“King’s Animals’ Best Friends is the most comprehensive exploration I’ve read of the complex relationship between the human and nonhuman, full of great insights and practical information.”—Jeff VanderMeer, New York Times Book Review, “By the Book”
Finalist for the 2021 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature
As people come to understand more about animals’ inner lives—the intricacies of their thoughts and the emotions that are expressed every day by whales and cows, octopus and mice, even bees—we feel a growing compassion, a desire to better their lives. But how do we translate this compassion into helping other creatures, both those that are and are not our pets? Bringing together the latest science with heartfelt storytelling, Animals’ Best Friends reveals the opportunities we have in everyday life to help animals in our homes, in the wild, in zoos, and in science labs, as well as those considered to be food.
Barbara J. King, an expert on animal cognition and emotion, guides us on a journey both animal and deeply human. We meet cows living relaxed lives in an animal sanctuary—and cows with plastic portals in their sides at a university research station. We observe bison free-roaming at Yellowstone National Park and chimpanzees confined to zoos. We learn with King how to negotiate vegetarian preferences in omnivore restaurants. We experience the touch of a giant Pacific octopus tasting King’s skin with one of his long, neuron-rich arms. We reflect on animal testing as King shares her own experience as the survivor of a particularly nasty cancer. And in a moment all too familiar to many of us, we recover from a close encounter with two spiders in the home.
This is a book not of shaming and limitation, but of uplift and expansion. Throughout this journey, King makes no claims of personal perfection. Though an animal expert, she is just like the rest of us: on a journey still, learning each day how to be better, and do better, for animals. But as Animals’ Best Friends makes clear, challenging choices can bring deep rewards. By turning compassion into action on behalf of animals, we not only improve animals’ lives—we also immeasurably enrich our own.
About the Author
After twenty-eight years of teaching anthropology at the College of William and Mary, Barbara J. King retired early to become a science writer and public speaker. King’s work has been featured at Scientific American, Aeon, Undark, SAPIENS, NPR, the BBC, Times Literary Supplement, the World Science Festival, and the annual TED conference in Vancouver. Her TED talk on animal love and grief is available online at https://www.ted.com/speakers/barbara_j_king. She lives in Wicomico, VA.
"King’s Animals’ Best Friends is the most comprehensive exploration I’ve read of the complex relationship between the human and nonhuman, full of great insights and practical information."
— Jeff VanderMeer
"King has focused much of her esteemed career on the 'inner lives' of intelligent animals like primates, octopuses, squid, pigs, and dolphins, arguing that humanity should consider how best to communicate and accommodate these species' lives without anthropomorphization or exploitation."
— Mark Bittman
"[An] enormous pleasure. . . . King's book takes up the question of how and why to engage in compassionate actions that help animals, whether by eliminating or reducing harms inflicted by humans or by shaping our own behaviors in ways that allow animals to live their own lives on their own terms."
— Jessica Pierce
"An inspiring manifesto for how caring humans can become truly humane by choosing to live more compassionately with all animals. . . . Captivating. . . . King is a clear-eyed advocate of animal welfare, a philosophical position that she presents consistently and effectively. But perhaps King’s greatest achievement is her quiet optimism that we can change how we interact with animals and make things better for them—and improve our own lives along the way."
"King believes that people learn best from stories, and she tells them well. . . . We come away with a cumulative sense of having accompanied her on a Bildungsroman—a journey of psychological and moral growth. . . . She offers a variety of suggestions in keeping with her credo that it’s fine to start small—you could, for instance, cultivate plants that attract and support pollinators, adopt a few rescue rats that are retiring from a research lab (or donate blankets for the ones someone else is adopting), donate money to an animal sanctuary, help curb the population of feral cats by getting involved in a local 'trap, neuter, and release' program, or visit your local zoo regularly and contact management when you notice areas where improvements might be needed. Bearing witness, King says, is the least we can do to honor the animals who suffer as a result of human actions."
— Flora Taylor
"An uplifting new book."
— John R. Platt
"King never disappoints. . . . Animals' Best Friends was just what I hoped it would be: a thoughtful, generous hearted statement of King’s case for compassionate action. . . . She doesn’t demonize those of us who fall short of perfection—indeed, she places herself in that same category. Instead, she lays out the realities of animals’ cognition and emotional depth along with the ways people betray them, champion them, and struggle toward betterment. . . . King states facts, folds in personal experiences, deplores especially bad inhumanity, extols people who succeed or mightily strive to rescue animals, and suggests ways in which ordinary people can move toward more compassionate action in our ordinary lives. . . . Highly recommended."
