Reading About Animals: The Pleasure and Peril

When it comes to animals — in books, in movies, even in pop songs — I approach with caution. I worry that the poor beasts will be mishandled, will befall some terrible fate, or be sacrificed as a plot complication. Who among us can say with complete confidence that they have recovered from Old Yeller? (Looks around.) I thought so.

On Memorial Day weekend, I began an Audible book as I walked to the library to return a few print books. I loved the sound of Sy Montgomery's voice in my ears as she read How to Be a Good Creature. (Full disclosure: I took a few days off when Tess started showing signs of old age. I can say it was because I didn't want to blubber like a fool on the elliptical — but the truth is, I wasn't brave enough.)

I thought of Cisco and Khan, my cats who died within days of each other in October 2011. The brothers had entirely different types of cancer, but each fell ill suddenly, and died within days of their diagnosis. I was so grief-stricken, I shocked my stepdaughter Valerie when she asked about my birthday plans a couple of months later. The sadness in my voice was palpable: "Nothing. I don't really want to do anything, hon." My house was quiet, my heart was broken, and I couldn't think beyond the next day.

The next week, when we drove down to North Carolina for a major Christmas shopping event, Valerie handed me a small orange and white kitten. I just looked at the kitten and thought, "Can I do this again?" That night, as the newly named Ginger curled up in bed between my husband David and me, I lay awake looking at her: was I brave enough to love her? Now, I can't imagine my life without her, or her little sister Elsie who makes Ginger emit a particular sound when she catches sight of her. I knew Sy would get there, too, and I was with her until she did.

Just the title Dogs of War caused me a bit of concern. I wanted to know more about these brave canines, but I worried about their well-being. Three dogs represented canine troops in three wars: Boots, a collie in the trenches of World War I; Loki, a husky in Greenland during World War II; and Sheba, a German Shepherd in the jungles of Vietnam. No dogs were harmed in the writing of the book, nor were they hurt in their stories. The author's note, however, explains that dogs were considered "equipment" and left behind after the Vietnam War, which breaks my heart (and contributes to Lanford's state of mind when we meet him). 

My childhood companion — and my only dog — was a cockapoo named Frisky. My family drifted to German Shepherds when I was in high school, but Frisky was always "mine." She was a tough little dog who loved me fiercely and protected me fearlessly, who loved adventure and put up with my teen shenanigans. She was my cross-country running partner, my hiking and walking partner, and my park buddy. When we were on vacation in my 10th summer — a rare vacation without Frisky — my family received news that our house had been burgled. My only concern was for my dog. Thankfully, Frisky was asleep at the neighbor's house, safe and sound.

When I was a teen, Frisky would sit at the bottom of the stairs that led to my bedroom to tell me when my date was over. My dates would laugh, but her word was law. (The ones I liked who came back were worthy of my time.) As her muzzle grayed and her steps slowed, I would carry her up the stairs and settle her on the bed. She grew blind, deaf, and arthritic, but remained loyal and loving: when she recognized the vibration of my footsteps, she would come out from under the side table in the den and greet me every day of her 15 years. One day, even that was too painful. She died in my arms at the vet's office. She shaped my understanding of animals, and I am grateful to this day for her love and patience. How anyone could think an animal, a dog, was equipment is beyond comprehension, and I grieve with every soldier whose animal companion remains in the field of battle without them.

I love animals, and well-placed animal characters are a great addition to any story. I prefer they be well-treated, but as long as the story ends up well, I can forgive perilous storylines (as with A Man Called Ove). Non-fiction is perilous, but I will do my best. My reading companions alert me about how they think I'll respond to an animal storyline, and often encourage me to read books I might otherwise eschew (like Water for Elephants). I will try to extend the same kindness and awareness to my fellow readers — and I hope you will, too.