Three Books About... Animals

Image by Adam D'Costa

Are you a vegetarian? A vegan? Do you only buy products not tested on animals?

Want to hear a confession? Me neither.

I’ve adopted rhinos and gorillas. I wear leather.  I own dogs and cats and lavish them with toys, treats and attention. I eat meat.

Like most of western society, animals are a subject upon which I am deeply, irrevocably conflicted. Animals are commodity and companion, foodstuff and plaything. We love them, we fear them, we knit them little sweaters and call them FooFoo. We put them in zoos, pay money to hunt them, pay even more money to visit far-flung spots and take photos of them. We use them as a subject for our fiction. These three books about animals demonstrate how varied the results can be.

'Animal Farm' by George Orwell

Orwell, never the most subtle of writers, was abundantly clear about exactly what and who his classic novel of farmyard politics concerned. A long term opponent of Stalinism, he had observed the widespread support for Soviet Russia which developed during World War II with alarm. He knew about the Gulag, the false trials, the brutal collectivization which caused 10 million deaths from famine in the Ukraine. As a journalist, he desperately wanted the rest of Europe to know what lay in store for it if Stalin’s ambitions to drop the Iron Curtain with a loud clang somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic were ever realized. But one huge hurdle stood between Orwell and his desire to speak out. In his original preface to Animal Farm (never used because the publisher, Secker and Warburg felt it too controversial) he explained the problem like this:

At this moment what is demanded by the prevailing orthodoxy is an uncritical admiration of Soviet Russia. Everyone knows this, nearly everyone acts on it. Any serious criticism of the Soviet régime, any disclosure of facts which the Soviet government would prefer to keep hidden, is next door to unprintable.

Post-Cold War, it’s hard to believe that pro-Soviet sentiment ran that strongly, but a quick shuffle through the history books will confirm to anyone who doubts it that in 1944, dissing Uncle Joe was the cultural equivalent of pissing in everyone’s porridge. Pondering this problem, Orwell had a brainwave. Enter Josef Stalin, disguised as a pig.

Animal Farm is a straight satire. The animals are only animals in as far as they have four legs, fur and behave in a way which conforms with how we think about them (dogs are faithful, cats are sneaky, pigs are greedy, etc). In every other respect they behave, think and act exactly like the humans they were chosen to represent. Like I said above, Orwell was never subtle, but his thinly veiled critique of the Soviet regime did the trick (along with the fact that, despite his Yalta promises, Stalin annexed Poland faster than you could say ‘Adolf Hitler’). As Napoleon the Berkshire boar, Stalin lies, cheats, bullies and works his most loyal comrades to death. Stalin-enthusiasts hated Animal Farm with a passion. Critics disliked the clunky prose. Everyone else loved it.

 In 1953, Stalin suffered a stroke. His personal staff, too frightened to disturb him, left him to sink into a coma. In 1989 the Iron Curtain fell. Animal Farm is still in print.

Afterwards Squealer was sent round the farm to explain the new arrangement to the others. “Comrades,” he said, “I trust that every animal here appreciates the sacrifice that Comrade Napoleon has made in taking this extra labour upon himself. Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?

'The Island of Doctor Moreau' by H.G. Wells

Animals are commodity and companion, foodstuff and plaything. We love them, we fear them, we knit them little sweaters and call them FooFoo.

If you ever read Philip K. Dick and despair that all the good stories about mind control, memory and artificial humans have been done (dammit!), then comfort yourself that once upon a time, Dick must have read H.G. Wells and similarly despaired. Invisibility? Check. Martian invaders? Check. Time travel? Check.

Often called the father of science fiction, in his early novels Wells, mopping up those areas left unmapped by Jules ‘Centre of the Earth’ Verne and Robert ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ Stevenson, didn’t leave a whole lot of good subjects unexplored. A student of biology and Darwinism, Wells wrote Moreau at the age of twenty, inspired, legend has it, by the dissections he had to witness as part of his studies. They can’t have made pleasant viewing. Moreau is classic horror from start to finish and contains many of the tropes of the genre: lost islands, mad professors, hybrids. Scalpels. Yet to class it as pulp misses the point, because like all the best weird science novels, The Island of Doctor Moreau has something profound at its heart.

 In Moreau Wells attacks a series of questions that at the time were just beginning to attract serious philosophical study: what makes the difference between an animal and a human? Is there some kind of spiritual dividing line? Do we have the right as humans to make use of animals, just because we can? What are the legitimate limits of scientific study?

