A hamster falls down a hole, and I learn something about death and dying and loss

I have fallen for a new podcast series which is ostensibly about animals, but is really a joyful and melancholy celebration of humans, among other creatures

Just as everyone has given up on ever getting Mango out of the hole, the story goes in a surprising direction

“Let me tell you a story about a hole,” says the American writer Sam Anderson at the start of his new six-episode podcast series Animal. The first episode begins almost like a horror story. Our narrator accidentally cracks a floorboard while fixing something on a ladder in his daughter’s room, opening up a gaping black hole in the floor. He neglects to repair this hole, and into it, eventually, falls his daughter’s pet hamster Mango. Mango gets lost in there, in “the secret infinite maze of the inside of our very old house”. Efforts to rescue her prove futile, and a small insistent unease descends on the Anderson home, “as if the whole house had a toothache”.

And then, just as everyone has given up on ever getting Mango out of the hole, the story goes in a surprising direction: the family’s miniature dachshund Walnut takes it upon himself to rescue Mango, becoming obsessed with sniffing a particular spot behind the livingroom wall.

This small domestic drama ends well, with Walnut, with the help of Anderson, rescuing the hamster from the dark interior of the house. But the story is saturated in sadness, and becomes, in the end, about mortality – about a previous beloved dog who had died, and about the more recent and painful loss of his father. It’s about how everything changes and passes and is finally gone, about children growing older and leaving home, and parents dying; it’s about the weird black hole in the floor of our world, into which everything irretrievably falls. But it’s also about a man who just loves his dog very much. It’s about fifteen minutes long, and is a tiny, touching little tour de force of storytelling and voice.

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That episode, Walnut, sets the tone for the rest of the series, each episode of which focuses on a different animal species for which Anderson has some affinity or obsession. I’ve been listening to it all this week, and have fallen for its unique thoughtfulness, humour and narrative waywardness. There’s an episode on puffins, in which Anderson travels to a remote Icelandic island to rescue lost baby puffins with the vocalist in a local black metal band. That episode touches on the subject of his own daughter leaving the nest to go to college, and his guilt about missing it in order to go to Iceland to rescue puffins. Without ever really being about anything other than Icelandic puffins, it manages to say a lot, in its oblique and open-ended way, about letting go as an act of love.

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There’s an episode, ostensibly about wolves, where Anderson goes to a forest outside Kyoto, to visit the statue of the last remaining Japanese wolf; the whole thing winds up being not about wolves at all, but about the taxi driver who drives him to the wolf statue, the story he tells about his own beloved pet chihuahua Gotaro, and the physical abuse Gotaro suffered at the hands of his father-in-law. There’s a weird and very funny episode about ferrets, where Anderson goes to something called the Ferret Buckeye Bash, a kind of Crufts for ferrets, held in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, where he both indulges and analyses his own affection for these vicious, squirmy beasts. “A ferret is basically a weasel,” he says. “It’s long, and tubular, sort of like a badger crossed with a snake, but also crossed with a teddy bear.” (One of the podcast’s many joys is the weird and vivid descriptions of the animals themselves.)

Animal is a carefully crafted series, but it also has about it the slightly scrappy and ad hoc feel of listening in, in real-time, on a writer reporting a magazine story

My favourite episode, and the one that really exemplifies the series’s particular charm and sly profundity, is the finale, on bats – the one animal Anderson outright despises. It opens with Anderson reading a truly execrable poem by DH Lawrence, about his own disgust for bats. The poem concludes, as he puts it, “with the dumbest ending I’ve ever encountered in the work of a major writer”. That line: “In China the bat is symbol for happiness./Not for me!” From there, he goes into his own disgust for bats, despite which he visits a limestone cave in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula known as the “bat volcano”, for its colony of 4 million bats which explode out of its opening at sunset. As you’d expect, sustained proximity to so many bats, in the company of one of the world’s foremost bat experts, leads Anderson to a final accommodation with these once despised creatures. What’s less expected, and more beautiful, is where the episode goes from there; it comes full circle to the black hole where the series started, with the very animal business of death and dying and loss.

I find the podcast, on its own terms, joyful and funny and poignant. But I also find it fascinating as a long-time reader of Anderson’s writing. For years now, he has been one of the most consistently interesting and innovative practitioners of the art of magazine writing. Sam is a friend, I should say, though I admired his work – first as New York’s regular book critic, then as a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, which released this podcast – long before I ever got to know him. (His 2016 essay “David’s Ankles”, on structural flaws in the ankles of Michaelangelo’s David, and the torments of perfectionism, is among my favourite pieces of narrative journalism.)

Animal is a carefully crafted series, but it also has about it the slightly scrappy and ad hoc feel of listening in, in real-time, on a writer reporting a magazine story: the halting conversations, the instinctively indulged tangents, and the interviewees who come out with unexpected stories that wind up being more interesting than the topic you thought you were writing about. The podcast is a lovely and eccentric thing, and a kind of melancholy celebration of humans, among other creatures.