A Chat with Jennifer S. Holland

Animal Culture is a place for animals, and the people who dedicate their time to these creatures’ welfare. These animal-loving humans are the ones who make a difference, and the ones who need to be recognized.

Today marks the first installment of “Animal Talks”, a monthly series (occurring the first Tuesday of every month) of interviews with people in the animal community. These are the people who fight for the rights and education of animals, and “Animal Talks” documents their personal work, beliefs, and thoughts.

So, without further ado, Animal Culture is greatly honored to introduce author Jennifer S. Holland as our first “Animal Talks” guest!

Jennifer’s passion for writing, animals, and the natural world is evident at the first glance of her highly successful resume. With a Master’s in Conservation Biology, and a Bachelor’s in English, Jennifer has worked with a vast number of affluent organizations, including the Journal of NIH Research, NPR, and National Geographic – where she was a senior writer for 11 years and currently is a contributing writer – just to name a few.

Recently however, she decided to take an adventure of her own, and investigate the world of animal bonds. Publishing two books, Unlikely Friendships and Unlikely LovesJennifer explored and revealed the unique, and often unexplained, affection between animals of different species. Imagine a friendship between an elephant and a sheep, or the love of a leopard for a dog. These inter-species relationships are often looked at as phenomenons, but Jennifer dove head (and heart!) first into the emotional lives of animals, and shared her experiences and revelations with the world.

Today we talk with Jennifer S. Holland about her research, life, and love for animals and writing.

Animal Culture: What was one moment in your life that inspired you to be a writer?

Jennifer Holland: I can’t really think of singular moments or events that pushed me in this direction. I was really a writer from the start. It was something I loved doing as a kid—I wrote a lot of short stories and (really bad) poetry and my family was very encouraging. I found early on that I was good at writing, while I struggled with subjects like math and history. I was also a big reader, so I suspect whatever I read as a young person was subtly helping me find my career path. In fact, I think I really wanted to write fiction. It wasn’t until later that I realized I could bring my passion for animals (also from way back) together with writing and actually make a living. Nonfiction then made sense based on my talents and interests.

AC: How did you come up with the concept of your books to write about animal friendships and loves?

JH: I was extremely lucky because while I was on staff at National Geographic, an editor from Workman Publishing in New York contacted me wanting to know if I’d be interested in writing a book. She had been reading my work in the magazine and thought I’d be the right voice for a fun animal book. The concept was something that we agreed on quickly—it was the perfect time to write a book on animal relationships because it was something people had gotten very excited about. The Web was flush with cute animals…it just made sense to do a real reporting job and find out the truth behind the stories. That’s how I got started on Unlikely Friendships—looking into some of the adorable photos I’d seen online and digging deeper to see if there was anything to this phenomenon of cross-species pals. The second book was really a continuation of the first…there were lots more stories to tell!

AC: You write about animal friendships and love in your books, attributing human emotions to them (committing anthropomorphism), something scientists both in the past and now frown upon. However, any pet parent can see that their furry friend exhibits joy, boredom, sadness, etc. Do you personally believe that animals have inner emotions similar to humans, or do you think we humans want them to, hence assigning these emotions to animals?

JH: Happily, it is becoming less and less taboo to talk about animals using “human” terms because we are learning more and more about how much overlap exists between us. The more scientists look at animal brains and behavior, the more they see evidence of empathy and joy and kindness and mourning—once thought to be ours alone. Other mammals share the brain structures of emotion that we have, and there are a lot of good studies nowadays that give us a window onto animal thinking. Other animals may not have the exact same emotional experiences as we do, but many are capable of feeling the same kinds of things we feel. Plus, many animals are a lot smarter than we give them credit for! (I recommend the book Animal Wise by Virginia Morell to anyone interested in animal intelligence.)

I think for researchers doing animal behavior studies, however, it is still wise to keep the terminology more scientific. It’s hard not to “see” human emotion in animals but we do have to be careful not to make assumptions based on our own experiences and feelings. Words like “friendship” and “love” make some scientists uncomfortable, and I understand why. Research needs to be as unbiased as possible. Consider that in chimpanzees, a “smile” is really an aggressive expression. Dolphin “smiles” have nothing to do with how they feel, and in fact dolphins can be very nasty toward one another. What looks like kind sharing in some animals often has a less-than-altruistic reason behind it. So applying too much of our own human bias makes it hard to step back and see what’s really going on.

AC: Which animal pairing/trio were your favorites in both Unlikely Friendships and Unlikely Loves?

