We recently launched a new animals blog on Slate called Wild Things. Why? Because animals, from the smallest Drosophila to the blue whale, are ridiculously fascinating to watch and read about. We know what each animal says. Some of the first words kids learn are of the names of species they’ll probably never see in the wild. From animals we learn how the world works, how humans work, and how wildly varied life on Earth really is.
I asked contributors to Wild Things for their favorite animal tales—whether articles in other publications, books, or movies. Check them out.
“Once and Future Cats,” by Brian Switek: From how tar pits work to the very term sabre-toothed tiger, there's so much great info in this piece—and it really makes your brain work to imagine what life must have been like in the presence of these beasts.
“The Birds,” by Jonathan Rosen: People talk about how we killed off the passenger pigeon, and the story of Martha, and how the flocks used to blot out the sky. But this story gives the best appreciate the sheer scale of what we're talking about.
“Accidental Conservation,” by James Barilla: A truly wacky tale of human intervention—trying to save one species of tamarin, we accidentally turned it into an invasive species that now threatens another species of endangered tamarin. Nature is hard.
“They're Taking Over!” by Tim Flannery: The article (and presumably the book it reviews) is packed with crazy-ass jellyfish facts. After reading this, you’ll expect to see jellyfish pouring out of your faucet the next time you get yourself a glass of water.
“American Hippopotamus,” by Jon Mooallem in The Atavist. A ludicrous spy story.
“The Truth About Lions,” by Abigail Tucker: A lovely, charming story about the truly terrifying nature of lions.
The most sympathetic character in Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the dog Karenin, whose death is detailed in the book’s moving last passage, “Karenin's Smile.” “Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view),” Kundera writes, “consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.”
Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe. It’s by Jane Goodall. About her 50 years at Gombe. What are you waiting for?
Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, by Jon Mooallem, is absolutely sensational and highly recommended. Mooallem takes an unconventional look at wildlife conservation, including plenty of strange, uplifting, and, in some cases, extremely troubling anecdotes. He also did a reading-with-musicians from the book for 99 Percent Invisible.
Films and videos
Wendy and Lucy—a film by Kelly Reichardt starring Michelle Williams as Wendy and Lucy as herself—is a story about the will of a young woman to start a new life for herself and her dog, and if you are an animal lover, or even an animal liker, it will wreck you. I'm getting a lump in my throat just thinking about it. And it doesn’t even resort to the hoary old dead-dog trick!
It's an obvious recent example but worth repeating, especially since Inside Llewyn Davis flew somewhat under the radar and got robbed of any awards-season glory: Joel and Ethan Coen’s look back at the folk music scene in early-1960s Greenwich Village features some of the most subtle and affecting feline acting to be found in cinema. The reaction shots during the road trip alone should have earned Ulysses an Oscar nod.
March of the Penguins: A great movie about both the cuteness of nature (as represented by fuzzy baby penguins) and the cold implacability of nature (as represented by the walruses who eat those baby penguins).
David Attenborough narrating “What a Wonderful World” over BBC’s most stunning animal footage. Quite possibly the most perfect video ever produced.
The Snail and the Whale. Julia Donaldson packs a lot into these 32 pages. She inspires a sense of adventure in young readers and teaches them that even little creatures can do big things.
Trumpet of the Swan. The best gift if you want to give a child a lasting fascination with birds and the wide-open West.