We all like animals, don't we? We grow up with Peter Rabbit
and Peppa Pig
. Bears and dinosaurs get top billing in surveys of kids' faves. We have whale song in the bathroom, cats to cuddle and dogs to take on walkies, rabbits in hutches and kittens with mittens, and along with Julie Andrews sing out that animals are among our favourite things.
We certainly like animals, don't we? There is nothing like a good steak after a hard day's hillwalking, a nice cheap chicken joint hermetically wrapped on the supermarket shelf, a well-grazed field with Herdwick sheep wandering happily in the sunlight, a nice bacon roll with a latte mid-morning. One of life's little pleasures, tokens of the good life.
We like animals because so many of them are just like us. Take bears, for example, a question Kristina Stephenson asks in her delightful children's picture book Why Are There So Many Books about Bears?
The animals get together to discuss this deeply troubling (to them) enigma. Perhaps it's because bears are like human beings (who, after all, do all the writing and reading). Bears are soft and cuddly, small ones are cute and big ones impressive, and even the other animals admit all that. Even so, they are jealous, and completely thrown when the cute little bear himself asks: 'Why are there so many books about dinosaurs?' He could well have asked the same about books about penguins ('who' rapidly cease to be 'human' once we see them hunting underwater).
Any large public library, any publisher with a substantial list of books and media for children, will have a lot of books about animals. Let's remind ourselves of a few well-known ones: Watership Down
, The Red Pony
, Old Yeller
, The Jungle Book
, The Animals of Farthing Wood
, The Very Hungry Caterpillar
, Black Beauty
, Paddington Bear
, the Moomins
, and the cast of The Wind in the Willows
. We all know them – at least adapted in one form or another – and recall them with affection.
The common critical view of all this is that we sentimentalise and anthropomorphise animals as children, and then we grow up and come to see the world differently – as a harsh exploitative place, where animals die (like us), where we hunt and breed and exploit animals (for the greater good, for greater profits, sitting on ethical fences of compromise).
In such a grown-up world there is no time or space for sentimentality – except of course for Felix our lovely cat ('he's almost human in the way he looks at me when I'm feeling sad') and our eager young Border Terrier who wags her tail so winningly when she hears me put on my shoes. Except too for the animals we see in vet and zoo television programmes faced with life-changing surgery or likely extinction. Just like us (how nice), just for us (how useful) – never simple, nor should it be.
No surprise then that more than a few animal books have quite another agenda. Watership Down
, for instance, alerted us to the spread of myxomatosis among rabbits – no longer cuddly little creatures but harbingers of disease crossing species, even to human beings. Scenes like those of José Saramago's novel Blindness
but for children. Tarka the Otte
r picks up an animal narrative and set out to present it as realistically as possible albeit fictionally. This does not mean our emotions are not deeply involved – Tarka's death is tragic (in the context of Henry Williamson's indictment of otter culls), humanised though it is (Tarka's nemesis the large dog is itself partly humanised, Henry Williamson's original ending where Tarka lives and swims off to sea, or perhaps to an animal heaven).
Others in this realistic vein include TH White's The Goshawk
, the archetypal struggle between man and shark in The Old Man and the Sea
. Yet there we immediately recognise the shift from books for children to those to grown-ups. We leave behind the Gruffalo
, Dr Dolittle
, Babar the Elephant
, the Just So Stories
, and little owls or young Moomins
who learn the courage to fly the nest (helping children understand they too have to grow up). We reach out into a world where writers of animal books tell it as it is – letting the wildness of the animal or bird be truly itself, separate and different from anything human, living in a natural way, wholly as with wild animals, partly as with domesticated ones.
Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk
, like The Goshawk
, is uncompromisingly realistic. It is a harsh journey of the mind and spirit for the author herself as she tries to become a successful falconer, not suppressing or changing the hawk's natural instincts or skills, yet harnessing and enabling them in as empathetic a way as she can. Inspired as a child, she learns what it is really like. It is impossible to sentimentalise such a hawk: readers share her mesmerised fear as the bird glares at her, the awesome touch of its claws on her glove.
What both the author and the reader of such a book comes away with is a sense of having gone on a journey of discovery – one of encountering a truly wild creature which demands (and deserves) our complete respect. Macdonald is like White in admitting her mistakes, and we grieve with her when the hawk is finally lost to illness. Yet such hard-nosed themes are not ignored by writers for young people. If the storylines tugs our feelings, this does not make them sentimental.
