Thanks to her mother’s DNA, Jennifer S. Holland has loved animals since the womb. When combined with her love of writing, she’s a force to be reckoned with. This is apparent through her book Unlikely Friendships, the phenomenal New York Times bestseller. Unlikely Friendships documents one heartwarming tale after another of animals who, with nothing else in common, bond in the most unexpected ways. In her follow-up book, Unlikely Loves, Jennifer explores animal attachments that, in human terms, can only be called love.
To celebrate the publication of her newest book, Unlikely Heroes, Jennifer is our #ReadWomen2014 author for October! Unlikely Heroes uncovers and celebrates yet another side of animals that we often think belongs primarily to people—heroism, that indefinable quality of going above and beyond, often for altruistic reasons, often at great personal risk.
Q: What is your definition of a hero pet? Where did you get the idea to write this book?
A: For me a hero animal can mean anything — I use the term broadly in this case. Although I don’t expect they know it, animals that put themselves at risk to help another animal or a person are heroic — like the Leonberger (a huge dog) in Unlikely Heroes who jumped into the river to help his owner who was being swept away. I also consider therapy animals heroic for their commitment to making people’s lives better. Even animals that serve a conservation effort, such as surrogate mom sea otters or dogs that protect cheetahs or other animals, are doing something heroic. Even if they’re trained to act in some of these cases, I give them credit — just as I would to a fire fighter who’s job it is to act valiantly.
Q: When you were researching this book, what was the most personally touching story of a hero pet you came across?
A: It’s hard not to be touched by stories of soldiers who get through their hardest days with an animal by their side. For example, in Unlikely Heroes there’s a man who bonded with a stray cat while he was on a military base overseas, and that cat’s affection kept him steady during tragedy. Often, dogs feature in that type of story. I am also touched by the animals that bring smiles to sick kids and elderly folks, like Rojo the llama. But I also want to mention Naki’o, the pup on the cover of the book, who survived a terrible ordeal but maintained a wonderful spirit and a sweet and gentle demeanor toward people. I love that dog for his heroic attitude.
Q: Who was the most surprising or shocking hero animal?
A: One of them would have to be Gimpy the elephant seal. This is an animal that isn’t typically seen as “kind” to humans — in the wild they are pretty ornery — you wouldn’t want to approach one. But this particular animal seemed to realize that the keeper was a friend and came to the man’s rescue when other seals were set to attack him. It’s really remarkable! I’m also amazed by the story of the parrot who put words together that he never had before in order to alert the babysitter that the little girl was choking.
Q: What organizations are doing work with working animals that train to be heroes?
A: There are a lot of them, and what they do is fantastic. You have organizations that train dogs (or in one case, rats!) to sniff out bombs and mines, others that sniff out drugs or find missing people. Even some that help track endangered species for conservation purposes. Then there are the animals trained to help people with disabilities, and to give back to returned veterans suffering the mental or physical effects of war. My mother-in-law volunteers with one of those, a non-profit called Hero Dogs, located in Maryland. She’s actually keeping one of the puppies right now that will eventually be placed with a war veteran who needs help. Another group, called Helping Hands, trains little monkeys to be assistants and companions for people with disabilities. Both the animals and the people training them in these cases are heroes to me.
Q: What are your favorite animal charities, and why?
A: I’ve always been a fan of the local groups that are really on the ground, pulling animals out of hoarding or abuse situations and caring for them until they can be placed in new homes. These non-profits are usually staffed by lots of volunteers (or low-paid employees); there isn’t any real money in the business and the workers have to do a lot with few resources. People do the work because they care, and they are tireless in their efforts on animals’ behalf. When I make donations I usually seek out those kinds of hands-on organizations. I’ve also donated to groups that go after a natural disaster and try to round up injured or abandoned animals and get them care of into love homes.
Q: Who are your favorite female authors?
A: I have a hard time picking favorites but I can think of authors I’ve read recently whom I’ve liked a lot. I must admit I rarely read books about animals because I’m steeped in that kind of thing for my work. Most recently I red a couple of books by Mary Karr that were so so beautifully written — in particular her memoir called Lit. I also love Mary Roach (Stiff, Gulp, and others) for her humor and great approach to scientific topics that you might otherwise not want to read about. Jeanette Walls (The Glass Castle) writes “can’t put it down” books. And Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote Seabiscuit and Unbroken, is an absolutely amazing storyteller. I think people who can turn an incident or a life into such compelling reading are really talented.