What I Don't Know About Animals, By Jenny Diski

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The Independent Culture

Diski's intriguing, highly personal peregrination around the animal world begins with creatures encountered in her childhood, ranging from the "manky old brown bear" in a London furniture shop (it was stuffed) to The Wind in the Willows, which prompts the insight: "It's very hard to see an actual toad and think of Graham's creation, while the human world is full of rich boors who… fit the bill perfectly."

The human view of animals and vice versa lies at the heart of this richly stocked volume. Diski explores the man-creature bond in a variety of milieux including TV, farm, safari and laboratory. "Oh, I chatter to them all the time," admits a bacteria-growing scientist. "I've been known to give them a good talking to, to buck them up."

Novelists and philosophers chip in. Jacques Derrida's naked encounter with a cat prompted his contemplation of "the property unique to animals… their being naked without knowing it". I might point out that the great savant's feline was not that unusual in taking an interest in "his vulnerable testicles". When clambering out of the bath, I was once startled by my cat raising an investigative paw (thankfully with claws retracted).

The Tenniel drawing on the cover of Alice's encounter with the Cheshire cat may lead animal lovers to presume that a cosy narrative lies inside. This is not so. Diski, who describes the Cheshire cat as "somewhat terrifying", moves from the strokable and lovable to her now-cured arachnophobia and her two years of "continuing hell" due to "delusional parasitosis" triggered by a boyfriend's admission that he had pubic crabs.

The book's strange title arises from a discussion of animal rights. Reporting that "many people… accept that animals are their moral equals", Diski shrugs, "I couldn't get there", though she admits that the sight of a dog vomiting in a Valencia street prompted her to feel "an awful sense of pity, of doom even". This curious, deep book about our profoundly ambiguous engagement with the other animals on this planet provides much food for thought.