many. The use of animals in wartime also encouraged people to begin to see them as heroic and selfless. You may have heard of carrier pigeons, but did you know about cigarette dogs, ferrying tobacco to men in the trenches? Animals serve with little regard for their own safety, and with no politics whatsoever, and that was a very inspiring thing. 

The pets-as-heroes theme played out in the career of Rin Tin Tin, the German Shepherd who became a movie star after being discovered on a World War I battlefield. Rin Tin Tin is the subject of Orlean’s latest (and very popular) book. Although he is the most famous dog of his time, Rin Tin Tin actually had many peers; he was one of dozens of dogs to star in action films in the 1920s and '30s. Orlean suggested that the reason we love to see animals on film is the same reason that we love to have them in our lives.

“It’s easy to love animals without the self-consciousness that comes with the connection to another person—there are no complications,” she said. “They have a kind of beauty, and a characterlessness, in the sense of human identity. Age, race, ethnicity, they just don’t have it. They have a kind of purity that we can appreciate and enjoy.”

'In the Company of Animals' is on view at the Morgan Library and Museum, 225 Madison Avenue at 36th St., through May 20.