Monday, June 02, 2008

Point of View

Some of my fiction is told from the point of view of non-human animals.

Well, frankly, a lot of my fiction is told from the point of view of non-human animals.

The reason for this is because I have always sympathized with animals. And at a very early age I discovered the work of a gentleman named Ernest Thompson Seton who was an enormous influence on me, if not stylistically, then very much philosophically. Seton understood that many of the animals with whom we share this rock are possessed of the same depth of emotion, as are humans. They feel fear and hatred and love and are inquisitive and pursue happiness just as we do.

Over the years I’ve encountered just a few authors who seem to feel this way. There was, of course, Seton. But before I found the old Scot, there was Hugh Lofting and his silly tales of Doctor Doolittle that also appealed to me, if on a different level. I outgrew the children’s fables of Lofting, but never forgot the lessons taught in the fiction of Seton.

Everyone who shares space with a pet can tell you that they have experienced things that allow them to understand that these animals have feelings very similar to our own. The dog who comforts you when you’re sick or sad. The cat who cuddles beside you at bedtime. The parrot who figures out how to unlock her cage to explore the house at will. If you share a home with a pet you will assuredly come to understand that they are far more clever than you ever suspected and as possessed of the same range of emotions.

My wife and I had a Siamese cat named Cinnamon. She lived to be well over twenty years old and continually fascinated and amazed us with her antics and achievements. We are both convinced that she had a pretty wide vocabulary. We learned early on not to say the word “veterinarian”, else she would find a place to hide before we could whisk her away for medical treatment. Every morning she would hop up on my side of the bed, reach for my glasses on the bedside table and knock them to the floor. Why did she do this? She did this because she knew that by knocking my glasses to the floor that I would have to climb out of bed to retrieve them. And, generally, once out of bed I would almost always shuffle to the kitchen and open her a can of cat food. Get the big galoot up, and breakfast was assured. Knock the glasses off the table, and the big ape would rise. In effect, she had me trained.

If Cinnamon wanted out, she would only have to go to either the front door or back door and park herself in front of it. There, she would stare up at the doorknob until one of us opened the door for her. She couldn’t say the word, but she figured out another way to communicate the idea.

Another thing that Cinnamon would do is, if I ever left the kitchen without feeding her when she was hungry, she would chase me down the hall and wrap her paws around my ankle. No claws. Just those soft, furry paws in a clench about my ankle. Of course I would turn around and go feed her.

We currently have three cats. Marley, the stray we rescued who is a lazy, laid-back male. Lilly, the new kitten who already seems amazingly intelligent. And we have Sophie, who is nine years old and, as far as we can tell, as crazy as Mary Todd Lincoln. Although she has never known anything from us but love and devotion, she flinches at the slightest sound. She will climb up on the bed to spend the evening, but will only lie at my feet and refuses to advance any farther up the mattress. When I walk down the stairs, she will race ahead of me and fling herself on the landing and scream for attention and will only stop howling if I also pause to sit beside her and pay her lots of attention. Sophie is not terribly bright, but she is devoted to me.

If one spends any time watching wild creatures, there will also be many signs of the emotional depth present in them. I spend several weeks every year in various state and national parks. We have the great fortune to encounter lots of animals whenever we travel to rural or wild lands. I have witnessed some amazing things in watching these creatures going about their lives. Even such things as ghost crabs have surprised me in exhibiting actions that I can only interpret as emotional on their parts.

So it's no wonder that I've spent so much time filling my novels and stories with animals who are sometimes as emotionally extravagant as any human being.

Chimp as person

A certain hairless primate and his offspring swimming in Jacob's Fork in the North Carolina mountains twelve years ago.

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