How to Keep a Human, my first and still most loved book, landed back on my desk with a thump this week. Inside, a handwritten note from the reader who wasn’t. She had tried but found it impossible to focus on what seemed a fantasy, and expressed a dislike for people’s speaking for animals.
She might be surprised to know that every one of the five related stories in that book really happened. Notes in the book’s last pages even ask anyone who might have pictures of the high-noon human-and-dogfight in Dawson City to get in touch with me. I assure you that Amaruq and I also really suffered a rodent invasion, spent an October Yukon night outside together, occupied two seats in university classes for a full year (where Amaruq trained a professor or two), and took an anthro course in teepees in the foothills of the Rockies. (Well, okay, I’ll admit to altering that last story a bit: the bear and the elk didn’t actually mix it up with us students, and our real professor was a wonderful, farsighted woman who would never be guilty of cultural misappropriation—but that dogfight, that porcupine hunt, and that attempt to buy Amaruq from me—all were the genuine article.)
I can’t get excited over pure fantasy, either. What inevitably starts a story for me is an event—something that actually happened somewhere on this planet. Once the narrative is rooted in reality, the questions start: what would it be like for this or that participant in the event? It’s just as interesting to imagine what the event would be like for other species as it is to imagine the human elements. It opens the mind and soul to speculate that a wolf might be as lupocentric as we humans are anthropocentric.
My mother read How to Keep a Human and remarked, “You are the best dog I’ve ever read.” Of course, she had known all my wolf dogs over the years in person, including Amaruq—she’d even cooked him Christmas dinner every year—and what she read accorded with what she knew of my “prefurred” companions and shed new light on their inner lives. She meant that the book had made a sincere attempt to get inside the lupo-canine skin and had avoided that heinous sin, anthropomorphism.
Anthropomorphism is usually defined as the attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena. Why is it a sin (especially since it’s so much fun and besides, everybody does it)? Look no further than the Judaeo-Christian roots of our “Western” culture: the only creatures on the planet believed to have souls are…humans! (And not even all of them, history admonishes us—but I digress.) When you attribute human traits to mere animals, are you not implying that the thing might also have a soul? Shame! Only “Man” was created in God’s image.
It’s so nice to be living in a time when we can all agree that this was bunkum, right? Including the Man part. Nowadays we have scientists reporting that mere monkeys display a sense of justice, elephants hold funerals, gorillas tell jokes in sign language, and wolf packs regulate their birth rate in correlation with how hard the next winter will be. It might just be that the only critter on the planet which “doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose” is…Mankind. Heck, we’re still naming our own species with the word for under half of us!
Chris Knight explored the state of the dreadful sin of anthropomorphism recently in a National Post article (April 17, 2017) entitled “A slate of new films are [sic] exploring our paradoxical relationship to animals — particularly donkeys”.
“At the core of humanity’s relationship with the other inhabitants of Earth is a paradox that will never be fully understood. We need animals. They keep the planet alive. They nourish our souls. They sometimes nourish our bodies too. We love them. We abuse them….
“As a species, we drive creatures to extinction and at the same time rush to save them. We strive to turn them into us (think of the animated film Zootopia), and yet we will never bridge the gulf that separates us. Pereira [one of the donkey-film makers] notes philosophically that we may never know what passes through [the donkey] Gorrión’s mind, but we know that when it rains, it rains for the donkey as well as the man.
“But what, precisely, divides humans from animals? Researchers have found that tool use, language, kindness, cruelty, self-awareness, creativity and even a theory of mind all exist in species beyond our own. The Last Animals [film] has one terrifying suggestion, when the meaning behind the title is revealed. Did you think it referred to the dwindling numbers of wild animals? No. If we cannot save the rest of them, the last animals will be us [sic].”
There’s a rash of new books and films channeled from other species lately, and that, I think is hardly an accident as our species moves the planet closer to disaster. Stories have always been the chief human tool for transmitting culture, and it is high time we added fresh perspectives. If anything can move us to exert ourselves to save our pale blue dot, it may just be the stories told through another species’ senses, told as honestly as writers can.
My un-reader won’t like my next book, Hot Dogs, either, in spite of the fact that my current feral friend, Lord Tyee, who is three quarters’ wolf, is proving to be a formidable mystery writer. Like his predecessors, however, he doesn’t type worth a damn. Good thing his Pack Leader is a ten-fingered human.