Elephants, Bears and Birds: Animals in Canadian Literature

Book Cover Hunting Piero

The latest by Wendy MacIntyre, whose books for young people include the acclaimed Apart, is Hunting Piero, a novel that moves between the 15th-century and the present day to blend issues of art and animal rights activism.  

*****

The young activists and the Renaissance painter in my novel believe animals contribute immeasurably to our lives, aesthetically, emotionally and spiritually, and they are dedicated to protecting them from harm.

It was a pleasure to revisit the following Canadian novels that make the lives and fates of animals and birds, and human/animal relations, central to their storylines. 

Last of the Curlews, by Fred Bodsworth

This moving elegy to a bird nearly extinct after centuries of callous human slaughter follows the journey of a lone curlew in search of a mate and a fellow member of his species. Bodsworth takes us inside the curlew’s experience as he braves North Atlantic gales and hunters on his 9,000-mile migratory flight from the Arctic to Patagonia. Verbatim excerpts from scientific reports document how hunters killed hundreds of curlews at a time when they landed exhausted from their long flight. In his afterword, Graeme Gibson writes: “The willful destruction of a species necessarily involves a corresponding loss within each one of us…the pity, and the hope, is that we need not continue to behave as we do.”

Perpetual Motion, by Graeme Gibson

Set in 19th-century southern Ontario, this novel dramatizes the grave consequences of humankind’s relentless quest to control nature. To help fund his obsession of building a perpetual motion machine, protagonist Robert Fraser organizes a whole-scale slaughter of the passenger pigeons that once flew in their millions over eastern North America. This cruel venture contributes to the bird’s extinction and the darkening of his own world. “The great flight continuing from daylight to dusk for three days. And Fraser, increasingly wild-eyed…as he stormed the edge of the forest, firing guns as rapidly as his weeping family could reload them.”

Fauna, by Alissa York

At this novel’s heart is an animal sanctuary for injured inner city wildlife: the skunks, raccoons, foxes, rabbits and crows most city dwellers see as vermin. Run by a compassionate garage owner, the sanctuary attracts assistants like Stephen, an ex-soldier who contracted a heart infection in Afghanistan; Lily, a teenage runaway; and Edal, a federal wildlife officer sickened by the needless deaths of exotic animals smuggled into the country in appalling conditions. York feelingly demonstrates how her characters’ relationships with the animals in their care help them heal from the psychic injuries of their respective pasts.

The White Bone, by Barbara Gowdy

In this imaginative tour de force, Gowdy introduces us to a young orphaned cow elephant named Mud, vividly evoking her sensations and emotions as she journeys with her adopted family through a land parched by drought. Attacked by “hindleggers”—human ivory poachers—Mud’s family is decimated. Gowdy’s singular achievement is the consummate way she engages us in an empathetic oneness with Mud and her fellow elephants. We feel their trials and joys, and participate in their rich, complex consciousness, which embraces hymns, ritual gatherings and myths—like the legendary white bone that will lead them to a human-free paradise.

*

The Wars, by Timothy Findley

Amidst the horrors of World War One, a young Canadian officer, Robert Ross, clings to his humanity by caring for the horses and mules accompanying the forces through the living hell of French battlefields. He finds a soul-mate in Captain Rodwell, who maintains a “hospital” in the trenches for injured toads, birds and hedgehogs. In a decision that will brand him a deserter and traitor, Ross disobeys orders and leads 60 horses and mules on a strategic retreat to save them from a barrage of German shells. ThroughoutThe Wars, Ross’s respect for animals’ sensitive awareness remains undimmed: “His father had taught him always to trust a horse’s judgement above his own when it came to path-finding.”

Bear, by Marian Engel

“Bear,” she whispered, “who and what are you?” This is the question Lou poses to the bear chained outside the isolated Northern Ontario heritage home where she is researching a long-dead colonel’s archives. Weary of her life with its failed, empty relationships, she finds herself drawn to the animal she frees so that he can swim and enter the house while she works. The erotic relationship she develops with the bear, which makes this classic novel so perplexing and disturbing, pays homage to bears’ mythic potency worldwide, and to animals’ transformative work in our psyche. “What had passed from him to her she did not know…But for one strange, sharp moment she could feel in her pores and the taste of her own mouth that she knew what the world was for. She felt not that she was at last human, but that she was at last clean.”

*

A Beautiful Truth, by Colin McAdam

This extraordinary novel tackles some of the thorniest ethical questions posed by our human condition: how similar and dissimilar are we from our primate relatives, and how should we interact with them as distinct species? McAdam brings these questions to excruciating life through the story of Looee, a male baby chimpanzee adopted by a childless couple in 1970s Vermont. As he grows older, engaging in sexual display and fits of destructive rage, Looee becomes a threatening presence in the family that welcomed and cherished him, with terrible, irrevocable consequences. Looee ends his days in a Florida scientific institute, where McAdam takes us inside the minds of chimpanzees held captive, first for language study and then as bodies leased to pharmaceutical companies. Dave, a sympathetic primatologist, observes Looee: “He sits on a blanket on concrete, a squat ape with a secret history, my cousin and a stranger.”

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Gruen makes veterinarian Jacob Jankowski’s compassionate care for performing animals central to her story, which follows the travels of a Depression-era circus. Jacob falls in love with equestrian star Marlena, married to the bullying circus owner, and finds an unlikely saviour to his dilemma in the recalcitrant elephant Rosie. The author’s personal commitment to animals’ welfare radiates Jacob’s perspective: “It’s impossible to describe how tenderly I suddenly feel toward them—hyenas, camels and all. Even the polar bear, who sits on his backside chewing his four-inch claws with his four-inch teeth. A love for these animals wells up in me suddenly, a flash flood, and there it is, solid as an obelisk and viscous as water.”

*

October 16, 2017
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