JH: It’s hard to pick favorites, but I was definitely delighted by the stories of dogs that befriended owls (mostly because the photos were so funny) and I loved hearing about cases in which a reptile was friendly with a mammal. The iguana and the cat in Friendships is a great example of that. You just don’t think of iguanas as being cuddly and sweet, and yet this one seemed perfectly content in a cat’s embrace.

I also loved the story of the dolphin and the sperm whales in Loves, because it happened in the wild (we don’t see that very often) and because it has such a great message. Here was a dolphin with a birth defect—a curved spine—that for some reason had shut it out of the dolphin pod. The whales took the animal in as one of their own. There was something special about that one—not only was it a cross-species friendship but one in which a “disability” was not an issue. Great message for kids (and the rest of us, too)!

AC: You were a senior writer, now a contributing writer, at National Geographic. What was one of your favorite assignments?

JH: I’ve had great opportunities to travel for Nat Geo—I feel very lucky about that. One of the best trips was to Papua New Guinea for a story on birds of paradise. It was a long trip—about 5 weeks—and a hard one. We did a lot of difficult hiking and camping in wet conditions in the Highlands of the country; we were uncomfortable a lot of the time, and only one in our group could communicate with any of the people we met. Yet, the whole experience was so incredible, in part because of those difficulties. The people were living such different lives from what we’re used to, and the landscape was amazing. I truly felt “foreign” there—in some places kids had never seen a white person and one toddler actually ran away from me screaming! It was fascinating to be in that position. Plus, of course, birds of paradise are incredible and I got to see seven or eight species in the wild, doing their natural mating behaviors. For me, that’s always one of the best parts of any trip—to actually get up close to animals I’ve never seen in person before.

AC: On your website, Cuttlefish Prose, you write in the “About” section that you have ‘loved animals since the womb’. Who was your first pet that you can remember?

JH: We had a golden retriever named Tasha when I was a baby—I remember little moments with her even though I was quite young. The next pet I recall was a little scared black cat named Misty, then a pair of tiger cats named April and Maggie (April lived to be nearly 20 years old). Those are my earliest pet memories, but we had many others in the years after that. (Not just cats!)

AC: Who is/are your greatest animal love(s)?

JH: Right now I’d have to say my dog Monk, a kai ken (a beautiful Japanese breed). He is such a love and a beauty, so soft and gentle, and I think he really likes me best in the family. (Our other dog, Waits, is definitely my husband’s dog.) I spend a lot of time with him lying at my feet or cuddling with me on the couch. When he’s not going wild and chewing up pillows, he’s the best.

AC: What is something you think people can do to help make our world better for both us and animals?

JH: I am always pleased to hear about people taking in animals that need homes, especially the ones that aren’t terribly pretty or charismatic or the ones that require special care. Kindness toward animals is good both for them and for us. In the bigger picture, it’s important to be aware of wildlife conservation issues and to do what you can to protect animals and their habitats around the world. That might mean actually giving some time or money to a good organization or simply paying attention to what you buy, looking for “sustainably harvested” wood, for example. Being an educated consumer really can make a difference.

AC: Every person needs someone to look up to. Who is your role model?

JH: I can think of a number of them, but my mom was certainly a main one—her love and gentleness toward animals really helped to shape how I feel about them and why I live such an animal-centric life. She also never stopped growing, never stopped looking for ways to improve herself and to give to others.

Animal Culture: Finally, describe your perfect day.

Jennifer Holland: It would be in early spring. Warm enough to have windows open and a breeze blowing through. I’d be at my little cabin in Virginia sitting on the porch with an iced coffee (or wine!) and a great book. Later we’d go for a hike with the dogs or a canoe trip with friends. We’d eat at a fantastic restaurant afterwards. Maybe we’d have a little bonfire outside before bed.

OR, I’d be traveling somewhere new with my husband or a friend, walking my legs off under sunny skies, seeing the sights, taking in the wildlife and landscapes. Better yet, I’d be swimming my legs off—scuba diving in a warm ocean filled with odd creatures that let me get remarkably close. After the dive, lying in the afternoon sun to dry off, relaxing to the rocking of the boat. Ahhh….

Showcasing her love for animals through her talent of writing, Jennifer S. Holland has changed the way we view our fellow creatures and their complex personalities and bonds. Animal Culture would like to thank Jennifer for her time and commitment to the animal community, and for inspiring all of us animal lovers and activists!

To learn more about Jennifer S. Holland, her work, and books, visit her website at Cuttlefish Prose.

*Note: This installment of “Animal Talks” is © Kalie Lyn, 2014 and © Jennifer S. Holland, 2014*


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