Searching for home: Erika Ritter

Erika Ritter is a Toronto-based radio broadcaster, playwright, novelist, essayist, and performer. Her most recent book, The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath, was just published in paperback. The Montreal Gazette describes it as “weighty and whimsical . . . well-researched and thought-provoking”, and the Globe says Ritter’s “devotion to gaining insight into that tortured relationship [between us and animals] is quite amazing.”

The Dog by the Cradle… explores six paradoxes that Ritter finds “at the heart of humanity’s relationship with all animals.” The title refers to a fok tale that encompasses these paradoxes: 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 the child beneath its crib, alive, and a snake in a corner of the room, dead. The story has haunted Ritter “for years”; similarly, The Dog by the Cradle… will stay with readers long after they have finished reading it.

How does a publisher like Key Porter react when you pitch a book about “the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in our relationship with animals”?

To their credit, Key Porter never suggested that the finished manuscript should contain solutions to these contradictions. “Seemingly irreconcilable” was, I think, understood by them from the beginning – although of course, in my heart, I hoped I would come up with a solution in the course of researching and writing, some brilliant and novel observation that would heal all breaches between animals and us. (Yeah, right.) But I never promised it.

So you didn’t quite come up with a panacea for our relationship with non-humans.  Did you heal your own relationship with animals in any way? The book also seems like an attempt to exorcise some demons — dog-demons especially — that had been with you most of your life.

Certainly, I tried to get to the roots of my long-time sense of responsibility (and guilt) about animals, and traced it in its most obvious guise to my terrible experience at age 15, unwittingly luring my neighbour’s dog to his death on a busy street. Writing that episode was the hardest thing I did in the manuscript of the book – apart from reading some really depressing research. But even though I wrote and rewrote the story of me and Angus the neighbour’s dog, and cried copiously each time I wrote it (I never read that passage aloud at public events; there’d be no way I could get through it) I can’t say facing that demon “healed” me in any way. I will be haunted by my guilt about that for the rest of my life. However, exploring it was probably personally helpful, at least in terms of galvanizing me to try to become more directly involved in helping animals and improving human compassion for them. In the foreword to the new paperback edition of The Dog by the Cradle…, I write about how the chief satisfaction of the book, for me, has been the doors it’s opened for me into the world of animal advocacy and the people who dedicate themselves to improving the lives of animals.

Did you know from the beginning of this book that the story of Guinefort – which in this context is also a very personal story – would be so central to it?

To some extent, though I didn’t know where it would lead me. When I tried to think of a story that would symbolize human-animal paradoxes, this story came to me quite spontaneously. I knew instantly it would also be my title. The story of Guinefort had haunted me since childhood, even though I only found out in the course of my research that there had been a 13th-century greyhound named Guinefort who had become the focal point of a 700-hundred-year-old cult of worship. I did recall having seen, back in the early 1980s, a French film about witches which used the dog-cradle-snake story and was about a medieval cult. And the name “Guinefort” (though I couldn’t spell it) was stuck in my mind from that film.  But it was only when I came upon Jean-Claude Schmitt’s book The Holy Greyhound (Le saint levrier) that the real centrality of the Guinefort story to my book came crashing down on me. 

And of course, once I made my mind up that I had to go to France to see the little that was left of the site of this worship, I realized that the story of Guinefort was a journey, a quest. I did not know why I had to go there, but I knew I would discover the answer if I did. And indeed, in finding and reading the roadside plaque marking the “Woods of St Guinefort”, I realized what the ending of my book was, and the final great paradox: the dog who launched a 700-year cult is not mentioned on the plaque, proving that animals are Everywhere and Nowhere—intertwined with every aspect of human existence and survival, yet below the radar even so. When I returned from France I was able to begin to twine the story of Guinefort – from the simple version I read as a child, on and on through its many iterations and paradoxes – through the entire text of my book.

Temple Grandin is the main character of the first part of the book, and your meeting with her establishes a sense of unease. Had you been hoping to find someone you could support or even champion?

I hoped that meeting Temple would be an opportunity to understand how her mind could straddle what I saw as the contradiction of “humane slaughter.” I try to make clear to the reader that I was startled at times that the contradictions weren’t straddled, and it didn’t seem to occur to her that they should be. That’s what made me uncomfortable: moments where I felt she was defensive on certain points (and therefore presumably more in doubt, more vulnerable than her forthright and almost dogmatic tone suggested) followed by many more moments of assertiveness and well-practiced lecturing that didn’t give me insight into how someone so personally attached to animals could be so clinical about killing them.

