Humans and animals: Resources

I’ve really enjoyed this month and the huge variety of topics and could easily continue but I want to move on to humans and plants.  Before I do, here are some of the resources I’ve used this month.

The more dedicated of you might notice I’ve barely looked at birds and sea animals.  I’m planning on covering them separately later in the project so fear not, they have not been neglected!

As well as the specific research I did this month, all the knowledge I gained from doing my animal spirit card series really helped.

Links

Books

Videos

As well as the following YouTube links, I’ve been watching Natural Curiosities with David Attenborough, Gods and Monsters with Tony Robinson and a selection of animal-ish films such as Legend of the Guardians – The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Splice, Catwoman and Hotel Transylvania.  All in the name of research of course!

You’ll also find more links on my Pinterest page.

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Animals of the past

I was planning on including some information about extinction but time has run away with me and it’s almost time to move on to plants and humans.  But first, I want to briefly poke a paw into the bestiary.  The popular medieval text which compiled information about so many species that were thought to exist.

They are beautiful books which include images and text about animals, plants and even rocks.  As well as accurate observations, they included fanciful suggestions and content reach the bestiary second, third… tenth hand through travellers, storytellers, explorers etc.  The earliest known bestiaries date back to ancient Greece but they had their heyday in the middle ages and I’m using a copy from the 12th century which was later translated from Latin to English.  These medieval versions drew on earlier documents and thus fictional, or semi-fictional, accounts were amplified, as were the middle ages version of the typo.

However, it is argued that the reality of these creatures did not matter so much as the text provided moral lessons and  religious teachings.  St Augustine apparently even said that it didn’t matter so much if the animals existed, what was important was that people knew what they meant.  In this sense, the bestiary feels more like a symbolic dictionary of sorts.

This was a time when it was believed that everything on earth had a rational purpose, that it was put there with the creator’s intent.  As such, everything meant something.  All the plants and animals around you were messages from the divine.  Even their names were meaningful, and the bestiaries do use names to extract ideas about the species.

“The name wolf (lupus) comes from the Greeks, who call the animal lukos, this word also indicates the morals of wolves which rapaciously kill whatever they encounter and always desire blood.  Some say lupus is from leo-pos because like the lion the wolf has its strength in it’s feet.”


– Isidore of Seville, 7th century bestiary

It was a book which, on the whole, revered the wonders that God had created and praised their abilities.  Animals were also created to teach humans lessons; the pelican, like Christ, was said to revive her dead young with her own blood.  Some animals show how you should care for your children, others how you should care for your elders.  Some show the importance of staying within the safety of the church.

Some animals may have been made up in response to the belief that all land animals had an equivalent in the sea.  As such, even though there may be no evidence for them, the idea of mermaids and mermen made sense.  And why not, given that the bestiaries also included unicorns and manticores (portrayed in a number of ways, including as a beast with a man’s face, a lion’s body, and the stinger of a scorpion).

Whilst it is easy to mock the creators of these fascinating texts, I bet they wouldn’t believe some of the things we know to be true today, fish which change sex for example.

Scapegoats: Werewolves and Vampires

As well as familiar animals, extinct or not, as scapegoats, we also find supernatural scapegoats.  I’m going to look primarily at werewolves but with a side of vampire and if you’re interested in finding out more about non-animal scapegoats, just take a look at the history of witches.

Whilst I’m focusing on werewolves, it’s important to note that different were animals exist all over the world, generally using the local apex predator as the beast in question.  So we find weretigers, werehyenas and werebears accordingly.  But the werewolf was the European version of this monster.

Werewolves

Were means man so werewolf just means man wolf.  But wolves themselves can be scapegoats.  We see them as devilish, as destructive and as causing chaos.  They are mysterious, unknown, uncontrollable and a threat to humans.  They have also come to be associated with sexual drive, sexual predators and as wild and untameable.  All traits which society doesn’t tend to like, today or in the past.

Monsters, including wereanimals, chart our history of fear.  They act as vessels to place all our worries and fears onto.  Like we saw with the badger, it is easier to have a physical, identifiable thing to use as a scapegoat than it is to live alongside an unknown, unseen monster.

We are terrified of not being at the top of the food chain and apex predators make this threat real and thus wolves and hence werewolves become our enemies.  Werewolves and other wereanimals in particular seem to pose a particular threat because they can move between the civilised society of humans and the wild world of the wolves.  This creates unpredictability, uncertainty and distrust at a time when fear of the unknown was already rife.  In addition to transcending the two halves of the world, werewolves had the addition image problem that the wolf part of them was untameable and hence the werewolf could not guarantee the containment of the beast inside them.  This all echoes a war between instinct and rational, blurring the lines between man and nature at a time when a strict hierarchy was in place.

