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Speaking for Animals

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Speaking for Animals

By Bee Friedlander, Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
January 2013

Through looking at the ways that animals speak in religious texts, literature, poetry, comic books, and social networking sites, the authors in this collection examine a number of questions, including how we speak for animals, why we speak for animals, and perhaps most importantly, what the implications are for the animals themselves.

When we adopted our cat Julia last spring, she told us about her past life. She had been living for several months at the shelter from which we adopted her. She'd been left at their doorstep in a box which contained her worldly possessions: food and litter; a small soft-sided cube in which she liked to rest; and some rudimentary medical records. But by far most interesting was the note left in the carton. Written in her voice, it said:

Hi, I'm Julia - 4 year old tortie. I'm spayed, I'm relatively up to date on my shots. I'm good with all animals and I really love people. Please PLEASE give me a home - a chance to live a better life than living in the back seat of my homeless owners [sic] truck. I know you are good people so I will be safe here. Love, Julia

As Margo DeMello, the ASI's Human-Animal Studies Program Director, notes in her edited volume Speaking for Animals: Animal Autobiographical Writing, "Julia's" note is part of a tradition stretching back thousands of years and encompassing cultures around the world. Not only in myths and folktales, but in Western literature from religious text to comic books and social networking sites, animals have spoken in human voices.

speaking animals language
A Cat and Computer, by Jeff Hayes

What is the deeper meaning of this phenomenon? In the Introduction, Margo says:

How do we explain this cross cultural and longstanding tradition of animal speaking and writing, of human-animal ventriloquism? On one level, this phenomenon surely speaks to the human desire ... to get inside animal minds, to try to understand what they think, how they see the world, and to share, a bit, in their umwelt. But how else to make sense of the human impulse to not simply attempt to know animal consciousness, which in some ways we know is impossible, but to put it to words?

This book proposes to address this question from a variety of perspectives. Through looking at the ways that animals speak in religious texts, literature, poetry, comic books, and social networking sites, the authors in this collection examine a number of questions, including how we speak for animals, why we speak for animals, and perhaps most importantly, what the implications are for the animals themselves.

Margo told me that the impetus for this volume came from the ASI's Human-Animal Studies Fellowship. In 2008 and 2009, several of the fellows' topics piqued her interest in speaking animals in literature and on the internet. "I was so excited that people were writing about this since I was doing it myself and was thrilled that other people were thinking about the issue...I decided I really needed to formalize the project and send out a call for submissions. It was honestly one of the most gratifying projects to work on!"

language speaking animals
Linguistic Horse, by Jeff Hayes

The collection of articles is grouped into these topics:

A sample of articles gives a sense of the scope and variety of topics covered. G.A. Bradshaw's "Billy and Kani" is a series of letters between an African elephant living in a US zoo and his cousin living in the wild. In "Speaking For Dogs: The Role of Dog Biographies in Improving Canine Welfare in Bangkok, Thailand," Nikki Savvides tells us about a blog "written" by a former street dog, Som, who talks about her own life since being rescued and features other dogs still on the streets, as a device to individualize these animals. Nancy Babb, a law librarian contributed a piece entitled "Who'll Let the Dogs In? Animals, Authorship, and the Library Catalog," which addresses the question what is an author, by reviewing the prohibitions of listing animals as authors.

The importance of this volume is its exploration of the tension between our fascination with animals but our limitations in trying to understand them. We humans must use our imperfect tool of language, which as Karla Armbruster says in her article, "What Do We Want from Talking Animals? Reflections on Literary Representations of Animal Voices and Minds" leaves us "with the image of slavishly devoted, imperfect versions of ourselves rather than capable beings with their own lives, perspectives, and abilities." However, Armbruster acknowledges that there may be as well, a desire to truly understand the "otherness" of animals, to "uncenter from our human perspective and -- in whatever limited way we can -- open ourselves to the nonhuman." Those of us in developed societies have fewer daily experiences with animals, contributes to what she calls a "yearning" to genuinely know these other beings.

The illustrations by artist Jeff Hayes capture the spirit of the authors' inquiries.