We do feel deeply about animals, and many of us remember the sad endings in death we found in books we read long ago – Tarka the Otter
dies, so does the deer in The Yearling
, the dog in Old Yeller
, the rabbits in Watership Down
. The Red Pony's
eyes are plucked out by vultures. It may, then, be so that animal stories 'grow up' as readers themselves grow up. But worth remembering too is the skill it takes effectively to adapt the language, images and tone for young children, where calling a deer Tippytoes, a puppy Scruffypup, or describing the meerkat's marathon or the rattlesnakes' relay race (all real titles) makes perfect sense for the five-year-old.
Just as there is a hierarchy in animal stories – shaped by maturity and realism in the presentation and tone – there appears to be a hierarchy among the animals as well. This arises clearly in recent political debates about animal rights, which not only highlight the ambivalence of our attitudes to animals and our responsibility towards them and their environment (and ours), but which reveal other dichotomies, or at least gradations. And these reflect what we think and whether we care.
One is that between 'pets' (on which we place a load of sentimental and emotional value and significance) and 'pests' (from which most of us recoil in disgust – spiders, slugs, beetles, ants, weevils, silver fish, green fly – however much we acknowledge their critical role in the food chain). Another is that between 'animals just like us', sentiments and images are shaped more than we imagine by enculturation (indoctrination?) as children, and 'animals just for us' (animals and chickens organised by agri-business).
A third is the difference between looking after animals in tolerable, ethical and humane ways (arguably farming and zoos) and sheer cruelty. This is a spectrum with vet-driven care at one end and violent exploitation at the other (for instance, killing for rhino horns and elephant tusks and tiger parts and shark fins, and by extension using vicious dogs to restrain prisoners in open prisons). Where one becomes the other will always be a topic of dispute, and with the passage of time we are arrogant enough to believe we are better now than in the past.
Several recent books highlight some of the challenges of thinking this through in a responsible way. Traditional ideas about 'dominion' (of humankind over God's created world) seem utterly inappropriate if we use it to justify the widespread exploitation of animals and their habitats. The rhetoric of stewardship has yet to put its money where its mouth really is.
Barry Lopez follows up his memorable book Arctic Dreams
(1986), where he argued for environmental accountability, with his impressive valedictory memoir Horizon
, his final and most powerful advocacy for the responsible management of remote places. He challenges us to change our viewpoint more towards that reflecting a harmonious relationship between human society, animals and ecology. For him, the world itself is 'an animal made up of all the other animals', one held by indigenous cultures and rapidly and rabidly suffering memoricide from globalised exploitation.
Olivia Rosenthal's To Leave with the Reindeer
(2019) weaves autobiographical fact with veterinary science, arguing that, while we're happy to have Father Christmas and the reindeer once a year, what happens to the reindeer afterwards is what really matters. 'Everybody loves teddy bears and many people love animals,' she says, but 'Only those who use them, live off them, breed them, capture them, sell them, hunt them, kill them, do not speak of love'.
Whether this leads us, then, to argue that animal rights are based on the belief that animals experience pain, pity, fear, and other emotions we think unique to humans is up to us. Scientists, she tells us, will show us evidence that they do. Should we then equate killing animals (however indirectly) with, say, euthanising a human child with a disability? The animal rights argument leads us inexorably to one about abortion and a good death.
Another recent work is Henry Mance's How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World
(2020), which argues that people care about animals but don't care about farm animals. For him, the best way to deal with this is to go vegan and stop eating beef. Humane farming is an oxymoron: you only have to watch animals carefully to realise that their lives have meaning, and that for them they have meaning. As crime writer James Sallis says, even chickens care and plan, struggle not to die – they hurt. Mance pointedly revisits issues like sustainability in farming and the case for hunting, and leaves us thoughtfully facing the challenge of change.
We seem to turn full circle with all this. The humanised creatures in our children's books meant so much back then. A generation of young people inspired by Greta Thunberg and others have shifted the narrative for that demographic on to something more realistic and hopeful. Fiction and fact, if we examine the last 50 years of publications carefully enough, have told us something of the same story. Gavin Maxwell, Henry Williamson, Gerald Durrell, Peter Scott, were all telling us this long ago, and David Attenborough and Chris Packham are prophets for us today. But, then, who listened to Jeremiah? We still like our fatted calf too much.
We cannot but feel deeply about all this, and, far from being a hangover from childhood reading and the way we felt at the time, we cannot but feel deeply about it now. The COP climate conference is coming up: I do hope that Paddington Bear can be there to give them one his hardest stares. Perhaps they would all ignore him: after all, he is only a cuddly toy, comfortably accommodated in a frame of childhood nostalgia. But he's really staring at us, demanding to know what we really want. Do we know? Just like us to mess things up.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is a former chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School