— Marian Allen
"There are many reasons that I love this book but mostly because Barbara delves into and shares how we can be better humans to all other animals on this planet. Her work helps us better understand and advocate for the rights of animals. The more that humans know about animals’ intelligence and emotional lives, the harder it becomes to harm them. Barbara is a storyteller and through the stories of individual animals as well as her own personal accounts, she makes us care."
— Species Unite Podcast
"An expert on animal cognition and emotion reveals the reasons and opportunities we have in everyday life to help animals in our homes, zoos, science labs and farms."
"Sharing her personal experiences and her extensive research, King shows how people can treat animals with sensitivity, from not killing spiders in the home to avoiding eating Chinook salmon, a preferred food of orca whales. She explores the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity for human enjoyment as well as killing them for population control, offering alternatives. Notably, she relates how animals are treated in the food supply chain and the lack of transparency on how animals are used in research labs. Throughout, King points out small actions that can help, such as reducing meat consumption, and acknowledges her own shortcomings in her quest for compassionate action. . . . This interesting work is often troubling to read, yet it’s important in showing how people can compassionately care for the animals that share out planet. It will especially appeal to animal rights activists and readers who enjoyed Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel."
— Library Journal
"Like great athletes, some scholars can notch a hat trick, and King scores with her latest book, Animals’ Best Friends, which closely follows How Animals Grieve and Personalities on the Plate. This trilogy, complementing the many other books written by biological anthropologist King, offers a true understanding of animal lives, intelligence, feelings, and ethics. Readers with interests in animals of the natural world and in captivity will find this easy-to-read hybrid book, part scientific study and autobiography, engaging and rewarding. Self-discovery happens in remarkable writing about the natural world, and that’s the case here, where at times clinical observations are supplemented with lyricism. This book offers a fascinating glimpse into the intellectual and emotional lives of insects, mammals, sea creatures, and even humans. At times emotional, always insightful, Animals’ Best Friends is a provocative call for compassionate action in animal rights. . . . A potent and valuable piece of advocacy for animals."
"King’s eloquently told stories all lead to the same conclusion: We cannot simply turn away."
— Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly
"In this engaging and well-organized book, science writer King explores the complex and multifaceted relationship between human and non-human animals. . . . Explaining how each of us can nurture compassion and empathy toward the other animals we share the planet with, the author has crafted a valuable and necessary guide to compassion toward nonhuman animals. I recommend this volume."
— Maddalena Bearzi
"This latest book by King is as timely as it is informative. Although neither drawn to animals as pets nor a vegetarian, this reader found that King approaches her topic—considering animals as pets, in the wild, in zoos, on people's plates, and in research labs—in a way that speaks respectfully to all readers, regardless of how they may feel about nonhuman animals or vegetarianism. . . . This text clarifies that King's compassion for animals includes humans first and foremost. Though this position is pervasive throughout the book, it is most clearly evident in her restatement of 'reducetarian aims.' As a writer, King manages to maintain a degree of optimism, even when reporting on dire circumstances, leaving readers with a clear path to building compassionate action. This book offers much to think deeply about with regard to people's pervasive relationships with animals, which exist on many levels. King offers a path to deciding what readers might want to change about this kinship and how. Referencing throughout provides resources for further study and perspective on the research currently occurring in zoological and sociological circles. Highly recommended."
“Social learning—from each other—is well documented in orca culture and, yes, ‘culture’ is how behavioral science describes it. ‘These are cultural beings,’ says Barbara J King, professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William & Mary, Virginia, and author of Animals’ Best Friends. ‘The networks of individuals in orca societies, which are led by females, are highly attuned to each other’s behaviour, so traditions evolve over time that become, in some cases, cross-generational.’ But how about revenge, as many of the memes suggest? . . . King is frustrated that our response has been typified by the silliness of social media posts. ‘If people truly believe that this is about orcas responding to human harms, then why isn’t the response not just this jokey “orca uprising”?’ she asks. ‘Why isn’t this the moment that people say: “Whatever the orcas are doing, I recognise anthropogenic harms. This is an opportunity for me: I’m going to stop eating their prey; I’m going to support ocean restoration; I’m going to support the idea of marine sanctuaries for captive orcas”?’”
— The Guardian
“A stunning and deeply beautiful accomplishment. Required reading for anyone who wants to better understand the complexities and contradictions of our interactions with animals. And for anyone who wants to have a deeper and more useful relationship with the natural world. I learned a lot reading it. An instant classic.”
