Bark, growl, snort

These writers want to speak for the animals. Maybe that's because animals can't tell them to shut up.

By Susan McCarthy

Published May 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Why does a novelist write an animal's story? All too often, it's to talk about people. When animals are written to provide character witnesses for humans, the prosecution or the defense -- whichever it is -- tends to run wild. The animal witnesses produce such damning testimony or such glowing testimony that the judge and jury begin to raise their eyebrows. And whether or not the case is won, the cause of literature may be lost.

Because animals are voiceless, we are free to put words into their mouths. Because they are innocent of human sins, we like to have them lined up on our side. I'll get back to the dangerous subject of innocence, after arguing that the best animal stories are written by those who find animals interesting for their own sakes.

As a reader, my favorite reason to read such a book is to enter into an animal's world and understand what its life might be like. Barbara Gowdy's "White Bone" is in part a book like this, and so are the Dr. Dolittle stories, and books with titles like "Flat-Tail the Beaver," "Cuffy: The Story of a Lynx" or "Macky: Portrait of a Young Shark on the Great Barrier Reef."

I read a million of these as a kid. Many were written with the didactic impulse to explain the life cycles of the otter. Others were written with the didactic impulse to teach children how to behave, perhaps illustrating God's plan. They only pretended to be about animals. These books were inevitably unsatisfactory, since animals, despite their innocence, are always eating each other or having sex -- and never praying -- and so the nature lore must be bowdlerized to make a wholesome tale.

The Dr. Dolittle stories are fantasy, not nature lore. But the stories enter into (possible) animal points of view. It is important that the animals are animals, but the stories are the stories of interesting adults. They have strengths and weaknesses. They are characters with intention, not simply buffeted by fate. Nor do they exist to testify about humans.

Some animal stories are thinly disguised stories about people, and to hell with nature lore. "Animal Farm" is not about animals, and is not meant to appeal to those of us with a soft spot for whale watching, saving the black-footed ferret or paintings of dogs playing poker.

Among other motivations to write animal stories are two having to do specifically with animals as epitomes of the voiceless, the helpless and the innocent. Sometimes the author wishes to speak up for the innocent; that's one of Barbara Gowdy's aims with "The White Bone." And sometimes the author wishes to make the innocent speak up for the author and the author's friends, to act as character witnesses whose own characters are unimpeachable. That's what John Berger and Paul Auster are up to with their dog books.

In general, animals aside, no one needs advocates more than those who are innocent, helpless and voiceless, three attributes that are often found together. These are also traits of an attractive constituency. The only way that the innocent, helpless and voiceless could make better constituents is if they were rich. And that is rare, although not unknown (as with minor children who are millionaires).

It's unfortunate that being an advocate for the voiceless, powerless and innocent is often corrupting.

Animals are nearly the most voiceless, innocent and powerless constituency there is, and the least likely to turn on their champions. Children grow up and may contradict their spokespeople. Oppressed masses abruptly produce their own articulate representatives. But animals never demand to be their own attorneys, refuse to reelect you to the board, question the appropriateness of your sex life and summer place, suggest that your tactics are stupid or ask what percentage of the money goes directly to help animals. (Neither do aborted fetuses ask such difficult questions.)

In seeking power through representing animals -- and you need power to help them effectively -- danger comes not from your docile constituents but from other animal representatives. Anyone who has worked in animal rights, wildlife rehabilitation or even dog breeding knows the acrimony found there. Big-hearted people whose goals appear identical speak of each other as torturers, traitors, unworthy cretins and sick, twisted souls who should never be allowed to utter the word "animal," let alone touch animals or speak for them. While your innocent constituents can't contradict or ask where the money goes, the other animal advocates can.

Speaking for the voiceless innocents, the advocate may become hoarse with righteous indignation. This righteousness is defensive because it is unearned, and vicious because defensive.

If speaking for the voiceless can be corrupting, what about telling their stories? Can such an act harden and narrow a writer's vision? Sometimes. If an author is deeply invested in showing one aspect of the animal, other aspects of the animal may be denied or distorted so that the desired attribute is brought into focus. Often that attribute is innocence. When we ally ourselves with animals, we ally ourselves with innocence. (In spaying and neutering our pets, we also render them sexually innocent.)

John Berger's "King" is the story, told by a dog, of a community of drifters living in shanties next to a freeway on Saint Valery, a wasteland outside a large French town. They get water from a service-station bathroom. They eat by selling chestnuts or radishes on the street, stealing and other small enterprises. King, once a stray, has been rescued by Vico, once a factory owner. King listens tirelessly to Vico's reminiscences. Berger makes King wise in his innocence. King asks Vico and Vica (a former lover of Vico's who has also ended up at Saint Valery) whether they agree that "if the world of men is vile and the rest so well made, there has to be a force for evil." They have no answer.

Except for King's conversational skills and his habit of refusing food, Berger has written a plausible dog. He is loyal, loving and a bit forgetful. In the city he spots dog art on the walls, with dog letters noting which places are hospitable and which are dangerous. This is about the sum of the dog lore in this elegantly written story.

