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Writing about other species

I’m currently writing a collection of short fiction exploring our relationship with animals. When I tell people this, they often ask me if it’s a book for children, and it’s true that many classics of children’s literature feature animals: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952) and Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972) all spring to mind, and if you search online for animal stories, many of the results are stories for children. But thinking about and appreciating the lives of animals shouldn’t be something we associate only with children.
Our interactions with other living species interest me partly because our attitudes contain so many contradictions – we treat some creatures as pets, others as pests; we revere some wild creatures and try to save them from extinction; but we breed others in order to eat them. How have we made these distinctions between species? And are we sometimes mistaken in our attitudes? In her book The Secret Lives of Cows (2018) Rosamund Young suggests that cows are sensitive, intelligent creatures with strong family bonds and that the separation of mothers from their young (a routine part of dairy farming) causes a huge amount of distress. Yet we don’t keep cows as pets, as we do horses and dogs, and many in the UK are squeamish at the thought of eating horses and dogs, but happily tuck into steak tartare and beef lasagne (and these attitudes differ considerably around the world, of course).
Another somewhat irrational attitude is our passion for pandas – millions of pounds have ben spent trying to save giant pandas from extinction, yet some naturalists have argued that it’s a huge waste of money, and that preserving ecosystems, not isolated species, should be our priority. Every day, many species of insect and plant go extinct – species that have never been described or recognised by science – because of the wholesale destruction of habitats, such as the Indonesian forests being destroyed for palm oil. We don’t even know what we’re losing.
But fiction is no place for lecturing and haranguing. It is, however, a potential space for an exploration of these ideas and for a consideration of how things could be otherwise. I’m wondering how we can move away from anthropocentrism, a philosophical viewpoint arguing that human beings are the central or most significant entities in the world, towards biocentrism, a point of view that extends inherent value to all living things. So far I’ve written, or have in progress, stories exploring animal testing, zoos, bird watching, lobster fishing and oyster eating. And I have some new stories brewing which may involve pet budgies, extinction, tiger poaching, and taxidermy.
I’m also interested in exploring our limitations with regards what we know about other species, particularly what it’s even possible for us to know, given our differing methods of sensing and perceiving the environment. Some writers have responded to this idea by making non-human creatures their main protagonists. Barbara Gowdy’s novel The White Bone (Flamingo, 200) traces the lives of a herd of elephants, and Gowdy creates a special language that the elephants use to suggest how they might perceive things – for example, ‘flow-stick’ is a snake and ‘jaw-long’ is a crocodile.
It’s easy to accuse such writers of anthropomorphism – the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities  – but the truth is that it is very hard (impossible, perhaps?) to avoid. We can’t know what it’s like to be another creature, can’t perceive the world through their eyes, with their sense of smell, or with senses we don’t even have – bees can see ultraviolet light, birds can detect the earth’s magnetic field, sharks can use electricity to find their prey – so we are restricted to our human worldview. In his fascinating book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2017) Frans de Waal explores the difficulties of getting under another creature’s skin, and suggests that we often ask the wrong questions when we measure animals’ intelligence, because we fail to take into account the world as they perceive it (also known as their ‘Umwelt’, German for the ‘surrounding world’). There’s a famous essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ (1974) which also explores this impossibility.
But even if we can’t know what it’s like to be another creature, we can imagine it – and I’m convinced that even trying to consider it is a valuable imaginative experiment, one that can shape our own understanding of the wider environment – and our human impact on it.
A handful of my favourite books which explore our lives with animals include:

  • John Berger’s Pig Earth, a collection of stories (and a few poems) exploring peasant life in France (Bloomsbury, New Edition 1999)
  • Alistair Macleod, ‘The Fall’ a short story from his collected stories, Island (Vintage, 2002)
  • I am addicted to Reaktion’s Animal series – they have dozens of books, each exploring a different animal, including Lobster, Swallow, Octopus and Snake, offering scientific information about the animal as well as a cultural history.

I’d love to hear from the OCA community about your favourite stories which explore the lives of other creatures – and if other species inspire your work too, whatever discipline you work in.

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Posted by author: Vicky MacKenzie
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8 thoughts on “Writing about other species

  • Couldn’t agree more with this post. Wildlife has been my passion since I was a kid, and it’s blindingly obvious to me that we live in an anthropcentric world, and that ignorance about animal intelligence is widespread. I went on a spider identification course some years ago, and was entranced once I started to look at them under a stereoscope and think of them as intelligent animals. This article may be of interest: https://owlcation.com/stem/The-Portia-Spider

  • Love your post. So very of now. Although Kipling’s Jungle Books are of their time, he does describe, albeit from observation, the intentions and experience of animals in a very lively manner. Not so much the Mowgli stories, but some of the other stand alone stories. I think of the Rikki-Tikki-Tavi story in particular. Good luck and I look forward to reading your stories.

  • Excellent post Vicky. A book that I wanted to mention to you in response to our perception of other animals and a sort of hierarchy of needs that you prod at, is John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs’. You may know of it, at its heart Gray takes a philosophical view of humans as irrational for our perception that we consider ourselves distinct from other animals. It ties in with your thoughts on how we might place ourselves in the mind of another animal, or approach metamorphosis as Kafka suggests.
    I wasn’t aware of your Nagel reference and am looking forward to reading this, thank you for the links.

  • Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy knocked me over, with its pared down but vivid descriptions of how horses move and react to humans (All the Pretty Horses) and his description of a boy taming a Wolf (The Crossing). Although these often brutal stories detail man’s (few women in these novels) domination over animals, I came away with a newfound fascination and respect for both species by the end.

  • Thanks for all your comments and reading suggestions, everyone.
    I haven’t read the Kipling or the John Gray so will definitely be looking into those. Sarah, that Berger book is wonderful, I often return to his essays! Thanks Liz for the link to the spider article, what a wonderful creature. Must crack on with writing these stories now!

  • Thanks for this recommendation, Paul. Spookily enough my husband is reading All the Prettty Horses just now, and I’m itching to read it next! I like writing that doesn’t flinch from the reality of our interactions with other creatures, and McCarthy is also an incredible writer.

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