What Does Your Cat Think of You? Animals in Our Books

                                                                                                      by Nancy Means Wright

     I’ve long been familiar with Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees, showing  them to be intelligent, social animals like ourselves. Or with scientists’ studies of grackles and crows who have learned to solve problems, use tools, and recognize faces (plot for a novel?) And I read with amazement the tale of the African Grey parrot, Alex, who could sound out words, add numbers, understand concepts, and whose last words to his teacher-companion were “You be good. I love you.” (His premature death at age 31 broke me up.)

     I was delighted then to see in a recent N.Y.Times article that animal studies have finally claimed a place in the college classroom. Dartmouth students can take a course in “Animals and Women in Western Lit: Nags, Bitches and Shrews” (how’s that for double entendre?).  N.Y.U. offers “Animals, People and Those in Between” (the In Between is anyone’s guess.)  And Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation  (1975), which argues against killing, eating, and experimenting on animals, will be on the reading list for both courses. For the animal question, according to Wesleyan philosophy professor, Lori Gruen, is now “right in the center of ethical discussion.”

Obviously a host of mystery novelists have been in the fictional vanguard of this movement. Consider Clea Simon’s cat Musetta, Carole Nelson Douglas’s PI Midnight Louie, Susan Conant’s parade of dogs, or Laura Crum’s western horses.  In the mid-nineties I began a series featuring dairy farmer Ruth Willmarth who names the thirty Holstein cows on her hardscrabble farm after real or literary females: Esmeralda, Jane Eyre, Oprah (who has not had me on her show though I named a cow after her). Each cow has her own peculiar personality, like ornery Zelda, named after Scott Fitzgerald’s irascible wife. In the fifth of the series, Zelda, under suspicion of Mad Cow disease, kicks a Fed who has come to quarantine the herd, and is shot.

     With her cows gone, Ruth loses more than her livelihood; she loses her beloved companions.  These big, clumsy field animals who carry the map of the world on their black-and-white flanks were mothers, milkers, keys to Ruth’s universe.  And to mine as well, for my whole series ended with Mad Cow Nightmare.  For a time I couldn’t write anything but poems or kids’ novels–until I went back a few centuries to enter the head and heart of real-life Mary Wollstonecraft, to whom an affable black cat brought comfort.  After watching Louis XVI ride by in revolutionary Paris to hear his sentence of death by guillotine, a lonely, saddened Mary cried out in a letter to her sister: “If only I had brought the cat with me!”

     Cows, cats, dogs, horses, parrots, crows, even llamas (I met one in my research who fell into a deep depression after the Feds euthanized the sheep she guarded) are more than background creatures in our books. They are characters in their own right, sidekicks for our protagonists, and an integral part of a book’s plot and setting. For setting, I feel, should be more than mere locale–it should be a reason for what happens in our stories. And that atmospheric field of cows (they lower my blood pressure just to look) was the raison d’etre for my series. 


     Our pets, outdoors or in, help as well with our crimesolving.  A criminal might talk or rant to his pet, and be overheard. (Did Shakespeare use this device for a confessional soliloquy?) Animal hair found at a crime scene, Sandra Parshall reminds us in a Poe’s Deadly Daughters blog  on “Animal Forensics,” can convict a perp when the hair is matched to his or her pet.  I myself, for instance, would never get away with a crime, for every item of clothing I own, including socks and pants, is a magnet for hair from my two Maine Coon cats. I leave furry shreds everywhere I go.

     Understandably then, it’s taboo in our books to deliberately harm an animal. For what animals think or have to tell us is something scholars have begun to take seriously.  In The Animal That Therefore I Am, The Times notes, philosopher Jacques Derrida considers not only what he thinks of his cat as it follows him into the bathroom one morning, “but what his cat thinks of him.”

     So as I sit writing this blog with a purring feline on my lap, I am listening to what she is telling me.  And it’s not about food–she has just had her mid-morning treat. It is more, I think, about love and connection. When I put a final period on this piece, I’m going to ask, “So, Amelia, how would you like to be in my next book? What part would you like to play?” 


22 Responses

  1. According to the ms by Sheila Simonson I just finished editing, the llama’s NORMAL state is deep depression 😉

    Did Sandra Parshall’s blog say whether pet-hair evidence had actually been used in a case, true or fictional? Dandy plot device!

    • I’ve seen the pet-hair evidence used at least once or twice in episodes of Law & Order. Since they rip their plots from the headlines, probably the cat hair is true, too! 🙂

      Nancy, I’m with you–the cat hair would betray me very quickly if I ever committed a dastardly crime. Sometimes I’m tempted to knit sweaters with combings.

      • Great to hear from you, Susanne. And interesting to hear about the LAW & ORDER use of animal DNA. I suppose those writers would jump on the latest findings.
        Regarding cat hair, I can’t wear black anymore–my favorite color.I look like a walking fur coat. But why not make and sell cat hair yarn?

    • Thanks, Meredith! Researching my novel Mad Cow Nightmare,I interviewed a couple who claimed their llama was considerably altered when its sheep were euthanized. I hadn’t realized it was a normal state! Or does it just appear to be a normal state? I’ll have to read Sheila’s novel. Poor llamas… Now you’ve aroused my curiosity.
      According to Sandra’s blog, the Denver, Colorado district attorneys’ website has a list of major cases in which nonhuman DNA from pets has played a role in clinching a case. A great plot device, yes!

