Orcas and Krakens and Chimps, Oh My! 14 Books About the World’s Most (and Least) Familiar Animals

Whether they’re in the zoo, the wild, or our living room, animals are all around us. We recognize their smarts and savvy, but how much do we really know about what they know? Here are 14 books that explore the hearts and minds of our furry, gilled, and four- (or eight-) legged friends.

The Soul of an Octopus
by Sy Montgomery

For years, we have known and understood the intellectual capabilities of cats, dogs, even chimpanzees—but what about the often-overlooked octopus? From deciphering their personalities to observing their unique abilities, Sy Montgomery’s exploration into the world of the octopus is an entertaining and enlightening look at this eight-legged creature of the deep.

Beyond Words
by Carl Safina

Carl Safina’s landmark book, BEYOND WORDS, offers an intimate view of animal behavior and psychology. In it, Safina takes readers from Kenya to Yellowstone as he seeks out different species (elephants and wolves and whales, oh my!) to explore their empathy, aggression, grief, and gentleness—and to prove that humanity is not just for humans.

Kraken
by Wendy Williams

While many of us may think of a giant killer sea monster when we hear the word “kraken,” what we should be picturing is an animal we’ve all seen before: a squid. That, however, doesn’t mean they are ordinary. From camouflage to bioluminescence, from size to smarts, squid are fascinating creatures whose otherworldly abilities more than fill out this slim volume.

A Primate’s Memoir
by Robert M. Sapolsky

If you’re a Jane Goodall fan, Robert Sapolsky is the natural next step. A PRIMATE’S MEMOIR is his exhilarating account of his 21-year study of baboons in Kenya—and it strikes the perfect balance of personal and professional. As he conducts unprecedented research, he becomes more and more connected to his subjects and comes of age in a remote area of Africa.

What a Fish Knows
by Jonathan Balcombe

Do fish think? Do they have memories? Do they recognize us when we look at them, pressed up against the glass of a tank or through goggles in the water? Jonathan Balcombe addresses those questions and more in this fascinating exploration of our “underwater cousins” to prove how intelligent—and even Machiavellian—they can be.

The Genius of Birds
by Jennifer Ackerman

The name “bird brain” has long been an insult—until now. In THE GENIUS OF BIRDS, science writer Jennifer Ackerman travels around the world to investigate the ways in which different species of birds may rival humans in intelligence and neurological capabilities. Blending science, travelogue, and personal anecdotes, this book is the perfect choice for a day spent reading in the park.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
by Frans de Waal

People assume that there’s a cognitive ladder, and that humans are at the top. But what if we’re wrong? Biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal flips our assumptions in this groundbreaking work on animal intelligence that reveals the ways we have underestimated the beings with whom we share our planet.

Being a Dog
by Alexandra Horowitz

For dogs, their sense of smell is everything: it’s how they understand the world by gathering information and exploring new terrain. In BEING A DOG, Alexandra Horowitz, a research scientist in the field of canine cognition, unlocks the mysteries of dogs through the organ that matters most to them: their noses.

Cod
by Mark Kurlansky

If you enjoy micro histories (or a good plate of fish and chips), this one is for you. The winner of the 1999 James Beard Award, Mark Kurlansky’s history of this humble fish brings us across the Atlantic into salt barrels and onto tables as it explores how one species has changed the way we eat, find food, and come together in a common diet.

Of Orcas and Men
by David Neiwert

Orcas are one of the world’s most intelligent animals, and this book, a tribute to Barry Lopez’s classic OF WOLVES AND MEN, shows us why they deserve that classification. Mixing cultural history, scientific research, and reporting, David Neiwert dives deep (no pun intended) into how these animals have captured our fascination.

In the Shadow of Man
by Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall is known throughout the world for her experiences studying the wild chimpanzees of Gombe, and this account of her life and work is one of the most compelling books on animal behavior that exists today. From her first visits to the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanzania to her ascension as a leader in the field, IN THE SHADOW OF MAN is not only a story of human and animal, but of discovery and destiny.

The Dragon Behind the Glass
by Emily Voigt

Protected by the Endangered Species Act and illegal in the United States, the arowana, the world’s most expensive aquarium fish, occupies a dangerous corner of the black market. Emily Voigt follows the trail of the arowana around the world to trace our modern fascination with this fish and the implications its existence has on modern science.

No Dogs in Heaven?
by Robert T. Sharp

NO DOGS IN HEAVEN? is a heartwarming collection that shares the ups, downs, and misadventures of a small-town veterinarian. From his first day on the job being nervous to use a needle to a full caseload of four-legged patients, Robert Sharp reflects on his career with a compassionate and charming voice that is sure to satisfy any animal-loving reader.

Animal Madness
by Laurel Braitman

Ever wondered if your dog is depressed? If your cat is heartbroken? If your rabbit is suffering from extreme anxiety? If gorillas laugh? Can one species cheer another up? Laurel Braitman addresses these questions and more in her insightful exploration of animal and human psychology.