In November 2015, I adopted a dog. Harley. These 12 pounds of mostly shelter-raised animal cracked open the harder parts of my heart and I found myself sobbing into my coffee, almost daily, while reading the latest stories about rescue dogs. I’d gone so far as to set a Google Alert on “rescue dog,” and while I have calmed down — somewhat — I still find myself getting weepy when I read that a shelter has had its entire stable adopted or some flawed pooch got a new lease on life or … you get the idea.
I present my state of mind to explain why my favorite read about dogs this year was a Longreads exclusive by Richard Gilbert: “Why I Hate My Dog.” A year ago, I might have enjoyed this piece as an abstraction, but reading it after AD (After Dog) made it hit home in ways I would never have felt in my BD (Before Dog) era:
See what Belle brings out in me? The worst. My sadistic streak. Dogs are supposed to do the opposite. Would a good dog occasion such darkness? I think not.
As an extension of human ego—an undeniable dog role: something that kindles pride in their owners—she’s a washout. The odd thing is how close I’ve grown to Belle. The odd thing is how much her anxious nature illuminates mine.
I get this.
Not all my favorite animal reads this year are about dogs, or even directly about animals, they’re more about the complex ways humans interact with and react to animals. Some of these are a reach, but they’re all excellent reads with animals (in one case, a Triassic period aquatic crustacean, no really) as the instigator.
Wisdom, A Bird (Kim Steutermann Rogers, The Fourth River)
The oldest known wild bird in the world, an albatross, is 64 and right about now—late November—she’s probably gliding over a mutable line in the North Pacific, a transition zone where cold water meets warm and an abundance of nourishing goodies make their way to the surface, as yet another egg—maybe the fortieth or forty-fifth of her lifetime—makes its way from an ovary through her oviduct, two forms of life following paths within their own watery terrain.
A 64-year-old bird. Kim Steutermann Rogers knows this specific bird, a Laysan albatross named Wisdom. This is a beautiful tribute to the longevity and fearlessness of not just this particular bird, but the species itself.
The Battle Over the Sea-Monkey Fortune (Jack Hitt, New York Times Magazine)
A few years after her husband’s death in 2003, Signorelli von Braunhut licensed out part of the labor of his multimillion dollar Sea-Monkey enterprise, mostly packaging and distribution, to Big Time. If you’ve ever been 8 years old, then you know that Sea-Monkeys arrive in a small plastic aquarium with several small packets that include the tiny brine-shrimp critters, which reanimate once you add water — by way of a secret formula that Signorelli von Braunhut keeps locked in a vault in Manhattan.
Jack Hitt’s story has everything. A Miss Havisham-esque shut in, a secret formula, a tangled lawsuit, and, you know, brine shrimp. Upon reaching the end of this story, I wanted to immediately watch the documentary film about the “Sea-Monkey Fortune” — while the writer part of my brain wondered how on earth Hitt found this story. (There’s no documentary film. Yet.)
Hook, Line, and Thinker (James McWilliams, Pacific Standard)
Fish have even joined the exclusive club of tool-users — something that we’ve long deemed (mistakenly) an exclusive hallmark of human intelligence. In 2011, a diver caught on camera an archerfish carrying a clam over to a rock and slamming the bivalve until it cracked. After eating the clam, the fish spit out the shells before continuing the hunt. It’s difficult to watch a video such as this one — it’s a tenacious wrasse on a mission — and not posit a substantial degree of intent. Whether you want to call it “consciousness” or not, it’s more than mere instinct.
For a few years, I researched and blogged about the fish on my dinner plate; I was interested in sustainability issues with regard to seafood; I gave up when I’d been through my local offerings three or four times and found fewer and fewer genuinely sustainable options. James McWilliams’ piece questioning how fish might feel about their role in our diet adds a whole new level of complexity to the idea of ethical seafood. There’s a funny bit in Finding Nemo where the sharks, in a sort of fish eaters anonymous meeting, say, “Fish are friends, not food.” Maybe they were right.
When the Beasts Come Marching In (Jon Mooallem, This American Life)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A moose walks into a bar.
In the courtyard of Bernie’s Bungalow Lounge. It’s totally fenced off with one or two little gates in. And I guess they weren’t used to seeing moose right there.”
That’s Rick Sinnott, and that’s the call he got late one night about a moose hanging out at a bar in downtown Anchorage. A martini lounge, actually.
Okay, it’s not a read, it’s a listen. But I do more than half of my reading these days via audiobooks, it’s great for (you guessed it) walking the dog. And also, Jon Mooallem tells a fantastic animal story. This one has bears, owls, wolves, and advice about what to do if you can’t get to your car because there’s a moose by the driver’s side door. Or if there’s a moose standing in the courtyard of your bar. Drunk.
When my dog died, I didn’t understand why it felt like a human had died. Then I read the research. (Alvin Chang, Vox)
It feels a little cruel to bookend this list with another sad piece about dogs, but this one includes wonky data analysis, too.
No one ever tells you that when your dog is dying, it feels like a human is dying. At first, I tried to suppress the grief. But so many other dog owners said things like, “It felt like a family member had died.” As a data person, all I could see was a growing sample size.
So instead of mourning — or maybe this was my mourning — I sat next to Rainbow during her final days, and I read research papers and books about humans’ relationship with dogs.
As it turns out, we really are two species with an odd, symbiotic relationship.
It turns out there’s a reason it feels like a human has died.
Alvin Chang copes with the loss of his best friend Rainbow by wading into a sea of data. But all that data, it’s just a love letter to his dog.
I’ll say it again: I get this.
Pam Mandel is a freelance writer from Seattle and sometimes contributor to Longreads. In November, for NaNoWriMo, she wrote the first draft of a book about her dog, Harley. She blogs at Nerd’s Eye View.