Aside: because men were higher up that hierarchy, it was seen as more of a tragedy that they were werewolves than for women.  We see female werewolves portrayed as embracing their wolfness whereas male werewolves struggle against it, seeing themselves as victims of fate.  This means female werewolves are less angsty and more comfortable in their wolf skins.  The colonial European discourse also placed non white werewolves as a more natural concept than white male werewolves…  Even in wolf fur you can’t escape racism and sexism…

The earliest known account of werewolves is in the Epic of Gilgamesh, 4000 years ago.  In 8AD, Ovid’s Metamorphoses included a story where a king, Lycaon, was punished by a god and turned into a werewolf:

Lycaon himself ran in terror, and reaching the silent fields howled aloud, frustrated of speech.  Foaming at the mouth, and greedy as ever for killing, he turned against the sheep, still delighting in blood.  His clothes became bristling hair, his arms became legs.  He was a wolf, but kept some vestige of his former shape.  There were the same grey hairs, the same violent face, the same glittering eyes, the same savage image.

Then in around 10th century France we see the tale of little red riding hood which casts the wolf as evil, and in some tellings the wolf is actually a werewolf.  A little later, in 1180s, there is an account from Gerald of Wales about werewolves in Ireland, which included the first known record of a female werewolf.  And also in the 12th century, we have a tale from Marie de France about a werewolf.  However it seems to be around the 14th and 15th century that belief in werewolves took hold in Europe and with it, the idea of the bloodthirsty, ruthless killer who murders for pleasure not for food.  Following this, in the 16th century, we find evidence of werewolf trials.

These were blatant persecutions of the “other”.  Monsters often live at the edge of society, close enough to pose a threat but not so close that people see them as human. This meant that a certain type of person was more at risk of werewolf accusations.  People who were a drain on the village or town were also vulnerable, especially during times of famine and economic difficulties. Old people and disabled people were at risk, as were outsiders who had no emotional connection to the locals.  If you don’t have enough food for your own family, you don’t want any going to the stranger who just rocked up and wanted his share.

As well as a way of scapegoating outsiders, werewolves acted as projections of the inner beast*, projecting your fears about yourself onto someone or something else.  The behaviour of werewolves was considered to be animalistic and this unhuman behaviour in itself was to be feared and not tolerated.  Remember this was a time when humans were trying to control everything around them – we had the witch trials, animals hanged for murder and pests taken to court for eating crops.  In addition to the fear of the uncivilised wolf, the werewolf has the added danger of being part human.  They inhabit a liminal space between man and beast and act as a reminder of how close we all are to animals.  Being neither man nor beast, yet belonging to both, the werewolf traverses boundaries without any consequence and hence traverses the law.

The nature of werewolves has changed over time but in the middle ages they were considered to be shapeshifters who took on the literal form of the wolf and remained responsible for their actions.  We have evidence of a number of werewolf trials and know that on the whole, they took place in isolated communities where there were actual wolves living.  They were often overseen by the church at a time when Christianity was looking for scapegoats…

Werewolves of Poligny, 1521: The account of this was recorded 70 years later so isn’t great from an evidence point of view.  During this trial, 3 people were accused and tortured.  It was said they had magic salve from Satan which turned them into wolves.  Sympathetic wounding, where the wound on a werewolf matched that of the man, was used as evidence.

Giles Garnier, Burgundy, 1573: Something was kiling sheep and children and permission was given to citizens to kill the beast.  Garnier was an outsider, he was disliked, had an unpleasant manner and was poor.  Essentially he ticked all the boxes for a scapegoat.  Claims were made that the wolf looked like Garnier and he later (presumably under torture) confessed.  He claimed that a spectre appeared and offered him a cream which would transform him into a wolf and make it easier for him to hunt.  As Garnier was struggling to provide for his new wife he took the cream and went on to murder at least four children.  The first alleged victim was a 10 year old girl that he strangled.  He then removed her clothes, ate some of her flesh and took some more home to his wife.  The next attack was interrupted by a passerby but the girl in question had already been injured and went on to die several days later.  There were also attacks on boys and Garnier was found guilty of crimes of lycanthropy (werewolfism) and was burned at the stake.  More than 50 witnesses claimed to have seen him carrying out his heinous crimes.

