Henricus Peters reviews Animals Make us Human by Leah Kaminsky & Meg Keneally

Do you know what Sir David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, the Dalai Lama and Beyoncé all have in common? (The answer is at the end of this review!) 

This delightful and important book was born out of devastating circumstances. First the Australian bushfires of 2019–20, as the country’s unique creatures are re-examined, their very real vulnerability highlighted. Then, more authors and artists joined a growing list of contributors as the pandemic took hold and we began to realise the vital importance of nature all around us – as sources of not just wildlife spotting, but also therapeutic connections – especially in our very backyards!  

In Animals Make Us Human, through words and images, many of Australia’s favourite writers and photographers share their personal moments of wonder and revelation from encounters in the natural world: seeing a wild platypus at play, an echidna dawdling across a bush track, or the inexplicable leap of a thresher shark; watching bats take flight at dusk, or birds making a home in the backyard; or following possums, gliders and owls into the dark. 

A case in point is the write up by Jen Martin to search for the unique ‘toadlet’ named after her father – her then-5 year old son describing the adventure as “the best thing I’ve ever done”. They found the toadlet, but only one of them, in the pitch dark, and only from its call! 

Hopeful, uplifting and deeply moving, this collection is also an urgent call to action; a powerful reminder that we only have one world in which to co-exist and thrive with our fellow creatures. What’s perhaps unusual here is the length: the chapters are really short ‘vignettes’. Not taking any short cuts, they are vivid and emotional in their wonderful storytelling. 

By highlighting the beauty and fragility of our unique fauna, Animals Make Us Human encourages readers to consider our fauna in a new light. As to the book’s title – and I’m sure titles are hard to get right at the best of times – my suggestion might be ‘Animals Make Us Better Humans’, as in the act of helping or connecting with these creatures brings out good aspects of human qualities. Regardless, this book is both enthralling and entertaining; all the time we learn about not just the animal in question, but also something about the writers. 

The volume is a fundraiser for our wildlife, from land, sea and sky with proceeds going to the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Finally, the answer to the question is… David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, the Dalai Lama and Beyoncé all have animal species named after them. 

Kaminsky, L. & Keneally, M. (2020).Animals Make Us Human. Penguin Life. ISBN: 9781760899813. Paperback, 256 pages.  megkeneally.com/book/animals-make-us-human

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