Catch Up with Author Jennifer Holland

The author discusses the inspiration behind her book Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom.

What was your inspiration behind the book?
We are steeped in bad news these days, from wars to failing economies to natural and man-made disasters. We all need a reprieve now and then, a diversion, a reason to feel good. These kinds of animal stories are so popular probably because they serve that need so well. It just made sense to collect a bunch of them into a book; if one story makes you smile, imagine what 47 can do.

Also, for my day job at National Geographic I write about animal behavior, conservation, wildlife, etc., and have to be careful to be appropriately scientific and objective. This was a chance for me to write about animals not just from the head but from the heart.

What is your definition of friendship?  
I think of friendship as one creature boosting the other simply by being there. It’s about offering up something of oneself without the expectation of anything in return. It may involve companionship, but it goes deeper than simply pairing up. It fulfills an emotional need — even if that need isn’t spoken or understood.

Out of all the stories in the book, can you pick one or two that are your favorite?
Tough call! Each one has something special about it. But I was particularly intrigued by the iguana and cat friendship. Iguanas are not typically cuddly creatures, especially once they mature. And yet, here was one willing to have a cat lick his face and play with his tail. Bizarre. I also love the stories in which a seeing animal guides a blind one — there are several examples including the “Bob-tailed Dog and the Bob-tailed Cat.” Finally, there’s something wonderful about the tale of the mare and the fawn. Here was a horse beloved by its owners in part because their daughter, who died young, had loved it as a child. Then, that same horse stepped in to save a fawn from coyotes — a kindness the almost seemed to the parents like a message from their lost daughter. It was very touching to talk to the family about the experience.

Tell us about your pets.
I own two dogs, a funny little Shiba Inu and a wolf-like Korean Jindo. The Jindo was a rescue dog that was in very rough shape when we adopted him. He is emotionally scarred from his past, but he has turned into the most wonderful pet you can imagine. We also have fish, captive-bred geckos and captive-bred snakes. It’s quite a zoo.

Have any “unlikely” friendships formed between your pets?
I’ve witnessed some nice relationships between cats and dogs — in fact, my Shiba Inu used to protect my cat (now deceased) from the Jindo (a reputed cat chaser). But the funniest example involves a chameleon named Hank I had a number of years ago. He escaped from his tank and was presumed dead 24 hours later. But then I noticed Tai, the Shiba Inu, walking around with her mouth partly open. I went up to her and put my hand out and she gently spit Hank into my hand. He was alive, only because the saliva and warmth from the dog’s mouth had kept him that way. He lived another year after that. Why Tai didn’t bite down was beyond me…she’ll happily chew on a stinkbug, a vole or even a bumblebee. I wouldn’t exactly call it a friendship, but certainly it was an unusual interspecies interaction with a happy ending.

What was the most rewarding part about writing the book?
I’ve loved the reaction from everyone to these stories, and I was so happy about the amazing response I got when I put out the word that I was collecting them. My inbox was overflowing. At one point, I was researching over 80 stories, with others still waiting in the wings.

What was the most difficult part about writing the book?
The same as above. It was logistically difficult to keep track of all the stories I was pursuing, and I couldn’t help but keep adding to the list whenever I came across a new one. It was very important to me that I track down the original tellers of the tales — the owners, zookeepers or whoever witnessed the friendship firsthand — and report each story myself. Finding those people wasn’t always easy, and having so many stories at different stages of reporting was overwhelming at times. My computer eventually crashed from the giant Excel file I was trying to manage.

What is one lesson you’ve learned from an animal?
Just be. I can’t say I always apply the lesson, but sometimes I look at one of my dogs lounging in the sun, completely relaxed, and I want to just clear my mind of all my worries and let the warmth soak into my bones, too. We’re always so concerned about what we should be doing instead of enjoying what’s happening right then and there — which may be not much. And that’s OK.

Are you planning on writing more books?
I expect so. I think writing a book may be like giving birth: you forget the pain after it’s over and think, “What the heck, let’s do it again!” I have some other ideas for story collections, and eventually, I’d like to take on a biological subject like co-evolution or mutualism for a general audience.

If you could tell your readers one thing, what would it be?
I would say: Keep your eyes out for those surprising moments that can make you laugh or make you think. And be good to your friends — you need each other more than you realize.

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Cats · Lifestyle