Introduction: Black Hearts, Red Spades

Elephants and Dogs Writing Stories

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3.4 Elephants and Dogs Writing Stories

Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone (1998) is an extraordinary piece of work not only in the context of portraying the human-animal relationship in Canadian literature. The novel tells a story of African elephants who set off on a journey to find a safe place where they would be protected from the excessive droughts and the attacks of humans, or the hindleggers as the elephants call them (Gowdy xiii). The uniqueness of the story lies in the fact that it is narrated entirely by the elephants themselves. John Sandlos calls her novel “a dramatic assimilation of myth and biology in Canadian animal fiction” (87).

The story has an educative quality to it in the sense that it informs about the elephants’ sense of smell, family and social structures, mating habits, or their perfect memory. This strategy resembles the works of the early Canadian animal-story writers Seton and Roberts as it also shows a deep interest in natural science (Sandlos 87). On the other hand, in the novel the special mystical and religious practices of the elephants are highlighted, such as burying the bones of the dead or passing a hind leg over their dead mates (87). The animals also apply their visionary and healing powers to help each other. The author has studied the elephant behaviour in Kenya’s Mara Reserve and reflected it naturalistically in her book, while adding a fictional input in form of the ritual practices. The fact that Gowdy chose to add this fictional element to the research-based data to depict the elephant characters suggests a reversed strategy opposing the earlier phenomenon of dehumanizing the animal protagonists in animal stories. On the contrary, Gowdy gives an accurate account of the elephant behaviour, while humanizing the animals to the same degree on purpose. This strategy brings the perception of animals closer to humans, and “the elephants straddle the line between biology and myth in a way that emphasizes their continuity with, and relationship (negative or positive) to, human beings” (Sandlos 88).

Throughout the book, humans are generally viewed as a fatal threat and slaughterers of the elephants (Gowdy 56). Nevertheless, the legend of the white bone, which will lead the she-ones, i.e. the elephants, to the safe place, features another kind of humans than the hunters to whom the elephants are now used to. These people awaiting there are peaceful and entranced and they do not kill elephants because of their tusks, feet or flesh, they just observe them the whole day (73). In her vision, Mud, one of the members of the She-S family and the protagonist, foresees the elephants coming to the safe place, even though she does not recognize any of them as members of her family (317). However, it gives her at least a flicker of hope that one day the elephants might live happily and safely from the exploitation of humans. Some elephants believe that this peaceful kind of humans regained their memory of before the Descent and realized they used to be elephants one day. Now they think that by staring at the she-ones they will transform back into them (74). That is yet another elephantine explanation for why the majority of people steal elephants’ tusks, feet and tails – because these artefacts remind them of the times when they used to be the she-ones themselves (113). This is yet another example of how Gowdy brings the animals nearer to humans. She suggests that the elephants share similar myths to humans, thus linking their experience to ours and invoking feelings of sympathy towards these nonhumans.

Similarly to Gowdy’s elephant tale, Fifteen Dogs (2015) by André Alexis is an animal story narrated directly by the animal characters. Being endowed with human intelligence while keeping the memories of their old lives as dogs, as a result of a wager between the gods Apollo and Hermes (Alexis 3) a pack of dogs escapes from a veterinary clinic and starts to fend for themselves in a nearby park. Soon some in the group start to reject the human consciousness and want to return to their old dog ways, whereas others use their newly acquired knowledge to create an original language understandable only among the members of their pack. Some even start to compose poetry, to a strong disapproval of their dog friends. The major question of this playful postmodern novel is whether the dogs would be happier than humans were they granted human intelligence and language. Both The White Bone and Fifteen Dogs prove, that the genre of animal stories narrated by animals – in Canadian literature firstly attempted by Sanders in Beautiful Joe (1893) – has not lost its popularity up to this day. Even though the authors risk being accused of anthropomorphism, Sandlos remarks that that would be a misplaced interpretation. The authors surely do not mean to indicate that this is the exact representation of the animals, rather they want their readers “to accept the idea that ‘real’ biological animals may have cultural experiences similar in kind to those of human beings”, thus help to bridge the gap between human and nonhuman animals (Sandlos 88).

3.5 Animals as Food and Entertainment

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001) aims at three significant parts of the human nature – our mental attitude to religion, animals and storytelling. Pi is the son of a zookeeper and a sworn vegetarian who grows up in Pondicherry in India, and majors in religious studies and zoology later in Canada. However, the unbelievable circumstances he finds himself in naturally change his stance on vegetarianism. When his family decides to immigrate to Canada, he is the only survivor in a shipwreck of a Japanese cargo ship and is found on a lifeboat with a company of animals, namely a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger. One by one, the animals die and his sole companion remains the tiger called Richard Parker, a constant deadly threat to Pi. Unable to kill the tiger, he decides to train him instead, applying the tried and tested circus techniques. Thus, they manage to survive 227 days at sea together before they reach Mexico. Pi is forced to break his habits of not eating meat as he runs out of the survival supplies, and with much regret starts to catch fish and other animals that the sea offers him. A phrase (also mentioned later in the MaddAddam analysis) that Atwood uses in The Year of the Flood (2009) proves very true in Pi’s situation, attesting that “hunger is a powerful reorganizer of the conscience” (Atwood 43).

There is also another aspect in the novel that falls within the scope of the human-animal relationship in addition to Pi’s sworn vegetarianism, and that is his defence of zoos. To set straight those “misinformed” people, who believe that animals in zoos are unhappy and deprived of their freedom, Pi remarks that any wild animal lives a life full of “compulsion and necessity”, constantly dealing with high level of fear, lack of food, its life being threatened by predators and parasites (Martel 16). On the other hand, all of this is taken care of for the animal in the zoo and it can have a much stronger feeling of safety and comfort. I would add here, that this depends also on the conditions in respective zoos, and as long as these are suitable for the animal, Pi’s argument might make sense. Yet via the novel, Martel does not provide any response to other significant anti-zoo arguments concerning animal rights, such as the notion of whether humans have the right to confine nonhuman animals in the first place, be it for educational or entertainment purposes. Another issue not mentioned is the commercial nature of zoos. As opposed to sanctuaries which rehabilitate wildlife and might offer an equivalent educational quality, the zoos buy, sell and breed animals in order to make profit.

Sara Gruen, a contemporary novelist with dual Canadian and American citizenship, is a popular writer who does not deal much with typical Canadian literary issues such as identity crisis or survival in her writings. Nonetheless, she gives animals a considerable space in her fiction, and has the power to impact a large readership through her best-selling novels. Gruen’s third novel and her first breakthrough, Water for Elephants (2006), is a circus drama set in the 1930s. Among other things, the novel thematises activism against animal cruelty, such as when the protagonist Jacob decides to protect the circus animals from the maltreatment of some of the managers, and follows in the footprints of his father, a poor veterinarian who considered it his duty to help the animals regardless of their owners’ reward (Gruen S., Water 184-185). In addition, Gruen also stresses the humaneness of the circus chimpanzees (196), a theme she also develops in her following novel Ape House (2010). Adhering to the same tradition of writing stories as a form of propaganda for changing the exploitative treatment of animals, which was commenced by Anna Sewell in the horse story Black Beauty, Ape House aims to raise awareness on the necessity of treating great apes in a more respectful manner.

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