Over time, the idea of a werewolf became one more like a psychological illness.  There was this idea of having fur on the inside so that whilst someone could appear human, they were really living by wolf instincts.  This, from a scapegoat point of view, meant anyone could find themselves labelled as a werewolf.  In particular, outsiders, people who didn’t fit it and people who might be a bit odd could find themselves in trouble.

Today, werewolves are portrayed slightly differently.  The link with the full moon is apparently a recent, cinematic addition as is the contagious bite.  Werewolves are still shown as the underdog, often as subservient or less to the vampires.  Although it is said that only a werewolf can kill a vampire…

Vampires

A lot of the motivations and concepts behind vampires are the same as those for werewolves and other monsters.  They are blamed for misfortune and for terrorising people however they have undergone more transformation over the years than the werewolf.

In the early days of vampires, they weren’t blood suckers, that came in the 19th century, and the main fear was due to their immortality.  They inhabited the borderland between life and death and that terrified people.  They weren;t the handsome and charming creatuers of Bram Stoker’s novel, they were filled with disease and pestilence and thus posed a seemingly real threat to people.  These vampires were said to kill people by spreading illness.

Again, we see trials surrounding alleged vampires with various forms of evidence.  Some was around a lack of expected decay in the corpse and another form of evidence was that an unnatural amount of people got sick shortly after the vampire had died.  Obviously there had to be reasons to suspect a vampire before you dug up a corpse.

Accusations tended to follow when there had been an unusual amount of death.  This made people nervous and they needed something to blame it on so that then it could be controlled.  The corpses became the scapegoats.  This also meant that vampires became associated with the plague, and hence with rats and pests.

Within these trials are a number of other themes; the dead person often died young and unexpectedly in a violent way, they were disliked in life, a high number of ghost sightings after their death, growth of hair and nails, blood at the mouth of the corpse and “wild signs” (an erection).  Bodies were dug up to check for evidence and if a vampire was suspected, a stake was put through them to pin them to the ground or the corpse was burnt.

Then, with the publication of Dracula in 1897 we saw a very different kind of vampire popularised.  This vampire was an outsider at a time when people were starting to move around a bit more and Stoker probably used this to prey on people’s fears and unsettled feelings.  He was also hard to spot, being a well dressed man who was a successful seducer, not at all what you would expect from a vampire if you were familiar with the older versions.  This contributed to the popular image of the vampire as intelligent, clean and well turned out.  Apparently it was also Dracula which solidified the association between vampires and bats although it had been around as an idea previously, Stoker just made it more popular.

The modern vampire appears deceptively human and yet they are without a soul, who knows what they will get up to.. They are still repeatedly cast as other, such as foreigners or sexually deviant creatures but are now more likely to brood than disgust.


*This way of projecting the dark parts of ourselves onto others is something that Jung calls the shadow self and is an interesting topic of its own.

Animals as scapegoats: Badgers, Dodos and Thylacines

In previous posts I’ve touched on the idea of animals as scapegoats, in particular when we looked at fox hunting and human – lion conflict.  Cats have also been the victim of scapegoating over the years, for example being cast in the role of the familiar during the witch persecution.  Here I want to explore how other wild animals have been treated as scapegoats, including two extinct species which I hope will serve as a warning.

Scapegoat: Wild animals that are erroneously blamed for one or more real or perceived problems (usually environmental) or that are considered a nuisance, problematic or in competition with personal or business interests/activities and who are persecuted as a result.

Zoo Check

Scapegoated animals include: Eagles, magpies, beavers, deer, horses, coyotes, wolves, bears, foxes, dolphins, seabirds, fish, turtles, seals, sea lions, ruddy ducks, mink, flies, crocodiles and rats.  They can be any type of animal and any size, it is human perception which turns them into an icon of blame.

Badgers

Badgers, in the UK, are held responsibly by many for the spread of Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB).  The name alone sometimes makes life hard for badgers as it is sometimes, incorrectly referred to as Badger TB…

Before we get into the badger in more detail, I first want to make it very clear that I understand the devastating impact any disease has on livestock.  It can destroy livelihoods and families and cause financial ruin.  Managing infected cattle is an expensive business and in 2015, there were 36,000 infected cattle slaughtered in Britain at a cost to the taxpayer of about £100m.  It’s clear that action needs to be taken but what is not clear, to me, is the role of the badger.

The debate around badgers, bTB and badger culling is one which is often depicted as farmers against badger lovers and this makes the conversation much more emotionally charged.  In reality, I think pretty much everyone on both sides wants the best for the cows and the badgers.