I never went to meet her expecting or hoping to champion her, but I did expect and hope to admire her. In some ways I do. But I resent the way her philosophy gets consumers off the hook. Somehow, the notion of the “good death” turns eating animals – if they are properly killed – into a kind of spiritual act, instantly forgivable. And because Temple has both overcome her autism sufficiently to preach her philosophy and also used her autism, she says, to see the slaughter yard the way an animal would, she is both a role model and someone who seems to have animals’ permission to kill them. The HBO film about her that was broadcast recently crystallized some of that for me. In presenting her (accurately) as someone who overcame a lot to be a high achiever in her chosen field, the filmmakers skated over the crux of her philosophy on animal slaughter somewhat, and left her “we breed ‘em to eat ‘em” ethic unchallenged. The film is inspirational for young autistic people and their parents, I’m sure. But it leaves opponents or proponents of animal slaughter very little to, uh, chew on.

Like Grandin, many of your interviewees seem insistent and certain. You were obviously affected by your encounters with them – did you get the sense that any of your subjects were similarly affected, or that they discovered something about themselves or about non-humans in the process of talking to you?

I don’t think, in the main, that my questions to any of the people I spoke to pushed any of them to a new place in their thinking. Partly, that’s because I was trying not to “interview” them in the way I would have, for instance, had I had any of them as guests on the radio. I was trying to reflect and describe them for the reader as I observed them, and simply to get a sense of the way they operated in their thinking about themselves and their work with animals. My goal, as I wrote up those interviews, was to present these people as if they were in a documentary film, being interviewed on-camera by me, off-camera. I wanted readers to “see” and “hear” them, by capturing their appearance, affect, voice, modes of expression, etc. I wasn’t trying to budge anybody off his or her perch, although I do want readers to note some of the implicit contradictions, defensive moments, rote utterances — as a viewer likely would, if that viewer were looking at these folks in a filmed interview. I think I have been misunderstood in my goal, from time to time. I’ve read bloggers’ reviews of my book, or had comments at public appearances, that suggest some folks think that in describing someone vivid and contradictory like Grandin, for instance, I’m making fun of her. I don’t think somebody who looked closely at what I wrote about her would say that, but of course no writer (or filmmaker, for that matter!) can control a reader’s or viewer’s perceptions. 

Additionally, I will say that I discovered something about academics which I do relate in the book: like anybody else, these people, however august or scholarly or earnest, are conscious of self-presentation. The world of ideas and scholarship is as competitive and as image-driven as any other, these days. So these folks have an individual style that is at least partly cultivated. In that, a Donald Broom or a Temple Grandin or a Bernard Rollin is no different from the rest of us. But it’s more surprising, perhaps, to encounter that trait in them. At least, I was a bit surprised, though of course I should not have been.  

To continue the “documentary film” analogy: if the paperback edition of The Dog by the Cradle… came with deleted scenes, what would we see?

The first draft was over 700 manuscript pages, and that didn’t even include the British and French interviews and trips, which I had to schedule at a later time for practical reasons. There were always only the six paradoxes that appear in the published book, but in terms of subject matter, I wrote quite a lot on feral animals (which fascinate me) and zoo animals and wildlife that I cut because I had to get the manuscript to a manageable length, and because while what I’d learned about those other animal lives was fascinating and pertinent, none of what I cut really altered or diminished the book. It was just more reinforcement of the same paradoxes.

Can you talk about this interest in feral animals? I recently started feeding some feral cat colonies through Annex Cat Rescue here in Toronto…

I have a friend, also a writer, who has faithfully fed cats for Annex Cat Rescue for years. I have gone out with her on her “beat”, and I admire her commitment and the depth of her relationship with those cats, and with the other feeders with whom she makes decisions regarding veterinary care and so on. I am not able to walk any distance (permanent ankle injury) so I had to make my walk with her a one-off, but the interrelationship of caring humans and these marginal animals interests me greatly. In some instances, they are animals who’ve chosen a separate peace, so to speak: those wild parrot colonies in California and elsewhere, even city pigeons who turn up more and more among the rest of the wild birds in the countryside in Ontario and elsewhere. And in some instances, like the feral cats, they have lost a precarious foothold as pets and yet managed to survive on the fringes of human society, even if marginally and still dependent, in many cases, on humans for their bare survival.

I am interested in the theme of feral animals as a topic for fiction, because marginality, whether human or animal, attracts me, and because, as I say in The Dog by the Cradle…, the search for “home” is one of the primal and primary quests both of literature and life. The existence of the homeless who once did have homes, whether animals or people, is, to me, one of the harshest critiques of our society, one of the signal indicators of our failure to be sufficiently accommodating and compassionate. So I am interested in feral urban animals both for their own individual selves, and also for how they mirror the most disadvantaged and marginalized humans. Not all are “losers” by any means. Some animals choose their marginality, as do some homeless people. But for all, most choices of any kind are severely limited. Last year, to launch the hardcover version of The Dog by the Cradle…, I organized a benefit event at a Toronto theatre to raise funds for Toronto’s only homeless shelter that allows people to bring their pets with them into shelter. At the event, I explained that animals are hostages to fortune, even more than humans. And the pets dependent on marginal humans are even more marginal than the pets of the wealthy and well-placed — although, of course, all animals live at our pleasure, including the animals of the rich, who could, like any of us, throw them out or have them euthanized on a whim, without being held legally accountable. That is at the heart of the human-animal relationship. We have absolute control, whether we can face that truth or not. 

