Uncomfortable with certainty


The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath, by Erika Ritter, Key Porter Books, 359 pages

In J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the title character delivers a lecture on non-human animals in which she describes herself as “an animal exhibiting, yet not exhibiting . . . a wound, which I cover up under my clothes but touch on in every word I speak.”

In The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath, Erika Ritter also presents herself to her audience as a wounded animal. Ritter received her wound as a child, from a story: a man leaves his beloved dog to guard his only child; a serpent slithers into the child’s room and the dog fights and kills it; the man returns to find the child’s crib knocked over, the dog’s muzzle bloody; the man kills his dog, then discovers his child beneath its crib, alive, and a snake in a corner of the room, dead.

For Ritter, the story embodies “some of the contradictions I see at the heart of humanity’s relationship with all animals.” Her book is an exploration of these contradictions, throughout which she repeatedly touches on the story of the dog and the serpent and the man who jumped to conclusions.

Ritter’s exploration is wide-ranging if not exhaustive. She reads the Rig Veda, Elizabeth Costello, Clan of the Cave Bear, The Edible Woman, Old Yeller, Charlotte’s Web, and many more novels as well as non-fiction texts. She travels to Colorado State University, McGill University, and Cambridge, visits Fauna farm – a Quebec chimpanzee sanctuary – and the Ontario Superior Court, and ends up in Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne in France. And she moves back and forth between 75,000 BCE and the 2008 American presidential election.

Many of the people Ritter encounters along the way seem wounded, too. At Fauna farm, Gloria Grow “cannot do enough” for her retired research chimps, “cannot begin to make up for their past sufferings or their present tedium.” She suffers “periods of real despair” and worries about “compassion fatigue”. At McGill, Professor David Bird admits “he finds it difficult to administer toxic chemicals to species he admires” and is ultimately trying to protect, but “strives to be relentlessly unsentimental.” Then he chases Ritter down in the parking lot to tell her about some African music that had inspired him and thus prove he’s not “utterly insensitive.”

Other subjects cover up their wounds with fanaticism. American abolitionist Lee Hall rails against Whole Foods’ goat cheese, fair trade chocolate that lacks “a certain stamp”, and animal sanctuaries that “encourage the status quo.” Keith Mann, a former member of Britain’s Animal Liberation Front who’s spent more than a decade behind bars, hawks a DVD that argues for direct action in response to animal cruelty when he’s not banging on about documentaries on the US government’s orchestration of 9/11 or their staging of the 1969 moon landing. And Temple Grandin “seems possessed of a fierce certainty that she knows best about what’s good for animals.” She’s also possessed of an imagination at least as fantastic as Quentin Tarantino’s: if she could rewrite World War II with herself in the role of an engineer called upon by the Nazis to design better systems for killing human beings, she would design “systems to self-destruct in some way, but undetectably – in order to allow her to continue creating faulty systems that would spare many lives.” (Her systems for killing animals, though they won her a 2004 PETA Proggy award, are not designed to be faulty.)

All of these people are interesting, but, with the exception of Grow, the portraits Ritter sketches of them are not especially attractive or sympathetic. In order to live and work in a world where animals are, in Ritter’s formulation, “everywhere and nowhere” – where they’re ubiquitous, indispensable and easily replaced, central and marginalized – these humans have, unlike Coetzee’s Costello, come to terms with the ways we use animals, they’ve gained possession of a few fragile certainties, and as a result they seem not just wounded but defensive and even twisted. The discursive nature of Ritter’s book means that many of them make reappearances after their initial introductions, and one is not always eager to meet them again.

Indeed, one sometimes wishes Ritter would for a moment forget humans and their tortured consciences and their methods of torture and spend some time with a few non-humans. Her brief encounters with specific animals – a “little white-faced heifer”, a greyhound named Bird Dog – are highlights of the book, but are rare. Just before meeting the chimps at Fauna, Ritter tells her reader that apes’ resemblance to humans feels to her “like a barrier to wholehearted engagement”, and, indeed, she never really engages with Fauna’s residents. (To be fair, Ritter tells readers in her introduction that “while the subject under scrutiny is animals, the main focus of my interest is human beings.”)

There are two animals, however, who appear wholehearted and vivid in Ritter’s telling. One is the valiant, voiceless dog of the title. He holds the book together, and one sees Ritter herself most clearly when she is considering him. The pain his tale has caused her is palpable, and whatever form he takes – character in a parable, historical figure, peasant hero, heretical demi-god – he is always fully imagined and real.

The other is motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing philosophy professor Bernard Rollin. Rollin is as wounded and twisted as everyone else in the story of humanity’s relationship with animals. Abandoned by his father as a young boy, his male role models were 1940s movie heroes with their ethics of fairness and decency. He locates the origin of his concern for animals with these heroes. He expresses his concern by seeking and promoting alternatives to cattle branding and euthanasia by carbon monoxide suffocation. But when he speaks, he is uncompromising: “As Cesar Chavez said: ‘Nobody’s more fucked over than animals.’ And you know something else? Animals don’t return evil for good nearly as reliably as we do.”

Just as she can’t know what the dog by the cradle thought as his master raised his sword, Ritter isn’t sure of Rollin’s motivations, and can’t “get a fix on his attitudes toward animal slaughter in general.” This is a relief, as is Ritter’s own refusal to offer readers any categorical pronouncements or proscriptions. What her book does offer is an opportunity to engage with the paradoxes at the heart of our relationships with animals and to formulate better questions and new questions about these paradoxes. And the first question is: How might it happen that an animal who had done only good might suffer evil in return?

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