December 08, 2016


Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor (or, What Friends Feathered, Furred, and Scaled Have Taught Me about Life and Love). By Laurie Hess, D.V.M., with Samantha Rose. Da Capo. $24.99.

     You can never have enough James Herriots. Herriot – real name James Alfred Wight (1916-1995) – was the British veterinary surgeon whose fictional and real-world books about animals and their owners were published during a quarter-century starting in 1969. The American version of one book, made up of two British volumes, was called All Creatures Great and Small – a misquotation of Coleridge, whose The Rime of the Ancient Mariner refers to “all things both great and small.” This volume and its title have become something of a watchword, or catchphrase, for other books focusing on companion animals and their humans.

     To set themselves apart from animal caregivers who have written books already, authors such as Laurie Hess need an “angle” of some sort, and Hess’s is her type of veterinary practice: board-certified in avian medicine, she also treats all sorts of other animals beyond the traditional dog-and-cat realm. And it is the chance to read about those animals, their human companions, and their health needs – with all the triumph and tragedy that implies – that makes Unlikely Companions so attractive.

     Like the semi-autobiographical Herriot books, Unlikely Companions is in large part about its author, but her personal story does not intertwine quite as seamlessly with that of the animals as a reader might hope. One reason may be that Samantha Rose, who assisted with the book, is a TV writer who may be responsible for a somewhat more-breathless pace than is really necessary. For example, the book opens with a death, and it takes three pages of ominous prose before readers find out what sort of animal has died: a sugar glider. This opening mystery is scarcely necessary. But a good deal of the book is built around it, as other sugar gliders also die and Hess, in addition to caring for the ones that fall ill, tries to figure out what has happened to them. As a thread connecting what is otherwise an unfocused narrative, the sugar-glider story assumes outsize importance right through to its eventual solution, which stands as the book’s climax.

     But it is the small, encapsulated stories that are the most gripping elements here. There is, for example, the tale of the surgery on Daisy, “a five-foot-long and very pregnant iguana” with a condition called egg binding: she has numerous infertile eggs that she cannot expel. The details of the surgery – enough to make its difficulty clear, but not so many as to turn this into a veterinary-medicine textbook – are well presented, and Hess’s description of her concerns certainly comes through in what sounds like the authentic voice of a caring animal doctor: “To survive, Daisy needed a blood donor, and it’s not as though donor iguanas are out cruising the hallways of the animal hospital.” Another brief story – readers will be glad this one is not longer – is about “a sting operation” that “seized more than one hundred illegal reptiles, including rare species of tortoises and giant snakes,” from a warehouse that “smelled so bad from rotting flesh that we had to wear gas masks to retrieve the animals.”

     The animal tales are, inevitably, stories about humans as well, but few of the human beings come through here with as much depth as do their companions. One who does is Bernice, the 72-year-old owner of the iguana that needed surgery, who “had severe emphysema and required an oxygen tent to get from one room to another,” but who was so devoted to Daisy that “she somehow managed to lift the pregnant lizard into her Buick and drive three hours upstate to my hospital, wearing her oxygen mask the entire way.” Readers will be rooting for Daisy to survive for her own sake and Bernice’s, and the fact that she does is a real “up” moment in Unlikely Companions.

     The material on Hess herself, and her family, is less interesting, simply because it is so mundane. When one of her sons comes down with conjunctivitis while at school, for example, Hess is at a farm where there is no cell-phone service, so the pickup has to be done by her husband, Peter: “I squirmed, feeling bad that I’d been so out of touch. I’d missed another maternal moment, and as he so often and dependably does, Peter had shown up in my absence. I was sure he’d done it without hesitation or any resentment toward me, and still I wished that I’d been there instead.” Passages like this are only mildly effective in contrasting the everyday reality of Hess’s family life with the everyday reality of her work – more about animals and less about familiar familial circumstances would have made Unlikely Companions more engrossing. On the other hand, the passage in which Hess, determined to open her own exotic-pet hospital, drives herself to actual collapse – it turns out she has adult-onset type 1 diabetes – gives a good sense of her strength and determination.

     Books in the Herriot mode follow a predictable pattern of mixing animal and human stories; and there is always plenty of heartache to go around – anyone who does not get weepy at some point during Unlikely Companions is too hard-hearted to share a life with a companion animal of any sort. Hess writes at one point of “the day’s full range of disappointment, rage, fear, and loss,” and that is a pretty good description of many of the days of an exotic-animal vet, or a traditional vet, for that matter. It is also a good description of the days of many doctors who treat human patients. But it is books like this one, focusing on creatures not of our own species but wholly dependent on us for the basics of life, and providing us in turn with a deep emotional connection, that connect with us in a visceral way – because these animal companions are wholly reliant on our care. Unlikely Companions is not the best animal-vet book out there – Herriot’s own still stand head-and-shoulders above those of his successors – but it has plenty of heart. The title of its final chapter says it all: this is a book about “Love without Reservation.”

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