  2. Nancy,

    I enjoyed this:) I’ve long been a believer in animals having their own type of thoughts, or visual communication. This was a delightful piece:) I have a short story (Dark Pleasures) that builds the premise for the entrance of a dog who will play a strong part in the remainder of the story…I’m delighted to be writing about some of my favorite furred ones:)


    • “Dark Pleasures”–what an enticing title! Sounds like a fascinating story? I’d love to read it. I’m realizing more and more how great a role animals play not only in our lives, but in our fiction. Thanks for responding, Loretta!

  3. When Daisy was a kitten, she would jump on the computer table and walk on the keys. In order to keep her from the keyboard, I’d pick her up and cuddle her on my left shoulder, like a baby. Small wonder she came to view me sitting at the computer as cuddle time. Now Clio has picked up the same behavior, an example of cats learning by example. We won’t even talk about cats in the kitchen, other than to say I consider cat hair a source of dietary fiber! So what do my cats think of me? A lap that walks and can field a can opener.


    • I love it, Janet! My female Maine Coon used to sit in my inbox, leaving the computer keys to me. Now, like your Clio, she curls up on my lap, her ears twitching as my typing fingers interfere with her nap. Her twitching tells me to let her sleep. Her purring tells me I’d like to take a nap! (But can’t…)

  4. Nancy, I really enjoyed reading this. I believe animals have souls and can teach humans a lot if we’d just open up to it. As a rescue worker for a local rescue organization, I always have at least one animal (usually a dog) in my books. As for animals suffering depression – witnessed it firsthand when our black lab grieved for at least six months after his best friend Buster died. We thought at one point he wasn’t going to survive so rescued another dog who helped him to love life again.

    • How great, Christy that you’re a rescue worker! That’s a job that should figure prominently in your writing, especially with your loyal dog. And I agree with you that animals do grieve. My hockey coach son, who lives alone, was badly hurt in an accident and his black lab virtually nursed him back. So good of you to post your own animal experience.

  5. There is nothing my orange cat, Zoey from the Bronx, loves more than a good book. Literally. If I leave them on the end table I may find clumps of pages missing when I wake up. Fortunately she hasn’t advanced to e-books yet. But other than her love of fiber, she’s the best companion. She can sense when I’m down and will sit on my lap for hours. If I’m pacing and plotting, she’s running alongside me. And she even provides me with great material. A true companion.

    • Zoey sounds like a wonderful companion, Cindy. But she eats books? Oh dear! I’ve had dogs devouring my manuscripts, even books, but not cats, thank goodness. I don’t think she can consume ebooks, can she? Unless she can chew a Kindle or Nook? I hope at least she apologizes when she gobbles a book. Or maybe she’s trying to tell you she wants to have a large role in your heart as well as your book.

  6. I enjoyed this post, Nancy. I feel the way you do about animals. Even when I don’t intend it, a dog puts in an appearance in almost everything I write. Brooklyn, the dog in my novel, is closely based on the dog we had for sixteen years. One of the joys in writing the book, was the chance to resurrect him.

    • Right, Anita. I hadn’t thought of that when I was writing this blog. But writing is one more way to bring back our beloved pets. And Christy mentioned her belief that animals have souls. I once saw a black cat in Sotland that I was sure was my grandmother–in a second or third resurrection. My Scottish granny Jessie had black hair and a kind of sleek appearance–and was a very soulful person. And when “she” came up to me she let me pat her. Strange experience! I actually wrote her into a poem.

  7. Lots of mystery writers have animals frequent their pages–Rita Mae Brown for instance.

    • You’re right, Jacqueline. There seems to be some ineffable, almost spiritual link beween mystery writers and animals–particularly cats.I could have mentioned three or more dozen “cat” writers, I think.

    • Thanks so much for reading my blog, Marcia! What a melodious “tweet!” And an evocative surname. I hope you have a sweet dog or cat to guard your “applegate.” (I’m always fascinated by the origin of names…)

  8. Nancy,
    Great post. I, too, have Maine coon cats and they appear in the series I write as Kaitlyn Dunnett. In one, I used a wad of cat fur (from a comb) to help foil an allergic villain. Humorous mystery, obviously!


    • Oh, clever, Kathy! An allergic villain… I like that wad of cat fur. And believe me, I know it’s a wad! I’ve read some of your Face Down series, but not your Kaitlyn ones. Must look for those Maine Coons!

  9. Nancy–There wouldn’t be much to my mystery series without the animals. Though the horses are the focal point, as you mention in your post, I also use my dogs, cats, and even chickens as characters. I really enjoy writing about animals, and as a reader, I enjoy reading about them–though I have to say I don’t care for books where the animals “talk”. But that’s just me. Thanks for a fun post–Laura Crum

    • Thanks, Laura, for joining in. And I agree with you about talking animals. When I say “tell” in my blog, I just mean through a meow or a woof. Leave the anthropomorphic stuff to Walt Disney!
      And I forgot to mention chickens in my post. My daughter, who has a dozen hens, coddles them like her own children. I once felt that way about a Pekin duck who used to snatch the underwear out of the laundry basket when I went to hang it on the line. My kids and I adored that duck!

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