Alison Hawthorne Deming’s Zoologies

An essayist strikes a balance between human emotion and science.

How can we empathize with animals when we’re so busy emphasizing our differences? With warnings of environmental ruin stacking up against us, the personal connections that we forge with the natural world gain more importance by the day. Through a series of intimate vignettes, each focused on a particular animal, Alison Hawthorne Deming’s latest book Zoologies bridges the human-animal divide by asking, ‘What do animals mean to the human spirit?’ Audubon discusses that question with the author.


When you first started writing Zoologies, did you intend for it to be an argument for conservation?

My motivation came from a feeling that many people are experiencing, which is this astonishing sense of grief at the diminishment of animals in the world. I wanted to write a book that isn’t just about the science—I respect it deeply—but also about how animals have had great meaning in human life for a very long time. My hope is that the direction that I took with this book will spur a deeper engagement in readers.

Why do you think it’s important to look at these animals through so many different lenses: personal, cultural, historical, and scientific?

The title of my book is sort of a play on the word “zoology”—the scientific study of animals. There are perspectives other than science that allow for us to observe the world and try to draw some meaning and truth from it.

I think it’s interesting to hear what the other disciplines have to say. They might even make the science more appealing and palatable to those who aren’t involved in it. It’s a deep concern of mine: that we are not a very scientific nation when we really need to be.

How did you go about choosing the species that you featured in the book?

I’m an essayist, not a journalist. As an essayist you sort of want to test things in your own experience. So I made myself look for stories where I had an encounter with an animal or an animal stuck in my imagination in a way that made me deeply curious. I also sampled from instances where I had an opportunity to go out into the field with a scientist and observe the work that they’re doing. I kind of had a personal list of animals that interested me, but I was really looking for stories that felt like 21st-century tales with a take that would be surprising—not only the elephants, but also the ants; not only a forest in Oregon, but also a bar in Los Angeles.

Is there a reason why more birds made it into the book than any other animal?

I had to stop myself with the birds—I really could have done a lot on them. They’re these transcendent creatures and they appear to have such great freedom, plus they’re beautiful. Birds have been inspiring human imagination for so very long and they’re everywhere. It’s hard not to have bird experiences, no matter where you are.

Do you think that we need to find a balance between the emotional appeals that seem to get peoples’ attention and then the science that’s so crucial for taking action?

George Schaller, the great conservation biologist, once said something like, “The conservation message needs to reach the heart, not only the mind.” We’re really good at reaching the mind with science, but people also have feelings about what’s happening to animals. When I go around and give readings from this book, people aren’t asking me, “What’s the latest data on bird extinction?” They want to tell me a story about an animal they know, or the sadness they feel about the state of animals, or what they do to glean hope. There’s tremendous emotion involved; I think that’s the part that science isn’t really helping people handle.


Zoologies, by Alison Hawthorne Deming, Milkweed Editions, 254 pages, $18.00. Buy it here.