The first known badger death from bTB was in 1971, after cattle spread the disease to the badger.  And periodically since, we find ourselves with headlines and claims such as “badgers are responsible for bTB” which in themselves are not helpful.  The badger is not an active agent in this, they are not going out looking to infect themselves and then others.  This is a disease which they may get and if they do they suffer.  Infected badgers experience breathing difficulties and struggle to forage and thus lose weight and condition.  To solely blame the badger is to deny the cow’s “involvement” in spreading the infection and as most bTB comes from other cows this is irresponsible and misleading.

This focus on the badger also overplays the role they have in transmitting the infection.  The Guardian in 2016 reported that badger to cattle infection is estimated to be directly responsible for about 6% of herd infections.  If you listen to debates around the issue then you would expect this number to be at least 50%…  We also know that cows are susceptible to many other illnesses and causes of death.

Only looking at the badger’s role in bTB could be preventing work from looking at other sources and ways of controlling the disease.  Despite evidence that cows and badgers rarely, if ever, meet*, the number one guideline from the government’s bTB Biosecurity 5 step plan is to reduce contact between the two species.  And yes, reducing indirect contact may well help, but why put all your time, effort and money into preventing something which isn’t happening…?  The badger as a scapegoat seems to have blinded those involved in the discussion despite the small role it plays.

As well as badgers, bTB also affects deer, goats, pigs, camelids (llamas and alpacas), dogs and cats, as well as many other mammals.  Yet these have not been scapegoated as the cause of bTB or culled because of the association.  Perhaps instead of blaming the badger over and over again, we should be looking more widely at what perpetuates this devastating disease.

Cows are affected by other diseases** and not just bTB so why is the badger bearing the brunt of this? Perhaps because disease management is difficult and expensive and is in some ways like herding invisible cats.  You can’t see what it is you are trying to contain, but you can see badgers.  If culling is found to be successful it would give people something to focus their efforts on.  They can do something to try and gain control over the infection.  And some degree of control is what people most want in uncontrollable situations.

*the disease is spread through indirect contact between badgers and cows, such as badgers flipping over cow pats to look for beetles and cows not avoiding badger scat.

**According to Farmers Weekly, the two main causes of death in beef cattle are pneumonia and clostridial diseases.

Dodo

What you think is a dodo, probably isn’t.  They are victims of misrepresentation both in terms of appearance and behaviour.  We have no evidence of the dodo beyond the skeleton and illustrations from the time, often painted by people who had not actually seen a dodo.  As no skin or feathers survive, any model of a dodo is going to be based on guess work and descriptions and as such are probably inaccurate.  Instead of the bird we think of as the dodo, it is likely that they were fluffier, stood higher with strong long necks and had powerful beaks.  But they were portrayed as being small, comical, dumpy and low to the ground.  This is significant in shaping how we view the dodo.

Dodos inhabited Mauritius for hundreds of years, surviving volcanic activity and climate change.  Then in 1598 a boat carrying starving and desperate dutch men was shipwrecked in the area.  The men arrived on the island in urgent need of food.  In the jungles they found these birds which they called the dodo.

By 1662, when a German was shipwrecked on Mauritius, there were no dodos left on the mainland.  There were a few remaining on a little island cut off from the main island by tides.  This was the last dodo colony ever recorded.

The dodo was said to be hapless and ill fated and thus, it was said, the dutch just sped up it’s extinction.  Probably better than accepting responsibility for wiping out an entire species…

It was assumed that the dutch killed them for food but some descriptions say the meat was said to be tough and oily, the dodo lacked in breast meat and they weren’t easy to catch.  Other reports say that the dodo was easy to catch and that some people hunted dodos only for their gizzards, as this was considered the most delicious part of the bird.

There is much we don’t know about the dodo and about the circumstances surrounding it’s extinction.  But I do think that the dodo, portrayed as hapless victim waiting for man to put the species out of it’s misery is propaganda.  Whilst many believe that humans didn’t hunt to species to extinction, it is highly likely that we were the cause.  The dutch introduced invasive plants and animals, which competed with, and killed, the dodo.  Pigs and other animals, not native to the island, disrupted their ground laid eggs, causing a considerably impact as they only laid one egg per clutch.  In addition to pigs, other animals were introduced including including dogs, cats, rats, and crab-eating macaques.  As the dodo had not evolved alongside ground mammals, they could not compete with these new species.

The cumbersome images play into the idea of the dodo as an inevitable victim, a mishap of evolution and responsible for it’s own extinction whereas the truth is inevitably much more complicated than that.

Scapegoating of dodos continues today, long after the last one died, as dodo is used to suggest someone stupid despite us knowing so little about the lives of dodos.  The dodo is also used as a symbol for extinction and for obsolescence, continually reinforcing the idea that the dodo was destined to die and abdicating man of responsibility.

