9 Animal Memoirs That Prove Critters Can Heal All Kinds Of Heartache

It’d be great if life were all smooth sailing and sunny skies. In reality, though, we all weather our fair share of storm clouds every now and again. Personal and professional setbacks come in all shapes and sizes, but they all seem to have one thing in common: When you’ve been dealt a crappy hand in life, it can feel like no one really understands. No one human, anyway.

I’d go so far as to say that pets are like free therapists, listening without judgment and offering up unconditional love. Sure, they demand some daily care, but tending to their needs is actually a welcome distraction when you’re going through a rough patch. Since becoming a dog owner myself, I’ve learned firsthand about the bond that causes otherwise sane people to take way too many photos of their pets and then narrate each one to you while out at the bar (note to self: stop being that person).

But beyond feeling like I have a four legged BFF, there’s something uncanny about the way my dog cheers me up whenever I’m having a less than stellar day. From the hour we spend trudging through the park together every morning to the way he sleeps by my feet as I write, he gives more than he takes. I know you know what I mean.

The stories of heartache and recovery in the nine memoirs below vary in their specifics, but they’re all stellar evidence of that comforting bond between a person and their pet in times of duress. From training a deadly hawk to taking a long walk with a donkey, read on for some heartwarming tales about humans and pets healing each other.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Following the unexpected death of her father, Helen Macdonald decides to adopt a pet. And not just any pet, but a goshawk— one of the fiercest predators on two wings. In the bird she names Mabel, Macdonald sees a fierce will and a feral nature that she relates to in her grief. Training Mabel and immersing herself in the weird world of hawk enthusiasts, Macdonald heals herself slowly but surely: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”

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A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas

Thomas’ memoir starts with every dog owner’s worst nightmare: while out walking one night, he darts through traffic. The dog is unscathed, but Thomas’ husband Rich isn’t so lucky: He is struck by a car, suffering a shattered skull and permanent memory loss. In navigating her new life as a suddenly single caretaker, Thomas finds solace in her growing pack of dogs, whose unconditional love and simple needs teach her to be present. From instructions on how to break up a dogfight to meditations on melancholy, this memoir skips around in time in a series of poignant and surprisingly uplifting vignettes.

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The Wisdom of Donkeys by Andy Merrifield

Borrowing a friend’s donkey and the words of novelist Milan Kundera, academic Andy Merrifield set out for a nice long walk in the south of France to think about slowness. If you’re suffering from a spiritual malaise that you can’t quite put your finger on, consider this minimalist approach to enlightenment. Hey, it also worked for Shrek.

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Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper

Burdened by a broken heart and a unfulfilling job, Gwen Cooper was already on an odyssey when she met Homer. Blind and abandoned, Homer the cat was just what Cooper didn't know she needed. A memoir about living through 9/11 in New York City, weathering relationship woes, and finding inspiration in unlikely places, Homer's Odyssey isn't just for crazy cat ladies. There's a lesson here for anyone struggling to find their footing amidst the big city bustle: sometimes all you need is a three-pound cheerleader.

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Thunder Dog by Michael Hingson

Thunder Dog is the story of 9/11 as told through the eyes of a blind man's fearless guide dog. Trapped on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower, Michael Hingson puts his trust in Roselle, his guide dog, who heroically leads both of them to safety. This is the kind of perspective-shifting memoir that reminds you that obstacles are just opportunities for creative solutions and personal growth.

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Saddled by Susan Richards

Sometimes it takes a 1,000-pound animal to make us see in ourselves what we've been ignoring for a decade. Susan Richards' powerful memoir about the mare that made her confront her alcoholism is a testament to second chances. From learning to love an imperfect horse to eventually accepting her imperfect self, Richards captures that elusive bond between human and animal that makes each one stronger than they would be separately. This one's all about replacing negative habits with positive ones — while riding off into the sunset, of course.

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The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery

What's pink, 750 pounds, and more likely to have its nose in a trough than a book? Christopher Hogwood, the wayward pig that naturalist Sy Montgomery adopts, without knowing that a pig would be the ticket to finally overcoming her social anxiety (with other humans, that is). Like a grown up version of Charlotte's Web, The Good Good Pig is about finding community around the animals who love and teach us. Just think, you'd never be at a loss for a conversation starter with a massive pet.

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Puppy Chow is Better Than Prozac by Bruce Goldstein

Depressed and down on his luck in the dog eat dog world of advertising in New York City, Bruce Goldstein traded in his prescription pills and therapy sessions for a puppy and long walks in the park. Goldstein found in Ozzy the black Lab the kind of companionship, structure, and love that he needed to get back on stable emotional footing. While dog ownership isn't possible for everyone, animal shelters always need more volunteers.

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We Bought A Zoo by Benjamin Mee

When Benjamin Mee, his wife, and their two kids set out to purchase and restore a zoo, life seemed like one big adventure. Sadly, Mee's wife succumbed to brain cancer while the zoo was still in a state of dilapidated disarray. It would've been easier to throw in the towel and move somewhere more manageable, but Mee and his children made a promise to help the 200 exotic animals now in their care. We Bought A Zoo is all about taking a leap of faith, even when the landing is entirely different than what you expected.

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Images: Matt Baume/flickr; Giphy