His method might be splashy and sensational, but it also works. In his laboratory, the vegetarian Moreau humanizes beasts. In the jungle, the results of his experiments create their own religion, cargo cult style, and worship him as a God. Are they human? Are they animals? Wells doesn’t attempt to give us an answer, perhaps aware even at that tender age that solving metaphysical problems isn’t fiction’s job.

The knot of Beast Men, still wondering, stood back among the trees. I passed them as serenely as possible. One started to follow me, but retreated again when Montgomery cracked his whip. The rest stood silent—watching. They may once have been animals. But I never before saw an animal trying to think.

'Watership Down' by Richard Adams

Only five books have won both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Watership Down is one of them. To date, Adams’ book about a band of fugitive rabbits has sold around 50 million copies, worldwide.

It isn’t even his favourite book. Adams, who gave up his job to write full time after the success of Watership Down, likes his second book Shardik — an epic tale about a lone hunter’s pursuit of a huge, black bear — best. Well maybe, but for most of his fans, Watership Down is unsurpassable. It’s a classic quest-story: Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones with the cast clad in long ears and angora. The rabbits lose their home when a building company gasses their warren. Warned of the impending disaster by his strange-but-psychically-gifted brother Fiver, leader-rabbit Hazel takes a small band of survivors on a journey to find a new place to live. Adams intersperses the narrative, which is laced with many dangers and challenges, with stories of Frith, the God of the rabbits, and of El-ahrairah, the trickster rabbit-folk hero, whose adventures inspire Hazel and his band on their search.

To call Watership Down fully realized is an understatement. Adams even gave the bunnies their own language, and although it’s easy to take cheap shots at a book about rabbits, two pages into the saga and you are immersed in the characters and their plight. Commentators, beguiled by the mythology Adams invented, have sought to unearth a spiritual subtext — rabbits as Holocaust survivors — or a thinly veiled polemic against animal cruelty and environmental destruction. It is true that Adams followed up Shardik with The Plague Dogs, a story about the escape of two dogs from a research establishment (don’t read this one without a large box of Kleenex at your side), but the inspiration for Watership Down comes from more peaceable roots than (entirely justifiable) rage about what we inflict on the natural world. Adams made up the story to keep his kids happy on a long car drive. One of his daughters told him he should write it down. So he did. It took him two years and he described it as ‘bloody hard work’, but he never intended the animals in it to represent anything other than what they are: a band of friends, trying to find a home.

And yet there endured the legend that somewhere out over the down there lived a great and solitary rabbit, a giant who drove the elil like mice and sometimes went to silflay in the sky. If ever great danger arose, he would come back to fight for those who honored his name. And mother rabbits would tell their kittens that if they did not do as they were told, the General would get them – the General who was first cousin to the Black Rabbit himself.

Three books about animals – did I miss any? Tell me in the comments.

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


wavedomer's picture
wavedomer from Boise is reading Rum Punch February 6, 2014 - 10:07am

Three other books I enjoyed, although you could consider them for a younger audience are, Babe The Gallant Pig, Tale of Despereaux, and The Wind in the Willows. I love Watership Down.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life February 6, 2014 - 12:23pm

I will always have a place in my mighty heart for my beloved 'Scruffy: the Tuesday Dog' by Jack Stoneley. Nuts to your grown up books!

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list February 8, 2014 - 1:23pm

I've got to go with a classic children's book. Charlotte's Web has always been a favorite of mine. Animal Farm is on my to-read list.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes February 9, 2014 - 3:30pm

I'm no vegetarian. How dare you! Even now I'm enjoying my carton of Friday's Popcorn Buffalo Chicken. 

Seriously, Stalin was a fiend but the Russians are the ones that took that Nazi sucker punch to the gut and survived. Hell, they beat them back. But as a national leader he was brain damaged, I agree. Inhuman. 

The Island of Dr. Moreau. What a m. f. I really have to read that again. Anyone that can realistically imagine what it would be like to be genetically part animal is barking up the right tree with me. 

Watership Down is new ground for me. I've seen it in the kiddy part of the bookstore but I never realized it was so deep. 

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast February 12, 2014 - 6:36am

Watership Down is so not a children's book. Don't know why it keeps being mislabelled that way - must be the rabbits.

'Moreau' is a stand out piece of fiction, all the more amazing when you remember Wells was early 20s when he wrote it. Bastard.

LaraLee12's picture
LaraLee12 July 14, 2021 - 8:51am

Orwell masterfully wrote a satire on totalitarianism. Everyone understood everything as they say, but the book does not directly criticize politicians. This is a very smart move, especially at the time Orwell was writing this novel. In every animal farm essay, students admire the Orwell's writing skills, who, through animal characters, was able to show the danger of a totalitarian society. It's a classic for a reason.