Thylacine

Tylacines are interesting creatures which went extinct in 1936, leaving us with just a little snippet of black and white film to remember it by.

They were large carnivorous marsupials which were in competition with the Tasmanian Devil.  Bigger than the devil, these ghosts are often compared to the wolves of the northern hemisphere in terms of appearance, behaviour and the similar niche they fill in the ecosystem.  This association would be one factor leading to their extinction. They pursued their prey, kangaroos, to exhaustion and found themselves up against the dingo which also eats roos.  In addition to competition for food, the dingoes are also thought to have hunted the thylacine.

We don’t know a lot about the thylacine but they’ve been described as shy and secretive, generally avoiding humans.  Despite this, they were also rumoured to be fierce, a description probably cast upon them by farmers who weren’t pleased with loss of livestock.  It is likely that a proportion of this was actually down to dingoes but the thylacine was used as a scapegoat, bearing the brunt of anything which went wrong on farms. A well circulated photo from 1921 by Henry Burrell of a thylacine with a chicken probably helped solidify their reputation as thieving from farmers, although some people say the photo is of a dead specimen, posed.

Regardless of whether their killer appetite was fact or fiction, they became feared, loathed and hunted.  A relentless persecution was carried out and a bounty was placed on their heads.  Wikipedia tells us that:

The Van Diemen’s Land Company introduced bounties on the thylacine from as early as 1830, and between 1888 and 1909 the Tasmanian government paid £1 per head (the equivalent of £100 or more today) for dead adult thylacines and ten shillings for pups. In all they paid out 2,184 bounties, but it is thought that many more thylacines were killed than were claimed for.

Whilst there are a number of factors which contributed to their extinction, their alleged impact on farmers was certainly one of them and definitely led to the thylacine being scapegoated.  Today, there are no thylacines left but dingoes run wild across Australia, possibly the original culprits but shouldering little of the blame.

Next I’ll be looking at supernatural scapegoats!

Cats in literature

We’ve already realised that I love cats, and because I am very very allergic to them I can’t have one so I tend to live vicariously through other cat owners and cat related things.  Hence cats in literature are getting their very own blog post!

Cats, as we know, have been with humans for a long time so it is no surprise that they have a prominent place in art and literature of both today and the past.  They are complicated creatures but cats, in stories and poems, tend to be portrayed as clever and wily, as independent and cunning, and as mysterious and enigmatic.  They are shown to be witch’s familiars, travellers companions, heroes and villains. In some writings they take centre stage and in others, supporting roles.

In folklore, cats tend to be haughty and proud, sneaking and clever, wise and helpful.  This sits gratingly against the less flattering cat related metaphors we use; fat cat, copy cat, pussy, pussy footing, cat burglar, alley cat, have kittens, wild cat, catty and so on.  Even miow, when said the right way, is derisive.  There is something about the cat that means we use it to say lazy, to talk of sexual behaviour and to deride sexual women.  I’m actually going to look a bit closer at cats and women when I focus in on gender within nature and writing so I shall leave that thought with you for now.

As well as metaphors, there are also a host of interesting sayings involving cats which are great for sparking the imagination!  It can be raining cats and dogs whilst children fight like cats and dogs and suddenly curiosity kills all these cats, except the one in the cat’s pajamas!

Cats in stories

To get a flavour of the many different cat characters found in fiction, here is a small sample:

  • Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire Cat, a cunning, clever and manipulative beast.
  • The range of cats which appear in the books of Beatrix Potter, portrayed anthropomorphically but still retaining a number of elements of their natural life and are playful and a little mischievous.
  • Mog from Judith Kerr
  • Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams
  • Garfield created by Jim Davis
  • The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber
  • The Marmalade Cat by Kathleen Hale
  • There are even cats in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

And big cats aren’t neglected either

  • Aslan, the lion from the Narnia books. I don’t know much about the Christian imagery in the series but I do know that Aslan is supposed to represent Jesus.
  • The tiger in The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • Bagheera from the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
  • There is also the Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr

In addition to these examples, cats show up in a range of fiction types, from children’s books to science fiction and beyond.  They are familiar creatures with an array of different personalities and habitats which give authors a lot of scope to work with.  Because there are a lot of metaphors and symbols that can be found in the cat, they can be used to add depth to work and as shortcuts in creating character traits.