— Jeff VanderMeer, author of the New York Times–bestselling Southern Reach Trilogy
“Even as we struggle to be compassionate, it’s difficult to live in the world without hurting animals. What’s an animal lover to do? This question is at the heart of this important book by King, whose writing, thinking, and teaching about the minds and feelings of animals, and our responsibilities to them, is justly celebrated. Happily, there are many ways to help, from the kitchen to the ballot box. And helping animals is not all-or-nothing. Crucially, King points out ways we can help with great compassion not only for the animals, but also for the people making sometimes difficult choices. Animals’ Best Friends will be a guiding light not only to philosophers and ethicists, but also to caring people everywhere who hope to bring the power of human empathy to the choices we make that affect animals’ lives.”
— Sy Montgomery, author of "The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness"
“Our relation with animals is fraught with conflicting emotions. We like to eat some, seek to eradicate others, yet adore and spoil our pets like family members. King describes her own moral dilemmas and the personal solutions she has found, always with love and respect shining through. This book will help its readers articulate their own attitudes.”
— Frans de Waal, author of "Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves"
“If I were asked for one word that measures human progress through the ages, the present, and into the future, that word would be: ‘Compassion.’ King is a writer of deep thought and wide knowledge, and she brings it all together here for what is perhaps her most forcefully reasoned, compellingly presented, and important work; not just for animals—though that alone would be a great achievement—but for letting all of us consider what it means to be human beings now, and whether becoming humane beings would be the greatest advance in human history.”
— Carl Safina, author of "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel" and "Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace"
“Animals’ Best Friends is a wonderful book: beautifully written, deeply moving, and fascinating throughout. The stories and research that King tells about the wonders of animal life enable the reader to share in her own enduring sense of hope: Not just for animals in captivity and in the wild, but through and with them, for our own species as well.”
— Stuart Shanker, author "Reframed: Self-Reg for a Just Society" and "Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life"
“Unlike so many other books pleading animal protection or demanding the forfeiture of fundamental aspects of the human experience, Animals’ Best Friends calmly, perceptively, and effectively offers us much to think with, and a few key areas to act on. With unreserved compassion, King walks us through examples of how we do, can, and might otherwise engage with the myriad of amazing creatures that are entangled in the human way of being. The end product is one of possibilities and hope. King is simply asking us to consider how we can and should be better friends to all the other species we share the world with. . . . In an engaging narrative that is simultaneously enlightening, horrifying, and compassionate, King asks us truthfully to see how we treat other species and to at least consider doing better. . . . King invites us to consider friendship a little more deeply. Along the way we meet many other animals, sharing their pain and suffering, their joy and enthusiasm, and end at a place where we desire to make a difference.”
— Agustín Fuentes, author of "Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being" and "The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional"
“King’s writing is honest and candid. I love being swept up in her thoughtful stories and seeing animals and culture through her points of view. She continues to produce essential and enthralling books about our relationship with animals. I highly recommend all of her books.”
— Jo-Anne McArthur, author and photographer of "We Animals" and "Captive," coeditor of "Hidden: Animals in the Anthropocene"
“With a contagious and visceral sense of wonder and inviting prose, King writes of how we can turn compassion into action for animals who share our air, water, and land. King compels us to consider how our everyday choices matter to the seen and unseen animals who are vulnerable to our exploits and inertia. Continually mindful of animals’ lived experiences, King reveals how we can be the friends that animals need to thrive as individuals and in their families and communities.
— Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, author of "Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives," president and CEO, Phoenix Zones Initiative
“Animals’ Best Friends is a beautiful, inspiring call to create a world that isn’t just possible, but at our fingertips.”
— Brandon Keim, author of "The Eye of the Sandpiper"
“In Animals’ Best Friends, King takes the reader on an intimate and honest journey into our world with other animals. Through her personal quest to examine the complex relationships we have with other animals—from those animals who share our homes to those who live and die for our needs and wants—K ing asks of herself, and the reader, to find ways to cultivate greater compassionate actions toward animals. In sharing her own experiences with cats, cows, spiders, and chimps, King candidly confronts the complexity of emotions that drive the ways in which we live with, think about, and treat animals. Without passing judgment, King helps the reader to explore one’s own thinking and relationship to animals—companion, farmed, captive, and free-living.”
— Liv Baker, executive director of the Institute for Compassionate Conservation
“As an anthropologist attuned to human-animal relationships, King in her prior books illuminated the individuality and personalities of animals. In Animals’ Best Friends, King explores how we humans may use compassion to help animals at home, on the farm, in the lab, and in the wild. Each venture on her path features experiences with cats, bears, bison, orcas, spiders, and other creatures. These moments are the point of departure for reflections on what it means to turn empathy and knowledge into ‘compassionate action’ for other beings. Animals’ Best Friends is a personal journey into the lived, moral intuitions of a scientist who cares passionately and writes compellingly about the place of animals in our hearts, minds, and world.”
— William S. Lynn, George Perkins Marsh Institute, Clark University