You were in the news recently: you wrote a letter to Woolwich councillors about what you saw at the “Odd and Unusual” exotic animals auction last year, and your letter prompted some discussion. How did you end up at the auction? What did you see there?

I was told about last fall’s auction at an event where I was reading from my book (these auctions are twice yearly in this particular livestock barn in St Jacob’s) and I couldn’t believe that animals like camels, wallabies, crocodiles and more could be vended as if they were budgie birds. So I went, with no intention other than merely to observe the phenomenon. The reason I wound up lodging a complaint was that I saw instances of what I regarded, and most people would regard, as poor welfare, to say the least: a little pot-bellied pig in a container that barely contained him – it was like a second skin around him; wallabies and coati mundies being held up in the auction ring by their tails as they writhed frantically and kicked over their cages, to the amusement of many members of the auction audience; big monkeys like macaques crammed together in tiny crates; etc.

What my complaint did was draw the township’s attention to the fact that the auction was in violation of a recently (2006) updated bylaw, which the auction organizer had not been made aware of, and for which he needed to seek exemptions in order to continue the auctions as he had been doing. So, the auction organizer and the manager of the livestock barn in which the auction takes place both came to the regular town meeting to seek exemptions. I was invited to present my complaints to Council (I had a previous commitment, so I did a written submission), as did people from various animal advocacy organizations who either had observed personally or knew about the welfare abuses I’d seen, and although Council Staff recommended no exemptions and a complete prohibition of further auctions, the Council voted to allow exemptions. Their final vote was this past Monday (March 29). The next exotic animal auction can go forward on April 17, but the only exemptions are for tortoises and ugulates. My complaint really only got a different ball rolling, but it did shine a light on the existence of these fairly unpublicized events, and also on the position of the township, facilitating the auctioning of species local residents are not even allowed to own. I do intend to write about this; it’s the kind of story that people now bring to my attention, for which I am grateful.

You’ve said that The Dog by the Cradle… is not “a book of advocacy,” but in forwarding your complaints about the “Odd and Unusual” auction you were clearly being an advocate. Why did you want to keep advocacy out of the book?

I wanted the book not to purport to advocate for some particular point of view or plan of action, because it doesn’t. I didn’t want it to seem polemical, either, like a screed. Nor am I suggesting it’s utterly “even-handed”. Rather, by using a clearly ancient myth (the words “cradle” and “serpent” suggest a story from the realms of folk and fairytale lore) as the title, and by employing the word “paradoxes” in the subtitle, I was trying to indicate that I was journeying back in time and across a spectrum of literature, science, psychology et al, to take a comprehensive view of relationships ancient in origin, partly mythological and partly factual, and very much about contradiction rather than conviction.

On the other hand, I did not interview behaviourists who claim animals do not feel pain as humans do; I did not interview hunters to investigate their claims to “love animals.”  It’s fairly clear, as you read the book, that my sentiments are more on the side of animal protection than otherwise, and that my view of human history as well as current practices is more critical than laudatory. There are times in the book where I do wax indignant or despairing, but because I did not have a five-point program of solutions to go with my six paradoxes, and because with the interviewees, above all, I wanted to present these people to the reader, rather than filter them through an editorial sensibility, I did try to “report” in many places, rather than proselytize.

The Dog By the Cradle…. ends with a “sad fact,” and is, on the whole, a rather sad book. How did you feel while writing it? Have you had to recover from it?

I did struggle with the soberness, if not sadness, of much of my book. I think I knew, going in, that the story of humans and animals is, by and large, a story that is dark, ambivalent and often downright awful. Some of the ghastlier research I read about or images I saw online really depressed me, especially when I was in the “research” phase, before I began to write and hence could find that balance between darkness and light that writing usually avails. I tried to find episodes of joy in this book as I was writing it – the beauty of some of the animals I met along the way, the pleasure that some of my interviewees took in their non-human research subjects and sanctuary wards, the unconscious humour of some of the interviewees themselves, as well as unexpected comedy that animals themselves provide, by being both like and unlike us. I don’t know that I’ve “recovered” from the book. The consequences of the stories I found to tell go on. And I hope to go on too, right along with them.

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