Naturally, cats also crop up in Aesop’s fables, written about 500BC, so the use of cats in fiction is not a modern idea.  In one of the fables, Belling the Cat, the cat is cast in the role of enemy and hunter, as does the Town Mouse and The City Mouse. Obviously, perspective is important when considering the traits of any animal.  Of course, most stories told from the point of view of mice are going to show the cat as evil and dangerous.  And stories told from the point of view of a dog would probably exaggerate the cat’s faults and tar them with aspersions which emphasise their own strengths.  If you were a dog who was trying to show everyone how fast and hardworking you were, you’d tell everyone how lazy the cat was.

There are lots of folk tales (I nearly did go there and say tails…) regarding the cat but here are just three, from very different cultures, which help give a flavour:

  • The boy who drew cats, Japan. In this tale, the cat is shown to protect the boy and to be helpful towards humans whilst not expecting anything in return.
  • The cat who came indoors, Africa. This is a story which illustrates how the cat domesticated itself and thus how the cat is independent and strong minded.
  • Puss in boots, also known as the master cat, Europe. Here we see the cat as clever, planning ahead and getting what it wants (and escaping death).

We also find cats all over the world in mythology playing the roles of gods and goddesses as well as guides and guardians of humans.  They were often considered magical and portrayed as moving between worlds; night and day, this world and the other.  As we’ve seen before, cats in Egypt were associated with pregnancy, motherhood and the feminine and this was also the case in Norse mythology where they were sacred to Freya, goddess of love and beauty and fertility.

Cats in poetry

As the subject of poetry, cats appear across the centuries and from both male and female writers. There are serious poems and playful ones, ones where the cats are adored and ones where the cat is barely tolerated…

The earliest cat poem I found was written in 550AD by Agathias about a cat attacking one of his partridges… Not a great start to a literary career but by the 9th century, in Ireland at least, they were faring better; Pangur Ban tells of a monk and his cat.  However, cat poetry seems to have become more popular from the mid 1700s which makes sense when you think about the timeline of cats and humans.  Prior to this, they were considered more as pest control than pets and just before this time, they were associated with witches and thus were not popular to keep around.

Again, I just want to provide a few examples to show the scope of cats in poetry:

  • T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
  • Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat gives us a characteristic rule breaker, showing the more chaotic side of our feline friends.
  • Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat, 1868
  • William Blake, The Tyger, 1794
  • William Wordsworth, The kitten and the falling leaves, 1804
  • Emily Dickinson, She sights a bird – she chuckles, 1800s. Don’t you think even the title brings to mind a cat?!
  • Eleonor Fargeon (1881-1965), Cats.
  • Cat Kisses by Bobbi Katz (at the bottom of the link)
  • Black Cat by Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926
  • Edward Thomas, A Cat. It turns out not everyone is such a fan…

As you can see, there are a very diverse range of cats hiding within the pages of our books and we’ve not even looked at plays and films and tv programmes.  Or even cats in non fiction such as Elsa in Born Free.  And we’ve only glanced at cats in myths.

You can find out more about big cats as symbols and their role in myths and beliefs in my animal spirit posts:

Who are your favourite literary cats?  Let me know, I’d love to hear and I’m always up for book recommendations (about cats or even, I suppose, not about cats).

Animals in children’s literature

There is a whole argument that could be had about what is children’s literature and I know that the label puts some adults off reading some amazing writing.  Here, when I use the phrase, I am referring to books that were written with children in mind.  This does not mean that adults shouldn’t read them or that they aren’t good or well written.  In fact, if you’ve ever tried to write for children, you’ll know that it’s exceptionally difficult. 

We find animals in picture books, in children’s novels, in non fiction, in poetry, in fairy tales and in nursery rhymes and anyone who has engaged with children and animals knows that most of the time, they find them intriguing and interesting.

There are so many animals in children’s literature that I think we take the idea for granted today.  But looking back at the development of the genre of books specifically for children, the natural world had an important role to play.

Before the 18th century there wasn’t really the concept of childhood as we know today and thus no niche for books for childhood.  When this changed, authors created a sort of hybrid of nature books and story books – books entirely for education of the natural world but which used a story telling approach.  There were also books featuring animals to teach letters and numbers as well as less tangible concepts such as morality.  As time went by, the genre expanded and books for pleasure were written with children in mind and the “golden age” of children’s books was found towards the end of the 18th century and early 19th.  At this point in time, the cost of paper and printing had gone down and concern for children’s religious and moral wellbeing resulted in an increase in supply of books whilst improved literacy increased demand.

In the 19th century, more people were aware of more types of animals though public exhibitions and very early zoos, this meant that writers had a larger number of familiar creatures to work with.  I would imagine, prior to the zebra being commonly known, alphabet books were a bit difficult to finish!  In the 1920s and 30s we find a resurgence of more realistic children’s books and now we have an entire range of options.

