Brenda Peterson. Norton, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 0-393-05014-9

A lifelong love of animals combined with a jeweler's eye for multifaceted philosophical meanings provide Peterson (Living by Water) with a wealth of fascinating anecdotes and insights in this engaging memoir. Moving easily back and forth in time and space-from the Florida Keys and Rocky Mountains to the great Northwest and the canyons of New York City-Peterson defines her self, her joys and losses in part through the domestic and wild animals she meets and loves. The yarns about her own dogs and cats are no less intriguing than those about dolphins, wolves, bears and whales. In this easygoing narrative, Peterson also recounts experiences with other people at the nexus of their mutual interest in animals, including such mysterious moments as her encounter with a Navaho woman who, as if fulfilling a prophecy, presents the author with a power-laden necklace of wolves' teeth. Peterson's description of her mother's very different, more mundane attitude about the place of animals in the scale of things is affectionate, warm and humorous. The book is strongest in its clear portraits, which linger in the reader's mind. Its weakest aspect is the author's tendency to analyze and interpret her experiences in terms of syncretistic New Age truisms. Yet the latter is easily forgiven in this powerful vision about the essential importance of animals in the lives of human beings. (Feb.)