Animals in Novels

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Paul Whybrow

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Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I came across this article on the Electric Literature site, about how authors have treated animals in their work.

13 Literary Takes on the Lives of Animals – Electric Literature

I'm currently in the early stages of writing a novella about an American Civil War veteran who's travelling from the Great Smoky Mountains on his Morgan stallion, with a mustang, two mules and a mongrel dog he's recently acquired. Suffering from shell-shock, (which is now called PTSD), he's been hiding out in the wilderness for two years since the war ended, his main companion the stallion he rode in the conflict. My protagonist is better at relating to animals, wild and domesticated, than people.

I've previously included dogs, cats and budgerigars, poisonous frogs and snakes in short stories, novellas and novels. The forensic pathologist in my Cornish Detective series lives with an African Grey parrot, and she brings him to work. My detective protagonist is a country boy at heart, keenly observant of wildlife around him, and had a dangerous encounter with the legendary Beast of Bodmin Moor, which turned out to be an escaped mountain lion. He lives with a battle-scarred silver tabby, rescued from a remote farm where its owner died. He's named it Bastet, after the Egyptian deity who represented a protector of the home: cat and detective share attributes.

It's always struck me as odd, how many authors completely ignore animals in the stories they tell. I guess it's no different from having characters than never eat anything, who avoid watching television, reading or listening to music and whose cars never need refuelling, but when an author says that his character "looked out of the window and saw some black birds flying past" then he's betraying his own ignorance and lack of interest, for most people can tell the difference between a starling and a crow, so why not say?

Certainly, there's an argument that in writing, there shouldn't be extraneous information that doesn't further the plot, but incidental details about animals and how one's fictional characters react to them, do much to flesh out who they are. Think how differently a reader would interpret the personalities of two men, one of whom dotes on a poodle spoiling it with gourmet food, the other who lives with twenty snakes that he feeds live mice to....

Do any of you include animals in your stories, and what are they? And, what are their names?


(Illustration by Manuel Larino, for an article in Paste magazine, about Haruki Murakami, who often includes cats in his novels)
I love animals in novels - yours sounds great, Paul. In my first, there's a spaniel called Tincoramus (after a Celtic warlord) and in the latest, a border terrier called Rip. That was wish-fulfilment; it's my dream dog! And in a case of life imitating art, I am getting a BT pup in November...plenty of material there, God help me.
Animals in fiction are irresistible. I once popped in a single-line mention of an African Grey named Knuckles in a non-fiction travel feature all about a renovated and exciting new country hotel blah-blah-blah. The only thing my editor, the readers and advertisers, other hotel owners and tour guides cared about was how Knuckles made loud burping noises to embarrass honeymooners.
Animals in fiction are irresistible. I once popped in a single-line mention of an African Grey named Knuckles in a non-fiction travel feature all about a renovated and exciting new country hotel blah-blah-blah. The only thing my editor, the readers and advertisers, other hotel owners and tour guides cared about was how Knuckles made loud burping noises to embarrass honeymooners.
My dad has a Grey called Chris...22 years old and laid an egg last week :) (the parrot, not my dad) -- so now Christine, not Christopher!
An entomologist who writes MG novels? Animals galore, many of whom talk. My favourite of the bunch is Rata, a small, vain, gluten intolerant dragon. Of my non-fantasy animals, my favourite is Shorty, a Scotch terrier of uncommon intelligence. I'm also quite fond of my six-legged characters, particularly Peri, a sarcastic American cockroach.
My hero has a cat. An agent of destiny. How old IS he? No-one seems to know. The cat is bereaved by the death of his old human and my policeman takes him home. ADD Name is Lux.

His antagonist has a faithful dog; a camp dog of Helmand. The antagonist doesn't know that. He thinks the dog is dead and so she is, but still, she saves her human's life though only my policeman can see her.

@MaryA Parrots; what are they like? Sprog worked a spell in a local hotel, also with a Grey parrot in residence in reception; Tinker. She used to wolf whistle, shout 'shut up!' at guests and imitate the chef's bell so that waiting staff, already rushing about, chronically understaffed, would dash to the kitchen thinking chef had another order ready for collection, but no...
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Ah, parrots! Now that I think about it, every book should have one. We have thuggish alpine parrots here (wild)--kea. They roam in gangs, swooping down on unsuspecting tourists--one preens for the camera while the others tear the tourists' cars apart. One bit me on the butt once. I think he was looking for a wallet. They also have a taste for sheep kidneys--they'll sit on the backs of live sheep and tear into their backs to eat the kidneys. I used that in my most recent novel, much to the delight of my kids (who are weird like that).
@Katie-Ellen, African Greys are intelligent (the intelligence of a four-year-old child), sensitive and fantastic mimics. They live for up to 60 years so this is a major commitment for anyone wanting to acquire a young Grey. They should be able to move around the property out of a cage.

I've spent time with friends who have them and they are disruptive at times, lively affectionate and attention-seeking. Beautiful birds. They can whistle, imitate sirens, phones ringing, door bells, cars hooting, voices and snatches of song. They can distinguish between numerous objects, colours and shapes and become deeply attached to owners and human companions.

I am strongly opposed to the export of exotic wild birds (African Greys are captured in the Congo, West Africa and East Africa, in rainforests and along rivers) sent to a different colder climate to be kept in captivity. The African Grey is one of the many species on a list as part of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, and as such is banned from commercial international trade. A reputable dealer or breeder will sell birds bred in domestic situations.

In a wonderful novel by Julia Glass called Three Junes, the character Malachy who is dying of AIDS has to decide who will take care of and 'adopt' his beloved young African Grey. Worth reading.
I like animals, having shared my life with a few dogs and cats, but this is taking things too far:

Creatures wild and domesticated regularly appear in my stories and the entire plot of a novella A Man Out Walking His Dog hinged on the protagonist's inquisitive Spaniel locating the corpse of a missing animal rights activist, who had been murdered by a badger baiter. But, if any members of the Colony catch me writing crime novels where the detective is an animal, you have my permission to cart me to the vets in an oversized carry box to be humanely euthanised!

Animal Detectives (51 books)

Uh oh. I can't tell the difference between a starling and a crow.

I loathe talking animals in fiction but I like animals in fiction.

There is one talking animals I like. I know someone with a story where a crow goes around saying, "F you Billie." Billie is the authors name. It's funny every time.
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