“Adults tend to think of nature in terms of ‘The Great Outdoors’.  They crave distant, glittering vistas, snow-capped mountains, broad, far-reaching valleys.  Children are less particular.  A hedge, a ditch, a tiny knoll will give them all the countryside they need”
– Christian McEwan

Apparently the most common animals found in children’s literature are dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits, mice, wolves, foxes and bears.  With the exception of the last three, these are all common animals which most children will have seen or be aware of.  This makes them characters with which they already have a connection, they already have an affinity with.  And the last three, wolves, foxes and bears, are the animals of fairy tales with the bear also being found often in the bed of the child.  Again, there is familiarity here.

These animals tend to have their own, pre-established character. For example, we have rabbits who were historically portrayed as a trickster but now tend to be playful, friendly and a little naughty but too much naughtiness is shown to have consequences.  Dogs are faithful, obedient, loving and often rescue other characters.  This all means that children can open a book, see an animal, and get a very quick sense of what’s going on.  And this easy access knowledge is important for those children who are less interested or able to read.

If you walk into a library or book shop and look at the cover of children’s books, you’ll see a lot of animals staring back at you.  An analysis of over 1000 children’s books in a library showed almost half of them contained animals.  Of those containing animals, only ¼ were in their natural settings, the rest anthropomorphised and even that quarter saw animals carrying out human behaviour.  Another study showed that 59% of storybooks in the library in question featured anthropomorphised animals and of the most frequently borrowed books, a significantly higher proportion contained them.  There is no doubt that the use of animals in children’s book is both a common one and a popular one.

Stories themselves are important learning tools in early development and anthopomorpised animals in children’s books distance us from human issues and make them less frightening.  This means children can learn that the dark isn’t scary, for example, without it being explicitly explained.  They are effective tools that can convey concepts and prompt conversations about life issues.  Where the death of a human in a children’s book might be considered too much for a child, an animal dying would prompt a different reaction.  Dressing animals up in clothes, for example, is one way in which scary concepts can be made more accessible.  There are other issues which can be addressed such as bullying, feeling inadequate because you’re small (eg piglet) and because a lot of books feature more than one species, huge topics such as racism and equality can be looked at.

Some research has shown that animals in literature help children to recognise and empathise with animals and brings out the desire to nurture and protect.  However, some researchers argue that this presentation of animal creates the “Bambi syndrome” where children believe that all animals are cute and fluffy and can be played with and taken home as pets.

And there does seem to be a bit of a battle going on about whether biological or anthropomorphic books are best.  How animals are presented has been shown to affect how children reason.  Those who read books with anthropomorphised animals are more likely to use anthropomorphic reasoning whereas those who read biologically accurate stories use biological reasoning.  Personally, I feel that a mix is good and that they have different benefits.

Biologically accurate books help children to learn and retain knowledge about the animals involved.  And this is true for adults as well – I know that I remember facts much more easily if I’ve read them in a fiction book or seen a film that if I read or watch nonfiction.

Children’s books about nature, accurate or not, draw their eyes to certain things, help them to notice the plants and animals around them in the same way that nature writing for adults can.  Animals stories can spark wonder in children and provoke a whole range of emotions, even when portrayed biologically, from terror to happiness to surprise.  These traits, plus the wonderful array of illustrative opportunities, mean it is not surprising how popular animals are in children’s literature.

Useful links:

Animals in Literature

We need animals not only as mirrors in order to see ourselves clearly but so that our minds may become more beautiful by the sight of them. It’s a paradox. We need our animal kin so that our spirits and imaginations can be most fully human.
– 
Christie Dickason

I’m going to offer a broad outline of animals in literature here and will be focusing on animals in children’s literature in my next post.  Inevitably there will be cross overs but animals feature so heavily in books for children that I feel it needs its own space and exploration.

We talk to them, for them and about them so it is inevitable that animals will find themselves in our stories as well.

Animals feature in literature over and over and in many shapes and forms.  They are found in starring roles in Aesop’s fables from around 500BC through to modern day novels as well as in poetry and fairy tales and plays and many other guises.  They can feature in stories which are comic, or mysterious, or tragic or surreal or political…  Instead of filling line after line with examples of animals in literature, I want to look at how they feature and why they feature in our literature.

Retrospectively, literature can tell us about changing trends, relationships and interactions that humans have with animals.  We have writing that communicates the experience of animals and their suffering, writing that creates a more intimate relationship with animals and writing that unpicks the complex feelings we have about animals and the relationships we form with them.  At different points in time, we would write differently about these things and thus language and writing evolve as we do.

