Animal Stories: How Literature Can Teach Empathy and Environmental Justice

We have a long tradition of stories that feature talking animals. These stories have existed for millennia and are found in all cultures. As someone whose work revolves around the power of literature to spark social consciousness and change, I began to wonder why these stories were so prevalent. Also, why were they so often not taken seriously or perceived to be only for children?

Those who disregard them often do so based on a few misconceptions. Animal stories, the detractors say, are childish, escapist, sentimental and untrue. In daily life, the only humans who regularly talk to animals are children. Their reaching out to animals has long been taken as a sign of immaturity. But is it?

Animals Stories and Mankind’s Collective Memory

I suggest that animal stories emerge from our deep memory of kinship with animals and are crucial to encouraging our sense of empathy with nature and environmental justice. When we’re reading animal stories today, it’s in a very different context than we did in the past. Animals and human beings have coexisted since the dawn of time. For millennia, the animal world was part of our identity. Animals were seen as our fellow creatures, sometimes as our ancestors, sometimes as our guide – sometimes as dangerous equals. We usually anthropomorphized animals; we saw ourselves in them, because we are also an animal species.

Gradually, we exiled ourselves from nature because we wanted to rule it. The abandonment of kinship with animals brought about something that the philosopher Peter Singer termed “speciesism.” This is bias in favor of the interest of our own species and against members of other species. For the past few thousand years and especially the last 300 it’s been prominent, especially in Western culture. We think of ourselves as the chosen species – unique above all others. Speciesism denies selfhood, intelligence and agency to the non-human world. It justifies a destructive, instrumental relationship with the planet and has led us to the point where our own survival is at stake.

Animal Stories and Environmental Justice Consciousness

Today, animal stories are mostly found in children’s literature because it is where our culture has banished creative imagination and empathic understanding. To be an adult in our culture means to be rational and factual; imagination is not thought to be a necessary component of adulthood. By accident of history, imagination in the Western culture found refuge in children’s literature.

However, my work and research centers around the idea that imagination is an instrument of ethics and social and environmental justice. We need to imagine change before we can make it happen. That’s why I believe reading animal stories may be the key to reawaken our empathy with the natural world and sense of environmental justice. Animal stories can reshape our attitudes towards the natural world, teaching us humility and giving us a sense of being part of something greater than ourselves. This is an idea I’m exploring with students at CEHD through a class I’m teaching titled “Children and Other Talking Animals.”

Building Empathy with Nature Through the Four-Week Animal Stories Challenge

I believe animal stories have incredible potential to build our awareness of the preciousness of life and our interrelationship with the entire planet – not just specific animals. Through these stories, we become conscious of the fact that we are part of the amazing and diverse web of life.

Our consciousness of environmental justice requires creative imagination and empathic understanding. To hone these two faculties, here’s a reading challenge you can easily complete in four weeks. This challenge is suitable for anyone; the titles include works for all age groups and the amount of reading per week is moderate. If you have questions or comments, let me know. Enjoy!

Week 1: Read an animal biographical novel to imagine what it’s like to be a wild animal. For example, read Felix Salten’s realist novel Bambi and then compare it with the watered-down, “cute-ified” Disney film.

Week 2: Read an animal autobiographical novel to explore human-animal relationship seen from the animal point of view. Two excellent suggestions include Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty (and it’s 1994 film adaptation by the same title directed by Caroline Thompson) or Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse (and its 2011 adaptation by Steven Spielberg).

Week 3: Read a fantasy novel and watch a fantasy film about the benefits of human-animal companionship. For example, read Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother and then watch How to Train Your Dragon by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois.

Week 4: Read an animal fantasy novel and watch an animal fantasy film about animals as victims of human abuse in the modern world. For example, read Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan and watch Chicken Run by Peter Lord and Nick Park.

Marek Oziewicz

About the Author

Marek Oziewicz, Ph.D.

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