World Enough and Time: Animal stories

Bill Hagen
Lassie Come Home

I was reminded of my early love of animal stories this past Halloween.

Television was doing its usual thing: trotting out scary “B” movies from yesteryear. We watch them to bring back and maybe laugh at what we were back then.

So here was “Cat’s Eye,” a film I had never seen. 1985 was a bit late for my childhood. In the third tale, young Drew Barrymore is being threatened by a nasty little troll, who comes out of the wall at night and crawls over the  covers to get to the sleeping child. Of course, her parents don’t believe her and blame her frights on the grey tabby cat, which her mother — being a bird fancier — doesn’t like anyway. Ironically, the cat, whom legend has it draws the breath out of infants, is her only defense against the troll who is trying to do the same thing. 

The movie reminded me of all those animal stories and novels that provide a bridge from children’s books to adult books and, in a real sense, a bridge to the adult world.

Often in these stories, as in “Cat’s Eye,” there is a bond between an animal and a child. So it is in life too. I remember when my son would go in his room and talk to his dog when he was upset with us.  

Often, parents misunderstand the bond, and the child discovers that parents make mistakes and even lie. The mother in the movie tells little Drew that the cat ran away rather than confess she took the cat to the pound. Sometimes this scene occurs when the parent takes a dying animal away from the child.  

 I read dog books in my pre-teen years: Call of the Wild, Lassie, Lad, Lady —most  of those by Albert Payson Terhune. I was convinced that these collies — heck all collies— had the finest and truest characters on the face of the earth. At the time, girls I knew claimed the same for the horse-heroes in their favorite books.  

Adults in these books were oblivious to animals’ feelings, and often cruel to them. Misunderstanding them, abandoning them, even whipping them were all too common. One came away thinking that dogs and horses are more sensitive and more moral than their adult keepers.  

One developed a bit of cynicism toward adult pretensions, perhaps a bit of misanthropy. Prepares one for the last journey in Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” where horses are civilized and humans are repulsive.

Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” pits Buck against the environment, other dogs, and humans in the Yukon during the Gold Rush. It balances the scales more equitably than the romantic Terhune books, but one is still on the side of the dogs (and wolves). Buck is stolen, sold, beaten into submission and forced into a team of Huskies pulling a sled. He learns the law of the “tooth and fang,” how to steal and fight. But in the context of human gold- lust and exploitation of sled dogs, he comes out better than most of the humans.  

After his last, kind owner is killed, he turns his back on humankind and runs with the wolves.  

OK, to be accurate, first he hunts down the murderers, kills them, and then runs with the wolves.

I was reminded of a recent movie, “White God,” another animal-revenge story. A dog, taken from a child, then abandoned in heavy traffic, seized, beaten, and forced into dog fighting, finally escapes and becomes the leader of a pack of strays. He leads them against most of the humans who mistreated him, outwitting the police who set up road blocks and attempt to kill the pack.  

The movie opens impressively, with a child on a bicycle being overtaken and passed by the huge pack of dogs on a city street. They are perfectly silent. More impressive is the revelation, in the attached documentary, that the dogs were not digital, but actual strays who were trained to run as a pack under the leadership of the protagonist-dog.

Enough immersion in such stories could lead one to wonder if the world might be a better place without us.  

D.H. Lawrence seemed to alternate between intense hopes for deep personal relationships as the saving thing  and a disgust with what industrialism and commercialism had done to human beings.  Not surprisingly, he occasionally had characters who dreamed of a world cleansed of people, with waving grass and animals at peace.

The redo of the “Planet of the Apes” series has all of these threads, combining the scary and sympathetic features of the original “King Kong” with the rather beneficent features of “Mighty Joe Young.” Remember the softening features of Kong as he tries to protect Fay Wray from the brutal bi-planes; remember the hand of Young extending above flood waters to save some humans from drowning. 

In the most recent “War for the Planet of the Apes” we find an innocent human child set against a sinister human killer, a caring community apes, individualized ape-characters, with a leader who struggles to put aside personal feelings for the sake of the community.  Sound familiar?

There is the girl, looking a little like young Jody Foster,  who attaches herself to Maurice, the orangutan, and slowly becomes part of the ape community, worth saving. Then there is Woody Harrelson’s evil officer, channeling Col. Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now,” which is cleverly referenced with a graffiti, “ape-ocalypse,” at one point. 

Other humans are pictured as a mass, storm troopers following the Colonel’s plan of enslaving and killing all the apes.  There is little sense of loss when his army and an opposing army of humans are all either blown up or buried by an obliging avalanche. (Luckily apes can climb strong trees.)

Drawn into sympathizing and even identifying with the individualized apes, partly through the mediation of the little girl, one hopes they can be left alone at the end in their happy valley in a world seemingly cleansed of the most malicious humans.   

Well, at least until the next movie.

Apart from misanthropy, is there a lesson? 

Perhaps, we have met the animals and they are our better selves.