We know from Claude Levi-Strauss that animals are good to think with, but why is this so?  In some sense it is probably because they have always surrounded us and so our thinking, our view of the world and our way of speaking has been informed by them.  They act as comparisons to humans in a world where it is hard to find anything close to our species; drawing similarities and differences as a way of defining ourselves and mirroring our traits.

Metaphor

Our language is so filled with animal metaphors that we often don’t even see them.  “She’s got herself in a flap”, you might comment, without a single thought of the bird and her wings.

Metaphors are highly effective linguistic tools which we associate with verbal or written language but they can also be found in gesture and imagery.  They allow the user to convey something in a more image-centric way, they are used as short hand and as codes. They convey information rapidly and can be used to manipulate thinking.  For example, we know that if a character is described as being built like an ox they are strong and bulky and solid.  But further to this, we might start to speculate about their nonphysical nature, perhaps this character is reliable and dependable and grounded or headstrong.

To use metaphor cuts out a lot of descriptive language, but more than that, research has shown that metaphors spark the emotional part of our brains in a way that other language doesn’t.  The talk I watched about metaphors gave the example of someone coming home from work and saying she had a bad day vs she had a rough day.  Now rough day is very entrenched in our language, it’s normal and we don’t think her day was actually rough, and what would that mean unless she worked on a boat?  But the version with rough day, the metaphorical version, showed more brain activity in the person listening than bad day.  And as a writer, isn’t evoking emotion exactly what we want to do?

A metaphor triggers indirect evaluation and invites inferences, both tactics used in persuasion and hence the strong use of metaphors in advertising.  Because metaphors are not explained explicitly, their use also creates shared knowledge – in BSL the sign for metaphor is apparently actually “exchanging your minds”.  This brings the speakers, or reader and writer, closer.  You have this moment where you are both understanding something without speaking directly of it and this bonds you.

As well as using animal metaphors to describe non animal entities in literature, we can also see animals themselves starring in writing as the metaphor themselves.  For example, in little red riding hood, the wolf is not just a wolf, it is a metaphor for all that the wolf stands for.  To tell the same story in a culture where wolves are symbolic of different traits and a metaphor for something else entirely would to be to change the story itself.  Metaphors, being culturally specific, are apparently one of the hardest parts of a language to learn.  They do not translate literally. For example, it’s a dog’s life has a literal equivalent in Romanian but instead of meaning it’s easy, it means it’s full of hardship and deprivation.

Before I look at non-metaphorical animals, I just wanted to share some animal similes which are apparently used mostly in Yorkshire:

  • As happy as a pig in muck
  • As drunk as a newt
  • As gormless as a sucking duck
  • As quick as an eel
  • As sick as a Cleethorpes donkey

You can also get a sense of the huge scope for animals as metaphors in my animal spirit posts – each card contains an image of one animal and yet the breadth of interpretation is vast.

Anthropomorphism scale

Other than as metaphors, a key use of animals in literature is as characters. And these characters sit somewhere along what I am calling the anthropomorphism scale.  At one end, we have animals as they actually are, doing animal things and not subject to projection from us.  At the other end, we have animals which are essentially human. They are off to work in their suit and tie and driving their car and getting married and having babies.  The latter are used a lot in children’s literature, although not exclusively, so I shall consider them mostly in a later post.  For now, I just want to echo Rowland’s observation and add that writing anthropomorphically about animals in human roles allows us to discuss human issues with more distance.

“Writing about animals – certainly, when they are used as metaphors or representations – is simply writing about humans that is carried out by other means”
– Mark Rowlands

For the animals which tend to be portrayed more as themselves we find an array of species and roles.  There can be pets which are used to tell us about a character through how they treat the pet.  We have reams of poems which are about nature and hence include the animals around us, the swallows and the squirrels we find in our parks through to the tiger from Blake’s famous verse.

There are also stories told from the animal’s perspective but which are still mostly animal like.  For example, Tarka the Otter which I’m going to consider in a separate post.  When writing about animals as themselves, authors get to play around with the range of noises and sounds that they make and this in turn can add atmosphere to writing and tell us about the character without making the character speak.  There are also biographies of animals and stories in which animals are alongside the main characters but still pay a key part.

Including animals in literature gives authors more characters to play with and more imaginative fodder.  There is also great scope for illustrations which can be more playful and more interesting than human focused images.  I don’t know if there is any evidence, but it feels like we would remember characters differently if they were non human.  Think back to your childhood reading, how many characters can you recall?  How many of those are animals?