Beastly: The 40,000-Year Story of Animals and Us by Keggie CarewBeastly: The 40,000-Year Story of Animals and Us by Keggie Carew

Beastly: The 40,000-Year Story of Animals and Us by Keggie CarewIn Beastly: The 40,000-Year Story of Animals and Us, Keggie Carew takes us on an always passionate, sometimes meandering, often fascinating, sometimes disorienting, often depressing, occasionally encouraging tour of humanity’s lengthy and often abusive relationship with the animals we share this world with. Like many such works, it makes for some difficult reading, but it’s often the things we find difficult that are the most important to face.

The book is divided into ten sections, but the best way to think of it is as a series of mini-essays, some more cohesive and focused than others, some leading more clearly into others, some more digressive than others. I have to admit on a big-picture, structural level, particularly early on I struggled with what seemed the random nature of some of the shifts within or between essays. So much so that I actually wondered more than once if my Kindle version had somehow screwed up the book’s formatting. In the end, I don’t think that was the case, but I’m not going to claim 100 percent confidence in that conclusion. So that was the frustrating part—the macrocosmic level of the book, though as noted it improved as I passed the halfway point.

On a micro-cosmic level, considering the essays by themselves, or the vignettes within the essays themselves, or even on a sentence-level, the book fared much better. As noted, Carew’s passion comes out vibrantly and clearly throughout, sometimes more so in a few of the passages, but that passion never distracted or detracted from the writing and honestly, I feel much better about someone writing emotionally about our destruction of the environment and mass slaughter of animals rather than reading about these things via a dispassionate, removed eye. If you can’t get enraged and moved to tears by what is happening, I’d argue you’re not paying attention to what is happening.

But of course Carew brings much than passion to this work. The book is filled with fascinating (and again, depressing) facts and wonderfully vivid stories about human-animal interactions — sometimes charming and sometimes horrifying. There’s St. Thomas Aquinas, “another disaster for the animal world,” who wrote that “Everything that moves and lives shall be meat to you.” Or René Descartes, who made animals into soulless clockwork automatons, allowing his followers to “nail live dogs to the dissection tables and hear their howls as the screeching of gears.” The push-me-pull-me attitude toward the well known naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who contributed so much to the idea of nature/the environment as “a dynamic living organism” world but who also, like most 18th and 19th century naturalists, used a gun as much as a magnifying glass or spotting scope as a “tool,” so that his encounters with animals he wondered at “invariably concluded with a bullet and the collection bag.” There are the horrors of the behavioralists and their conditioning and Skinner boxes. The illusion of “conservation trophy hunting.” And of course the litany of factory/corporate/government despoilation and slaughter, such as industrial farming of hogs or chickens. Even Hermann Göering makes an appearance, looking like “a colossal pantomime Robin Hood.”

Keggie Carew

Keggie Carew

Against these are balanced more positive stories. The ecologist/zoologist Simona Kossak, who lives in a hunting lodge in Poland with a raven named Korasex and a boar called Zabka. Or Konrad Lorenz, an Australian zoologist who showed how geese and ducks will imprint even on a human in a particular window of time after hatching (you’ve probably seen photos). Or Karl von Frisch, An Austrian who discovered the honeybee waggle dance. There’s Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

And of course the animals themselves. Some driven to extinction like the Moa and the Steller’s sea cow, some on the brink, like the big cats or elephants or rhinos, and, in some of the few uplifting incidents, some that have rebounded back from the edge of disappearing, if nowhere near their numbers from decades ago, like the wolves or cranes. Carew relates all these stories clearly and vividly. It’s impossible not to feel the wonder of the whale that, after a crew cut her free of being entangled in a net, breached 40 times in seeming joy at her return to freedom. Nor does Carew focus merely on the awesome (in the literal sense of the world) creatures like whale,s or the charismatic ones like dolphins. She is equally forceful when discussing the horrible wreckage we’ve wreaked amongst insects and mollusks. Because after all, as she comes back to time and time and time again, it’s all connected. And by “all”, that includes us as well. We’re not just killing “them”; we’re killing ourselves as well. And that harm extends to the psychological/emotional aspects of ourselves, in what has been described for some years now as “solastalgia”—the “type of homesickness you can feel when you are still a home … a kind of existential melancholy for something lost, a forest, or a favourite path, a nightingale thicket or a badger sett.” It’s what Carew calls “the disease of the Anthropocene.” Somewhat related is “eco-furiosity”, an eco-tear-your-hair-out solastalgia on steroids … the long loud desperate cry of the human heart.”

As depressing as much of the book is (this is not a complaint or a discouragement as any accurate description of our impact can be nothing else), Carew does close with some optimism. As well as a push for recent moves to declare ecocide a crime against humanity, similar to a war crime. What we don’t need, she argues, is more data. We know what we are doing. We know what the impact will be. Now is the time to start stopping what we do. If you aren’t sure why that is, or just how urgent the need is, Beastly will go a long way to making it more clearly understood.

Published in July 2023. From an award-winning nature writer, true stories of our shared planet, all its inhabitants, and the fascinating ways they connect in the net of life. Animals have shaped our minds, our lives, our land, and our civilization. Humanity would not have gotten very far without them—making use of their labor for transportation, agriculture, and pollination; their protection from predators; and their bodies for food and to make clothing, music, and art. And over the last two centuries, humans have made unprecedented advances in science, technology, behavior, and beliefs. Yet how is it that we continue to destroy the animal world and lump its magnificence under the sterile concept of biodiversity? In Beastly, author Keggie Carew seeks to re-enchant readers with the wild world, reframing our understanding of what it is like to be an animal and what our role is as humans. She throws readers headlong into the mind-blowing, heart-thumping, glittering pageant of life, and goes in search of our most revealing encounters with the animal world throughout the centuries. How did we domesticate animals and why did we choose sheep, goats, cows, pigs, horses, and chickens? What does it mean when a gorilla tells a joke or a fish thinks? Why does a wren sing? Beastly is a gorgeously written, deeply researched, and intensely felt journey into the splendor and genius of animals and the long, complicated story of our interactions with them as humans.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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