Why are animals in fiction so fascinating?
Updated: 4 days ago
Bring a puppy into any room and see how eyes light up. Show people an exotic animal – like a pelican or kangaroo – and they’re instantly hooked. Why the fascination with animals? I believe it’s because they’re both familiar and strange, kind of like humans in some ways yet utterly different. Animals in fiction might be intimate friends or mysterious creatures or even threatening predators. Animal characters, including the scariest ones, elicit a variety of delicious emotions, from the safe distance of the pages of a book.
Even the strangest beasts and bugs are like us in some ways. They all have a strong sense of self-preservation, as do we. They generally exhibit positive parenting skills, even if very different from ours in some cases – like rabbits that abandon their young early as a way of increasing their chance of survival. Some animals use tools to solve problems. And many of them have complex family and community relationships, with established “governance” rules.
Yet animals elude our human definitions. They will not speak to us nor explain their behaviour. City-dwelling wild animals live a secret life, right under our noses. What do they think of us? Do they think – as we define the term– at all? It’s hard to tell.
Fictional animals take this ambiguity away. They offer us the opportunity to wrap a narrative around animal behaviour – and we get to choose what we want that narrative to be.
Animals in stories – everything from best friend to terrifying attacker
Your animal hero might be very different from my animal hero. This is evident from best-selling books throughout the decades.
Some – like Beatrix Potter’s beloved Tale of Peter Rabbit – anthropomorphize bunnies and mice, dressing them in clothes and giving them tea parties. Almost the opposite approach is found in Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Here, a family pet “sheds the veneer of civilization, and relies on primordial instinct and learned experience to emerge as a leader in the wild.” Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty – one of the best-selling books of all time – breaks ground by presenting an autobiographical story told by the horse. But this is not about a horse dressed in jacket and trousers. The author’s goal was "to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses.” Her book sparked new concern about animal welfare and was credited for helping ban the cruel practice of the “bearing rein” that was painful and harmful to horses.
Charlotte’s Web, by author E.B. White, offers yet another cut into the relationship with – and between – animals. Here, the spider Charlotte exhibits cross-species empathy that helps save the pig Wilbur’s life. Yet, she is a true spider – she doesn’t’ apologize for killing and eating flies.
Finally, at the extreme end of the spectrum is the thriller/horror story, where animals terrorize humans in violent and unpredictable ways. There’s no better example than The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s film loosely based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Here, a series of sudden and unexplained bird attacks holds an entire community hostage. And while not a heart-warming view of birds, it does acknowledge the intelligence of winged creatures – and the respect that these wild things should command.
Why animal stories matter more now than ever
According to Animals Around the Globe, there are now more than 16,000 endangered species threatened with extinction – a number that is climbing year over year. Topping the at-risk list are the Javan Rhinoceros, Vaquita, Mountain Gorilla, Tiger, Asian Elephant, Orangatan, Leatherback Turtle, Snow Leopard, Irrawaddy Dolphin, and Bluefin Tuna.
The WWF states that the loss of species is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate – in other words, the rate that species would become extinct if we humans were not on the planet. Destruction of habitat, climate change, illegal hunting and trafficking, and the introduction of invasive species are clearly taking their toll.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that animal stories can magically change this situation. However, stories can build empathy – and they can prompt people to act. Fictional heroes– whether animal or human – can provide encouragement by demonstrating courage, conviction, and determination.
Animal heroes in Secrets of the Under-Under World books
When I started to write my books, I had to decide how human I wanted my animals to be. I adore Peter Rabbit, but my plot didn’t lend itself to that degree of anthropomorphism. And while I wanted some tension – a wee bit of scary – I definitely didn’t want horror. So I decided to let my animals act according to their individual natures, with a bit of human emotion and a touch of magic thrown in.
Here are the animal heroes I’ve introduced so far:
Cat – Gemini is one of the main characters in my series. She is a true cat– with sharp claws, excellent smelling and hearing, a fixation on her food bowl, and an exquisite ability to manipulate humans. (I have two cats of my own and adore the species. I respect cats in the same way audiences admire criminal masterminds who make buffoons out of those trying to catch them.)
Salmon – My first book, Water, introduces readers to the fish graveyard and to salmon who are sad because the freshwater streams where they hatched no longer exist – so they can’t complete their natural lifecycle. So yes, I’ve taken a few liberties describing the emotions of fish. And my fish can also communicate with select humans.
Raven – My mythical character – The Great Hildinski – often has a raven on her shoulder. These ravens are super smart. They often guide Sam and her friends to the passageway between worlds. They’re dignified birds, possessed of spiritual and psychic insight – suitable companions for the last survivor of a lost civilization.
Slashasaurus – This guy is of course pure fiction. I wanted a dinosaur in my second book because I was intrigued by the notion of backwards evolution – the idea that climate change can actually pull us back into more primitive times. I gave my (fictional) Slashasaurus a bunch of deadly characteristics – but I also gave him the ability to change his nature when introduced to a kinder, gentler world.
Whale – Here, I’ve borrowed from Moby Dick. Because of the whale’s massive size, he’s able to rescue the kids from baddies who mean them harm. My whale speaks the same language as the fish so he can “talk” with some of my human heroes. This might seem like a big stretch – but there’s a case of one whale who tried to bridge the communication gap with humans, so who knows? Whales are sophisticated enough to sing a common song, so who’s to say that they can’t also sing to humans?
Elephant – I have a serious soft spot for elephants, particularly after visiting an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka some years ago. Highly intelligent, social, and noble, these gorgeous animals are too often killed for their tusks, even today. Elephants are also frequently enslaved for the benefit of humans, as is the one in my book. With kind, sad eyes and real empathy, my fictional elephant is an evolved and heroic character.
Lion, Giraffe, Monkey, Kangaroo, Emu, Penguin – All of these fabulous animals appear in the part of the world where they would be expected. Their behaviour is more true to life than humanized. Most of them make cameo appearances but in every case, they add a spark of pure animal joy.
Butterflies and other birds – These winged creatures can be summoned on command by The Great Hildinski. Often, they appear to mark an achievement or celebration. They also assist Sam in a variety of other ways, appearing when she needs them most. In my books, they’re part of the circle of friends. And why not? Who hasn’t felt a sense of connection with a hummingbird when she appears near your face and buzzes a hello?
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