Jenny Diski is not an animal expert. Yet in her book What I Don’t Know About Animals, Diski shows us the myriad ways in which animals are omnipresent in our culture—even for those of us who aren’t biologists, zookeepers, or lifelong pet-owners.
The book, which the The Guardian has called “a wonderful and necessary read,” is a personal reflection on a lifetime of noticing animals—from Grey Cat, with whom Diski lived as a foster child, to the pigeons of Trafalgar Square and the lambs, horses, and elephants she visited while researching this project. Incorporating modern science, century-old philosophy, and even the television show Meerkat Manor into her discussion, Diski explores the breadth of the human/animal relationship in a “disarmingly engaging conversational tone.”
Diski’s narrative is remarkable too for its genuine honesty with respect to her own animal instincts: in a discussion of vegetarianism, the author admits, with some humor, that, “I’ve never felt any shiver of disgust at the idea of cannibalizing, say, an already dead fellow shipwreckee, as a rational solution to starvation.” She describes the kosher delis of her childhood and the lambs with which she spent several weeks before they became someone’s lunch, tracing, with believable sincerity, her dual desires to understand the suffering of animals and continue to eat meat.
Even as she expands her knowledge of the animal kingdom, Diski’s title remains apt, for she is struck again and again by the limits of human understanding. Scientific research, she notes, tends to be interpreted in human terms, shaped by our cultural assumptions and our desire to see ourselves—or avoid seeing ourselves—in our animal kindred. The final scene of the book portrays an encounter between Diski and her housecat Bunty, whose inscrutable expression of “catness” is the source of Diski’s never-ending wonder.
Bunty gets another mention in the acknowledgements of the book and makes an appearance in the author picture, one final nod to what makes Diski’s project truly extraordinary. For all her research, What I Don’t Know About Animals is truly a story of love: for Bunty, for her fellow animals, and for the humans who hope to understand them.