Animals That Talk

I don't get it.

Okay, let me rephrase that.

I don't get books which use animals exclusively (no people) where the animals do all the same things humans do and wear the same kinds of clothes and have the same kind of relationships and the only difference seems to be that they live in burrows or whatnot but otherwise, they are really just humans with furry faces. And I don't get it.

I'll leave Watership Down alone since I've never read it and I saw only 1/4 of the movie when I was a kid; I got so scared my mom took me outside and let me run around the lobby and eye the candy counter. But I have never understood the appeal of Brian Jacques' books (and please don't hate me, Brian Jacques' fans!) As far as I can tell, it makes precious little difference in Brian Jacques' books whether the heroes are mice, rats, frogs, humans, coyotes or whatever.

Let me elaborate.

In Beatrix Potter, the animal-ness of the animals is intrinsic to the plot. They may be temporarily "dressed up" but they always revert to their animal natures, and their animal natures are at the crux of the stories. Peter Rabbit is acting like a rabbit, sneaking into the farmer's garden to steal cabbages. The squirrels in Squirrel Nutkin act like squirrels. Sure, they talk but their animalness is never forgotten. You couldn't replace Peter Rabbit with George Ape. (Speaking of simians, the same is true of the Curious George books.) C.S. Lewis does this in the Narnia books. There's no point in the animals acting human; there are plenty of humans acting like humans (poorly and nicely) to go around.

Having said that, I still don't much care for anthropormophized animals but at least with Beatrix Potter and H.A. Rey and Lewis, I get it. Still, I prefer my protagonists to be human. Even that old-time classic The Wind in the Willows didn't change my mind--really, I'm an anthro-chauvinist.

After all, why write a book about frogs or moles or rats acting like humans when, voila, you could do a book about humans acting like humans?

Here's what I think may be the answer. The appeal (and C.S. Lewis says as much in his autobiography and in Out of the Silent Planet) is the idea of animals and people associating, being pals, hanging out. It isn't the biology that people like (a la Gerald Durrell); it's the image of animal-ness (or creature-ness) within the human sphere: something you can buddy up to but won't eat you. Many people like the idea of conversing with animals, as if animals would say more back than "Mine. Mine. Mine." or "Feed me. Feed me. Feed me NOW." For many people, there is something attractive about the idea of having an animal friend, not an alien animal friend (a la Ursula Leguin and C.J. Cherryh) but a lion or badger or panda as a friend.

Even as a kid, this never appealed to me. I wanted a lion cub, yes, but I never thought it would like me. This lack of sympathy for my furry/scaly cousins was reflected in my reading material. As I mentioned, I didn't much care for Wind in the Willows. I love the Narnia books but mostly for the people and for the symbolism. I read Animal Farm and yes, it's great, but I couldn't get into the movie. I adored the movie Babe, but I think Babe is an exception. (The animals are very animalish and the whole sheep-herding thing is necessary to the plot--that is, it isn't pigs and sheep and dogs pretending to be humans, its pigs and sheep and dogs acting very piggy and sheepy and doggy. Beside, James Cromwell is so very, very great.) I read Black Stallion when I was ten or so and liked it but never picked up another horse book except Black Beauty which bored me senseless. I quite enjoy the BBC version of All Creatures Great and Small but honestly, the thing I like best about it is that the vets actually put animals down.

Let me clarify that.

No, I don't like watching animals get killed, but I like people treating animals like animals and not like people in animal clothing.

As far as I'm concerned, my cats consider me a food bowl and their degree of love ends about two feet past the food bowl. They aren't little people. They're animals. They're kind of dumb; their learning capacity is about the same as a two-day old amoeba. They are more fun to watch than fish and less involved than dogs. But they aren't people. If they were people, I'd want them to get a job and pay part of the rent. Not to mention the fact that they puke on my rugs and never change the litter box and like to play "I'm on this side of the door/now I'm on this side of the door" twenty times a day. One endures this with toddlers because they grow up. One endures it with pets because they are cuddly enough (and company enough) to pay off the downside. (And you can leave them for long weekends.) With anyone else, the house visit would end very quickly.

Which may explain my complete disinterest in the possibility of me and my cats exchanging views on the universe.

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