In fifth grade, my teacher had to take me and two of my friends aside to "discuss our reading habits." She gently but firmly informed us that we had to stop reading books about animals. We had to read at least one book with a human protagonist. I'm pretty sure we just stared back at her blankly. Read a book about humans? When there are perfectly good books about horses and other animals that we could read? It just didn't make sense.
If you were also an animal-obsessed reader as a kid, you're probably in the market for a list of great non-fiction books about animals for adults. As a child, I enjoyed a wide range of animal fiction. Ok, usually the books were about cats who were also warriors, or wolves who were also warriors, or mice who were also warriors. But occasionally there would be a book about a star reincarnated in the body of a normal dog, like Diana Wynne Jones' Dogsbody. Or there would be a book about a falcon just living her own damn life, like Jean Craighead George's Frightful's Mountain. Slowly but surely, I stopped exclusively reading books about magical warrior animals. I started reading books about animals who behaved like real life animals, until I finally made the leap to nonfiction books about animals. And I discovered that real animals are every bit as awe-inspiring as their fictional counterparts. (This was absolutely not what my fifth grade teacher had in mind, but oh well).
So if you're an animal lover in need of some new reading material, check out these true stories from every corner of the animal kingdom:
1. Born Free by Joy Adamson
There are many books about an animal raised in captivity and returned to the wild. But this is the original book about an animal raised in captivity and returned to the wild. And if it doesn't make you cry, you're probably a robot. It's the beautiful account of Elsa the adorable lion cub, and how she grows up into a powerful lioness. It's also a love letter to conservationist efforts everywhere.
2. Grayson by Lynne Cox
This author has swum the English Channel twice, as well as the Catalina Channel (nbd). But this book takes us back to Lynne Cox as a teenage swimmer, training off-shore early one morning, when she realizes she has company. A confused baby whale has been shadowing her, and now she must choose whether to head home and risk the baby whale following her into dangerously shallow water, or to risk her own life in trying to return the baby to its family (you can guess what she chooses).
3. My Life with the Chimpanzees by Jane Goodall
If you love reading about primates (excluding human beings, of course), then you should start with this classic. Jane Goodall is one of the most famous naturalists in the world, with good reason. She's been an animal lover her whole life, and at age twenty-six she first set out to observe chimps in their natural habitat. The result is this portrait of a wildly intelligent and emotionally evolved species, and it makes for a fascinating read.
4. Death at Seaworld by David Kirby
I'll be honest: I still haven't seen Blackfish, and I usually try not to read books that are going to make me vomit and cry at the same time. But if you're interested in a gut-wrenching, intensely real expose about animal cruelty, this is the book for you. It's a sobering look at the way orcas are treated in captivity, and the grisly outcome for both the animals and their trainers. You won't be able to put it down (or ever set foot in Sea World again).
5. The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes: And Other Surprising True Stories of Zoo Vets and their Patients by Lucy H. Spelman
If you'd rather read about animal professionals being nice to their animals, then try The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes. This collection of non-fiction accounts from zoo veterinarians includes everything from an eel with anorexia to a hippo who needs a root canal to a white-tailed deer with earrings. Zoo vets share their real life experiences, which are by turns heart-pounding, gross, and adorable (just like the animal kingdom itself).
6. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
H is for Hawk is one of those memoirs that sticks with you. It's not just about falconry, or grief, or literature. It's a beautiful blend of nature writing and personal memoir, with some Arthurian legend thrown in there for good measure. Helen Macdonald writes about her journey to train the fierce goshawk, and her writing is full of humor and humanity, as well as awe for the deadliest birds of prey.
7. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
Even if you know nothing about horse racing, you've probably heard of Seabiscuit. And this book traces the legendary horse's life story from the beginning: he started out as a gawky underdog (underhorse?) with crooked legs, but he still managed to race his way to the top. His team of humans are just as quirky and unlikely, but somehow the whole gang worked together to train the greatest horse in the game.
8. Unlikely Friendships by Jennifer S. Holland
Animals being friends with other animals of different species. Really, do you need to hear any more than that? This is, as advertised, a book about animals being friends. Cats and dogs, lions and gazelles, hippos and tortoises—it's a delightful, often poignant assortment of friendships that defy convention. And it's really, really cute.
9. Kangaroos in the Kitchen: The Story of Animal Talent Scouts by Lorrain D'Essen
Ok so... realistically, I don't know how hard it is to get your hands on a copy of this book. Mine was rescued from a library dumpster. But if you can find one, you should read it, because it's a true story of Lorrain D'Essen and how she kept all manner of kangaroos, llamas, lions, bears, and so forth in her New York apartment back in the early 1950s. She accidentally founded the career of animal talent scouting, and her memoir will make you wish that it was still legal and/or a good idea to keep a personal zoo in your apartment.
10. Felines of New York by Jim Tews
This might not count as 100% non-fiction, but it's so adorable and it's full of pictures of cats. Look, I know you can find pictures of cats on the internet for free, but you know Humans of New York? This book does that... but with cats. And humor. It's cute, very funny, and all too clever in its HONY parodies. Check it out.
Images: Hani Jajeh/Unsplash; Giphy (1)