As I saw it, my first challenge was to figure out a way to deal with extinction that wouldn’t be a complete downer but instead felt light — even funny.
At The Rare Animal Conservation Center of the Philadelphia Zoo I stumbled on an unlikely trio of endangered species sharing a single enclosure — despite their hailing from different continents in ‘real’ life: a three-toed sloth, a pair of Bolivian titi monkeys, and a cache of elephant shrews.
I am equally as inclined to write about humans as about animals, but when I do opt for animals as characters, it is usually because I am drawn to some unique, compelling aspect/s of a species’ habits or traits — and generally because I relate to those traits in a pretty anthropomorphic and anthropocentric way. I always do a lot of geeky research and end up building on those aspects as I work up the character.
The shrew/sloth/monkey combo provided, and while the resulting manuscript, The Mango Incident (current status: 555-word, back-burnered WIP), didn’t end up addressing extinction head-on, it’s grumpy sloth-narrator does manage some sharp commentary, and the story peaks in a nice (if unfortunately hard to illustrate) moment of hilarity.
Animals are the stuff of children’s literature — and of childhood — right? The Cat and his hat, Sylvester and his pebble, Charlotte and her web — the list goes on and on and on and on. Animals are ubiquitous: in books, as stuffies, as pets, and in the places we take our children on outings (zoos, natural history museums, theme parks etc.).
But why? I had always assumed that their being not-human worked as a sort of convenient and comfortable distancing-method: they’re enough like us that kids identify with them but not so much like us as to be complete (and terrifying) mirrors. “The same only different,” as a witty friend used to say about all kinds of things.
Reading November 23’s New York Times Magazine, I came across not one but two references to an essay about zoos and animals by cultural critic John Berger. (Both Charles Seibert’s piece about the remaking Denmark’s Givskud Zoo, and Alex Witchel’s profile of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins bring it up.) I bit.
If I had ever before read Berger’s essay, “Why Look At Animals?” (from About Looking, 1977), it hadn’t stuck. In it, Berger argues that with the one-two punch of the enlightenment and industrialization, humans’ relationship to animals shifted away from that of hunting, farming and daily contact with animals who were made or understood to serve various human purposes. And so, too, away from an attitude of both valuing/worshipping and subjecting/sacrificing them (two stances that, today, we are more likely to understand oppositionally as”either/or”s).
As most of us have moved away from that sort of immediate reliance on animals, animals have been marginalized both culturally and physically. They have been relegated to the role of raw material and of spectacle: in the human food chain, animal flesh and product is just one more ingredient on the assembly line, and elsewhere animals are simply meant to be viewed.
Not surprisingly zoos came into existence just as productive animals were disappearing from everyday life. As opposed to living in their native environments, zoo animals are “utterly dependent on their keepers”; “nothing surrounds them except their own lethargy or hyperactivity”. They reside there specifically and exclusively to be looked at. Berger emphasizes: “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.”
Around the same time pet-ownership mushroomed too.
In the past, families of all classes kept domestic animals because they served a useful purpose — guard dogs, hunting dogs, mice-killing cats, and so on. The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping exactly of pets (in the 16th century the word usually referred to a lamb raised by hand) is a modern innovation… It is part of the universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world, which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies.
(It follows that dogs, now, are now bred not for the work that they do but, instead, for their innocuous (or aggressive) temperaments, their lack of allergens, or their ability to not shed.)
As for the modern world of childhood, to Berger the preponderance of animal imagery and representation in picture books and toys mirrors the fading of real animals into the background of life experience.
As it turns out, children’s literature historian and critic Leonard Marcus wrote a follow-up essay in 1984, “Picture Book Animals: How Natural A History?“, applying Berger’s thinking and defining the roles of animals in contemporary children’s literature. Surveying the field, Marcus spelled out seven distinct ways that he saw animal characters operating in children’s books, positing one or more examples for each:
1. animal as the embodiment of wildness (wild impulses, unruliness, etc.) — and therefore as needing to be tamed or contained (Curious George, H.A. Rey)
2. “animal as spectacle or performer” (The Happy Lion, Louis Fatio)
3. “animal as misfit or outsider” (The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf)
4. “animal as doll” (which assumes a special, kindred relationship between animal and child) (Corduroy, Don Freeman)
5. “animals as nonsense beings” (The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss)
6. “animals as symbols of unconscious states and private obsessions” (Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak)
7. “animals-in-themselves” (Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey)
Marcus’s categories aren’t all-encompassing, but they offer an interesting framework. And discussion of the examples underscores the complexity of his definitions.
He does leave off one use — perhaps because it is too obvious — which involves using animals as simple, straightforward stand-ins for humans — their “animal natures” being less important than the fact that they are animals-and-not-humans (author Kevin Henkes immediately comes to mind). And in fact, in most of Marcus’s examples I can imagine a human character replacing the animal to tell a fairly similar story to the one told: Ferdinand could’ve been a boy under that tree who didn’t like rough play of other boys; the Cat in the Hat could’ve been a crazy uncle who popped in for the day. Even Corduroy could have been a doll (human toy) instead of a bear (animal toy).
Only in the 7th category does such substitution seem downright impossible: the whole Sal story hinges on the parallel childhoods, motherhoods and blueberry hunting activities of bears and humans. It really is about the animals in a way the others are not. Though of course, in the manner of all good wildlife narratives, it is the anthropomorphic aspects of the bears that we connect to — the ways in which they are like us.
To go back to Berger’s argument for a minute though: the lore and stories of all sorts of native cultures predating the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution are actually loaded with animals. Really — think about Native American tales. Storytelling was oral, as opposed to written and illustrated, but no matter: traditional origin stories and moral tales were always populated with the myriad animals — wild and domesticated — that filled people’s lives. That stories told or read to children contain animals is nothing new. Our relationship to animals has changed, true. But so have our notions of childhood, and I’d warrant that changing ideas of childhood in our modern, consumer world play as large a role in the preponderance of animal imagery in modern western children’s lives as the fact of our changed relationship to animals.
All these interesting historical arguments and structural analyses notwithstanding, I keep coming back to this same basic point: animals are both like us and not like us. The same only different — just like each of the human characters we meet in books. We enter in to stories in places where we connect and relate— sometimes through geography and place, sometimes through situation, and often through characters. If you opt for an evolutionary take on the whole thing: animals are our cousins, albeit distant ones, no? So of course we include them in our stories.
Still, Berger was spot on about animals in our lives, and when I reflect on my own children’s contact with animals, I see zoos, and books, and stuffies, and a wished-for pet. Even when they do have contact with real, working animals the experience is heavily mediated. We do not — like our friends who farm — rise at dawn to collect eggs or get up in the middle of the night to nurse invalid pigs. The rhythms of our daily lives are not at all dependant on those of other creatures. The birds that wake us up in the spring when we leave our windows open and the kitchen mice we battle are mere annoyances.
I wonder whether with Childhood.2000 — in an increasingly digital age of once/twice/thrice-removed experiencing and consuming of the world — we will eventually look back at the dull act of watching sleeping polar bears and bounce-less kangaroos through scratched plexiglass with nostalgia and say “There used to be these place called Zoos where you could go see REAL animals…”? And so the eco-depression sneaks up again…