Animal Book Club: ALDF Interview with Dog Lover Susan Orlean

Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on April 1, 2013

The deadline to enter to Animal Book Club contest is March 22, 2013 at 5 P.M. PST. To enter the contest, simply leave a comment here and join the mailing list—three lucky winners will be chosen at random to receive a free copy* of Susan Orlean’s best-seller Rin Tin Tin.

What led you to write about Rin Tin Tin?

Rin Tin TinI’ve always loved dogs, and I’d been in love with Rin Tin Tin since I was a little kid, although I hadn’t thought about him for decades. A few years ago, I happened across his name while working on a story, and I was immediately flooded with the memory of how much I had pined for him in my childhood. When I came across a few facts about his life—his real life, that is—I knew immediately that I wanted to write a story about this iconic figure. He embodied so many qualities that moved me: history, nostalgia, heroism, and, of course, the story of what animals mean to us as individuals and as a society.

How did Rin Tin Tin influence a dramatic change in the way people related to companion animals?

He elevated our perception of dogs in a very significant way. In the 1920s, when he dominated the box office in silent films, he represented a new way of looking at dogs. Rather than just being work animals, serving on farms and ranches, dogs seemed ennobled. Not only were dogs on par with people, in many cases they seemed purer and more virtuous than people. Rin Tin Tin’s performances awed the public and made people appreciate how intelligent dogs are. It was a significant change in our relationship to companion animals, and it continued with Rin Tin Tin’s subsequent roles as an Army mascot in WWII and in the 1950s and 1960s, when he played a courageous, incorruptible, loyal companion on TV in “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin”.

What’s important to note is that he was never anthropomorphized. He was heroic and intelligent and loyal but always thoroughly a dog and not some humanized creature.

Why was Rin Tin Tin such a hero to the American people?

He was an especially American hero because he embodied what Americans believe themselves to be. He was always portrayed as independent and self-sufficient, as well as brave and strong and smart. That quality of independence is what I think thrilled people the most, and made him so beloved in this country.

Tell us a little about the animals you live with and what you’ve learned from them.

Right now, I have one dog (a Welsh springer spaniel); three cats (all rescues or strays, of various provenance); four turkeys; two ducks; two geese; and one rooster. Until recently, I had eight lovely hens, but a raccoon broke into my coop and, unfortunately, killed them along with my four guinea fowl. Animals are great teachers of patience and a kind of Zen logic. They inhabit the present in a perfect way, and for a worrier like me, they present a very compelling alternative way of being, namely in the here-and-now, dealing with the specific and simple issues of life. They don’t hold grudges. They don’t have complicated agendas. And they have the blissful ignorance of mortality, which we humans can’t possibly have, but we can at least aspire to that—we can learn to better appreciate the delicious morsel, the warm pat on the head, the chance to nap in a sunny spot, and come to understand the way a moment can be perfect in itself. That’s the best lesson anyone can learn.