Orlean’s account of what happened to Keiko, the captive killer whale who starred in the low-budget children’s film “Free Willy,” serves as a fine example of the enduring appeal of these essays. This story begins with one of Orlean’s patented, opening-line hooks, so skillfully set that your attention is caught for however long she intends to hold onto you: “It was a hell of a time to be in Iceland, although by most accounts it is always a hell of a time to be in Iceland, where the wind never huffs or puffs but simply blows your house down.”
The unexpected success of “Free Willy” — the film cost $20 million to make but grossed $154 million — generated enormous interest in Keiko, the whale actor who had not been set free, as his fictional counterpart had. Orlean’s report of the drama includes an accounting of the public outcry, an attempt by Michael Jackson to buy Keiko for his personal ranch, a territorial dispute involving the custodial aquarium and the foundation raising money for the whale’s release, the challenges of transporting an adult killer whale by plane to the other side of the Pacific Ocean, a wealthy tech entrepreneur with an interest in promoting ocean health, and one beloved but bedraggled whale with a problematic preference for frozen fish.
Nominally, then, the point of the essay is to provide an update on efforts to free Keiko — but what it actually does is call us to consider the relationship between humans and the other animals who share the planet. “It wasn’t his fault that he was captured to begin with and stuck in a lousy tub in Mexico,” Orlean points out. “It also wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know how to do whale things like blowing a bubble net to trap herring, and it wasn’t his fault that he’d been torn from the bosom of his family at such a young age that now he was a little afraid of wild whales, and that they, in turn, viewed him as a bit of a freak.” It wasn’t Keiko’s fault. It was our fault.
It is impossible to undo the harm that was done to Keiko, no matter how much money was raised to prepare him for the wild. Without in any way writing a polemic, Orlean makes it clear that what we do to animals has ever-extending consequences.
It’s no surprise that a writer whose mind throws out similes like favors from a Mardi Gras parade is a writer who sees crucial connections between animals and people. This emphasis on interconnectedness emerges not just from one essay after another but also from the cumulative effect of the collection as a whole. Even more than the linguistic pyrotechnics, the friendly wit or the mesmerizing storytelling, that’s the true gift of “On Animals.”
For though Orlean does not overtly wade into the thorn field of animal-rights debates, and though many of these essays predate a widespread public recognition of the escalating dangers of climate change and diminishing global biodiversity, what she understands about the human-animal relationship is fundamental to addressing both of those calamities: the fact that we belong to one another. Indeed, there is no human-animal relationship, for we are all animals, and what happens to the least among us on this crowded planet happens to us all.