10 Pieces of Literature That Will Change Your Perspective on Animals
By Nedelle Torrisi
The following stories, poems and essays speak to the beauty of animals and our complicated relationship with them.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A scientist creates what he hopes will be a human being, but the creature turns out differently than expected, and he runs from his creation in horror. The “monster” is shunned by society for being different, so he learns how to use language in an effort to be accepted. There is a lot to rediscover in this classic novel, as Shelley details one man’s disastrous abuse of power and calls into question society’s hierarchical values by blurring the lines that divide animals, machines and humans.
2. “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace
This essay was originally published in Gourmet magazine around the time of the Maine Lobster Festival. Wallace encourages the reader to empathize with lobsters, who have sensory neurons like those of humans. He challenges the reader, asking us to consider the ethics of boiling a creature alive for human enjoyment. This landmark animal rights essay is a must-read for animal lovers.
3. “Death of a Pig” by E.B. White
White wrote this essay “in penitence and in grief” after having stayed awake with an ailing pig for days straight—a pig he had initially acquired to raise for slaughter but instead became very close to. This experience was said to have deeply affected him and was the inspiration behind Charlotte’s Web. He writes that “the task of trying to deliver him from his misery became a strong obsession. His suffering soon became the embodiment of all earthly wretchedness.”
4. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
This sweet and humorous collection of poems is a favorite gift for cat lovers and inspired the musical Cats. Eliot writes about cats with the respect and reverence that they deserve:
With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don’t speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that—
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: o cat!
5. Emily Dickinson’s poetry
They are full of animal imagery and metaphors: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul” and “The Gnat’s supremacy is large as Thine.” There are many beautiful insights to glean from her reflections on nature and all its creatures. Any collection of hers will include poems about animals—even a recently published book of her letters references her famously sweet and large dog, Carlos, and has wonderful passages such as this: “I know the butterfly, and the lizard, and the orchis. Are not those your countrymen?”
6. The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
Merwin is a former U.S. poet laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner. He often writes about the fragility of the environment and threats to other species. The middle section of this collection of poems is a series of eloquent elegies to past companion animals. Sirius is, after all, known as “the dog star.” Get out your Kleenex, folks. Another collection, titled The Rain in the Trees, also contains poems about animals and their habitats.
7. “The Lowest Animal” by Mark Twain
This sarcastic essay is a series of comparisons between animals and humans, concluding that humans are “the lowest animal.” Although it is perceptive and provocative, it will leave you feeling pretty awful about the human species if you aren’t an awesome and compassionate person!
8. “Stickeen” by John Muir
In this short memoir, Muir recounts a trip to an Alaskan glacier that he took with his companion animal, Stickeen. Muir believed in equal rights for all species and wrote about animals with keen insight: “I have known many dogs, and many a story I could tell of their wisdom and devotion; but to none do I owe so much as to Stickeen. … Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.”
9. “The Death of a Moth” by Virginia Woolf
This essay is just a little longer than two pages, but it packs quite a punch. Woolf witnesses a moth flutter around her room and eventually die on a windowsill, and she empathizes with it every step of the way. She describes the moth as being made of so little matter that it is made almost entirely of life. It is a beautiful but sad (I warned you!) meditation on every living creature’s desire to live.
10. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
In this novella, a man slowly morphs into a bug, and the reader sees the world through his eyes, as his perspective shifts between species. His family’s reaction to his metamorphosis is terrible, and they ultimately reject him. In empathizing with the suffering main character, Gregor Samsa, who loves his family unconditionally until his death, readers feel the heights of compassion and will hopefully carry this feeling into their own lives and their regard for the lives of animals.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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