Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Don't kill the cat. Please.

Sandra Parshall

The question pops up regularly on e-lists like DorothyL (where it has been discussed this week), but as an animal lover I’m surprised anyone has to ask it: Why do so many readers get upset when a pet is harmed in a novel?

I can write scenes in which pets are temporarily endangered, but I could no more produce a graphic description of animal abuse than I could write a description of a child being raped. Reading such a scene turns
my stomach, and more often than not I give up on a book if I come across one.

There are people who say that since these things are part of life, it’s ridiculous to reject them in fiction – especially in fiction that revolves around murder. Why is it that I can read and write about human characters being shot, stabbed, strangled, and run down by vehicles, but I can’t bear the thought of fictional animals being hurt?

Several reasons come to mind.

Animals are like human children – innocent and dependent. Not even a tiger has a fighting chance against a human with a gun, and a pet cat or dog is heartbreakingly vulnerable. Humans have domesticated dogs and cats and made them dependent on us for everything – food, shelter, affection, and safety. In return, they give us their hearts. Neglecting or abusing a creature that wants only to spend its life in faithful companionship strikes me as unspeakably cruel. I feel the same way about wild animals in zoos. We have taken their freedom, and in many cases destroyed their natural habitats. We have a responsibility to treat them well and give them as good a life as possible under less than desirable circumstances. I despise circuses with animal acts and believe they should be outlawed. There is simply no justification for using animals in that way.

But the animals in novels aren’t real, so their suffering isn’t real. Why do I object to descriptions of their imaginary suffering? The main reason is that I don’t want those images in my head. I don’t want to read a book that I can’t stand to remember afterward. I’m also afraid that such scenes may desensitize some readers to animal suffering, or reinforce the beliefs of those who think animals have no emotions and don’t feel pain the same way humans do.

From a purely artistic perspective, I think that relying on animal abuse to show the reader how evil a character is will often result in weak writing, however violent it may be. Kicking a cat, shooting a dog – those are cliches, done to death, if you’ll pardon the expression. An author should try to come up with something more original. (Remember that Hitler adored his dog.)

On the other hand, I’m a sucker for characters who love animals. A writer who can capture an animal’s distinct personality and its unique relationship with a human companion will always win me over. Animals are invaluable for sh
owing the reader a side of a character that might not come through in dealings with other people. We don’t put on an act around our pets. We let them see our true natures.

A writer is entitled to write anything she or he
wants to put on paper. I wouldn’t want anyone violating my freedom of expression by telling me what I can or cannot write about. But readers have a right to pass up books they don’t enjoy reading. When I’m browsing in a bookstore or library, I’m a reader, and if a novel contains brutality toward animals, I will pass it up.

Here are the two companions who know what I’m really like and remind me every day of the human obligation to treat animals with kindness and compassion. Gabriel is an Abyssinian, purchased from a breeder.

Emma was abandoned at a truck stop when she was about four weeks
old, and we adopted her a couple months later from the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington.


Darlene Ryan said...

Sandy, what are you thoughts on using animals as a way to show another side to the "villain" in a story? Does it feel manipulative to you or just good character development?

Sandra Parshall said...

Darlene, a lot of readers probably would see it as manipulative, but I think it depends on the writer's skill. It's certainly true that some people have only contempt for fellow humans but love animals, and I've read one or two novels in which characters like that made effective villains. But I don't usually like being presented with an either/or situation. We don't have to hate people in order to love animals. I especially dislike stories that make animal rights activists into evil, relentless villains. Maybe some are. The great majority aren't, and I've never read such a story, or watched one on TV, that wasn't way over the top.

Darlene Ryan said...

I just put down a book because the "bad guy's" one redeeming quality was how well he treated an abandoned dog he found. It felt as though his love of animals had been added as a way to make an otherwise heinous character less disgusting. It didn't work for me at all.

Sandra Parshall said...

A lot of readers may react the same way you did, Darlene. I probably would too. Sounds like that trait was tacked on and not much thought went into it.

In Robert Crais's Elvis Cole novels, Elvis's friend and partner, Joe Pike, is aloof and mysterious, but the nearly wild cat Elvis feeds adores Joe. It works, but it wouldn't work if we didn't also get other glimpses into Joe's compassionate but wounded heart.

Julia Buckley said...

It's an unspoken law in mystery that one shouldn't hurt a child, and in the same way it should apply to animals: in both cases they are helpless against the authority of the bigger, older, potentially violent person.

Sandra Parshall said...

Maybe this is why some readers prefer victims to be people who are themselves guilty of bad behavior. They deserve what they get and the reader doesn't have to feel sorry they're dead.

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pharmacy said...

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