Skip Navigation

Produced by the Office of Strategic Communications

Subscribe Now

Pet Projects

Terp Turns Bestselling Author With Series on “Unlikely Friendships”

By Lauren Brown


Dogs aren’t just man’s best friend, as writer Jennifer Holland sees it. Pit bulls, pugs and poodles snuggle up with a zoo’s worth of other animals in the latest of her bestselling book series.

JennyIn “Unlikely Friendships: Dogs: 37 Stories of Canine Compassion and Courage,” released Aug. 23, Holland M.S. ’98 tracks down a yellow Lab that allows a chameleon to munch on snacks from the top of its head, a yappy Jack Russell terrier that frolics with a once-grumpy miniature horse, and a Dalmatian that tenderly mothers a black-and-white lamb.

Accompanied by heart-meltingly cute photos, she also celebrates hero dogs that saved drowning swimmers, comforted a dying husband and his wife, and alert doctors to a little girl’s health emergencies.

But what elevates these stories beyond “aw” is that Holland is a longtime science reporter who has written for National Geographic magazine for 16 years. (She wrote an engrossing feature—with fabulous photos, of course—about pandas being raised to return to the wild for the August issue.) She follows the research into how animals think and—without sinking into stiff, academic prose—raises interesting questions about their capacity to forge and maintain friendships.

“I think that people sometimes too readily attribute human qualities to animals, and it doesn’t serve animals to assume that they are just like us,” she says. “Even though there is much that we share, we need to understand their behaviors as independent from ours, to get the science right.”

Unlikely bookShe’s been balancing her love for animals with fact-based writing for her entire career. Holland grew up in a Chicago-area apartment with pets including cats and dogs as well as a hamster and some fat and friendly goldfish. She credits her mom with also teaching her to not just tolerate but appreciate spiders and other generally disliked species.

After majoring in English at the University of Wisconsin, she pursued a graduate degree in conservation biology at Maryland so she could write more knowledgeably about science. Holland has since traveled the world to write about topics such as the use of animal venom in human medicines, how coral in the Great Barrier Reef is adapting to climate change, and life beneath the Arctic’s ice.

Wooed by Workman Publishing to write a book, she debuted with 2011’s “Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom,” which reached No. 4 on the New York Times Bestseller list and sold more than a million copies. It was followed by “Unlikely Loves” and “Unlikely Heroes,” as well as children’s versions of the first “Unlikely Friendships.”

She follows up on tips from the Wheaton, Md., home she shares with husband John, three dogs, one green tree python and 50 crested geckos. (Holland had planned to breed and sell them, but hasn’t gotten around to the latter.)

Holland, who still seems surprised by the books’ success, muses that maybe it’s because they’re filled with good news, something that seems to be in short supply.

“Cute animals plus happy stories gives people something to smile about,” she says. “So, never mind the circus that is U.S. politics … check out this adorable dog that helped a prisoner learn love and forgiveness! This stuff gives us hope.”

1 of 6

Unlikely Dog Deer 620
Laska the Harzer fuchs and Tirza the roe deer © Frank Hecker Naturfotografie

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.