Animals Speak Volumes: Animal-Human Friendships in Fiction, by Diane Lee Wilson
As the daughter of a veterinarian, I was knee-deep in animals from infancy. A pet skunk shared my parents’ apartment situated above a clinic where yips and meows lulled me to sleep. My first words, I believe, were addressed to the Dalmatian in the neighboring yard. We were each behind bars — I in my playpen and he inside his fence. Eye level. It was natural to introduce myself. Before long my world was populated by innumerable cats, a schnauzer and guinea pigs. A brother came along and he introduced ducks and rabbits. Another brother, turtles. My father began breeding Labradors. And I fell in love with horses.
Which is to say that I’ve always felt myself on equal footing with animals. In my experience they’re more than secondary companions, they’re friends, with visible emotions, varying degrees of intelligence, and a willingness to communicate. They readily take up residence in my novels, playing a variety of roles.
Because my protagonists are typically loners (as a great many teens envision themselves), cats, dogs and horses often serve as best friends—non-judgmental and loyal. Time spent in the company of these animals is a welcome respite from the greater world. As Walter Hogan writes in his scholarly work Animals in Young Adult Fiction, “Animals are important to the adolescent because it is during the teen years that the child’s healthy, natural sense of being connected with an entire living planet—instead of just to his own species—is routinely shattered.” Romping with a dog or stroking a cat or even just sitting quietly in a stall with a favorite horse can provide a teen with a satisfying sense of affection and connection. As Rachel says in my novel Firehorse, “When I’m standing beside a horse, I feel that I’m neither girl nor boy, child nor adult, strong nor weak. I’m accepted just as I am. And there, and only there, I can breathe.”
Because most novels take place in the civilized world though, one ruled by humans, the friendships are not equal; the teen has the opportunity to take the more powerful role. Wielding that power provides opportunities for maturation. Maybe a dog shouldn’t be left to sleep in the snow, even though the boss’s rules say otherwise. Perhaps a horse, callously misused, requires bold rescue. Caring about—and acting to better—the treatment of animals helps a teen become a more thoughtful, compassionate adult. As Hogan further states in his book, “…animals provide a vital perspective on our understanding of what it is to be human.”
During the writing process I’ve sometimes found animal characters nudging the human characters to “do better” or “make the right choice” via a soul-piercing stare. At least, the teen reads such intent into the animal’s gaze as he/she contemplates a current situation’s moral complexities. In my most recent novel Tracks, for instance, Malachy, an Irish boy, often snubs a Chinese co-worker whom he considers inferior. His dog, Brina, who shares her affection with both boys, serves up occasional judgment. After one caustic exchange Malachy admits, “But here was Brina, her golden eyes brimming with disdain, which bothered me…” In these situations, the animal, I think, evolves from friend to gentle counselor.
A word of caution to writers who plan on incorporating animals in their stories: keep them on stage! I once introduced a cat solely as a plot device though the creature unexpectedly pounced into a few more scenes before disappearing from the story. My editor asked what happened to him. I assured her he was fine and living off-stage, but she said, “I like that cat; I want to hear more about him. Your readers are going to want to hear more about him.” So I gave this feline ham a few more scenes and included him in the final chapter. Which is to say, it’s a whole lot easier to introduce animal characters than it is to dispose of them! But incorporating animals in novels offers rich opportunities for character-developing interaction. And surprises for authors and readers alike.