His innocence makes King the ideal witness to the terrible events that occur at Saint Valery. He can't be blamed for being homeless, living by his wits and sleeping in the street. He loves Vico, Vica and the others, so why should we blame them for living as he does?

"Timbuktu" is Paul Auster's story of Mr. Bones, the canine companion to the homeless, doomed Willy G. Christmas, an unpublished writer and cornball visionary. Mr. Bones understands English but doesn't speak it, and is occasionally prescient. He is, again, good, wise and innocent. Auster has him refer to sexual episodes in his past, but in the present his concern is fixed on Willy and his declining fortunes.

Mr. Bones is more sentimental and less persuasive than King. Though Auster includes a lovely paean to Mr. Bones' sense of smell (nature lore!), he doesn't use it in the rest of the book. When Mr. Bones is parted from the loquacious, drunken, loving Willy, he meets the kind human Polly and is smitten with her, but she apparently has no smell -- he is visually stunned. "She was ever so pretty, with wisps of blond hair curling down the back of her neck." Polly is a "great beauty" with gray-blue eyes and a compassionate soul; she is a loving mother and superb housekeeper, forced at 18 to marry the wrong man. (The husband's name is Dick. You're not surprised, are you?)

Dick demands that Mr. Bones, now called Sparky, be neutered. Polly hates the idea and is too sensitive to discuss it in front of Mr. Bones, but the operation goes forward. Mr. Bones recovers and doesn't give it another thought. No one suspects that the vet has bungled and that terrible things may result.

Here Auster gives the common dog experience of being neutered a human weight. Though Mr. Bones, like other dogs, appears unperturbed once healed, he has actually met disaster.

Mr. Bones' post-Willy experiences seem to have been written to show how good life with Willy was, something Mr. Bones never doubted. Mr. Bones, the reliable narrator, attests that the apparently drunken bum Willy is truly a good guy.

King and Mr. Bones are loyalists of the homeless. They accompany, listen, caress, defend and most of all, shed their grace on their human friends. They exist, from a literary point of view, to confer innocence.

Innocence is a real thing, and the innocence of animals has genuine weight. When the downtrodden are blamed for their suffering, it is legitimate to point to the children among them and ask what they have done wrong.

But to draw an accurate portrait of an animal, if that is the writer's goal, you have to omit the halo. And for an animal biography to be a powerful story, there has to be more to it than a series of horrific blows suffered by an animal.

In "White Bone," Barbara Gowdy writes of elephants with interest and respect, apparently because she likes them. Gowdy spent time in East Africa with elephant researchers, getting a feeling for elephants and where they live, and then she wrote this novel, creating a society of named individuals with customs, language, religion, oral history and an ornate mythology. She invented so much fictional elephant culture that the book brims with footnotes, enough for a Tolkien trilogy.

Despite its imaginary aspects, Gowdy's story stays near the realm of possibility for the most part, respecting what's known about elephants. Here and there are actual bits of nature lore.

While innocent King and Mr. Bones exist to justify people, the innocence of Gowdy's elephants condemns people. There's a fleeting glimpse of a person who's not a killer, but for the most part the elephants reel from massacre site to massacre site, and the massacres come at the hands of humans. They pass from disaster to doom, losing eyes, mothers, children, becoming lamed. And if there's a snake, it bites them.

Gowdy's elephants are quite helpless. She has endowed them with language, a known history, complex religion and elaborate mythology. She has gone so far as to give certain elephants cross-species mind-reading abilities and precognition, and, incredibly, the ability to communicate numbers and complex concepts through mime -- mime that other species "understand." But nothing helps.

In truth, pachyderm reality is such that a clever, take-charge elephant doesn't have much of a chance. But Gowdy wallows in this. The reader who empathizes with Mud and She-Snorts and Date Bed is subjected to blow after blow.

One of our heroes, Tall Time, a young bull elephant, is speeding on a mission to find refuge for the herd, a quest we have been following. Things are looking hopeful, though we know how urgently the remaining elephants need saving, when a helicopter, a deus ex machina, appears and shoots him.

Relentlessly, the innocent suffer. Unlike real elephants, the elephants of "White Bone" not only suffer pain, terror and bereavement, but receive dreadful, true visions of more horror.

"White Bone" is something like "Black Beauty," which publicized the mistreatment of horses. But Anna Sewell was more tender with her protagonist. She let Black Beauty have some pleasures in life and in her story. In that way she ensured that readers, burning with rage on behalf of horses, also took pleasure in the story.

The foremost wish of the innocent and helpless is to become knowledgeable and powerful. Even as adults rhapsodize over the innocence of childhood, children busily page through reference works, skim the Web and compare guesswork with their peers in a natural and commendable attempt to become knowing and worldly wise.

Animals don't have the same reference works. They are not children, but adult creatures, seeking understanding and mastery over their lives. The best portraits of animals will always reflect this.

Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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