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My Hogs, and Other Animals

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‘It is probably best not to take advice direct and unfiltered from the animal kingdom,’ Katherine Rundell wrote recently in the LRB – ‘but lemurs may be an exception.’ And so may rats, dogs, snakes, primates, wolves, sheep, pigs, cows, crows, ravens, double-crested cormorants, salmon, sharks and octopuses, according to the contributors to our second app-only special edition of the London Review (the 15 pieces are drawn from the paper’s archive), published to fill the four-week summer break between issues, and give those who’ve signed up to our sale of two cities (with the Paris Review) something to read, right away.

James Meek’s piece on bees provides a helpful checklist of reasons why books about beasts are particularly nice to write about:

The Hive is one of those books that mine two thousand years of written scholarship to show the utter centrality to our wellbeing of some thing, some fish or insect or chemical or system of measurement, whose easy availability we carelessly take for granted … The reader can be certain that in the course of the book they will encounter some, and often all, of the following elements: an invitation to imagine the utter bleakness of a world without said thing; the story of a noble soul who died bitter because of his contemporaries’ refusal to recognise his breakthrough in advancing the understanding of said thing; some lovely reproductions of pre-photographic engravings; recipes; examples of the poetic ignorance of the ancient Greeks, the pragmatic ignorance of the ancient Romans, the malevolent ignorance of the medieval Church and the superstitious ignorance of the peasantry about said thing.

‘Ravens, like coyotes, may have been creator deities,’ Rebecca Solnit argues, ‘because they are rather like humans in their ability to adapt, improvise, change, to trick and to shift. Perhaps in seeing ravens go wrong, we might see ourselves.’ Sometimes the glass darkens, and our sense of ourselves wobbles, thrillingly, even in the familiar world of the farmyard: ‘When asked how clever is the pig, the only sensible answer is that it is cleverer, far cleverer, than humans at being a pig,’ James Buchan writes. ‘What if we thought of farming as an innovation of opportunistic animals?’ Daisy Hildyard asks. ‘From that point of view, it is people who dedicate themselves to the propagation of cows.’

A single species can provide an intelligible entry-point into the coming ecological collapse – sharks are ‘the canary in the coalmine,’ Theo Tait suggests – or propel us into unexplored territory: ‘Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens,’ Amia Srinivasan wrote last year, a few months before 33 researchers argued in a peer-reviewed journal that cephalopods may be the progeny of extra-terrestrial space eggs brought to earth by meteors.

Animals are both easy and difficult to think about. The collection starts with Wendy Doniger’s essay on bestiality (‘the love that dare not baa its name’). ‘Animal lovers who read this book,’ her review begins, ‘will not be able to put it down, but they will come away from it feeling vaguely uncomfortable.’

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