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Book Review: What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

I am forever wondering what my dog, Galen, is thinking. Sometimes I go nose to nose with her, stare into her brown eyes, and ponder what’s happening in that little brain of hers. In those moments, I presume she thinks either, “Why have you thrust your face in mine?” or “How about you give me a cookie?” I’m embarrassed to say for how many years this ritual has persisted and how many times a day it’s repeated. But it is this longing to get into Galen’s head that attracted me to the pioneering work of neuroscientist Gregory Berns, much of whose research involves going inside a dog’s mind.

Berns, an Emory University professor and founding member of the Society for Neuroeconomics, is the scientist who, in 2011, came up with the radical notion that dogs could be trained to enter an MRI machine and remain still long enough to have their brains scanned and thus, studied. How Berns turned his controversial idea into groundbreaking science is the story at the center of his 2013 book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. Now Berns is out with What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, which picks up where How Dogs Love Us leaves off.

For those unfamiliar with Berns’ work with dogs, the introduction to What It’s Like to Be a Dog provides a condensed account of how he and his team trained a host of dogs—starting with Berns’ own rescue, Callie—to don ear muffs and “shimmy” into loud, hulking MRI machines.

Berns and his rescue, Callie.

It is an extraordinary chronicle of patience, determination, and above all, respect for the dogs that would participate in the studies. Berns writes that three principles guided the team’s research: do no harm to the dogs, do not restrain them, and give the dogs “the right of self-determination.” That meant the dogs “had the same fundamental privilege as humans participating in research: the right to refuse.” Being dogs, refuse is sometimes what they did. Fortunately, more of the time (and for treats aplenty), they did not.

Callie in the MRI machine

Berns has long been fascinated by the brain. He began studying humans’ brains, turned next to those of dogs, and as telegraphed by the subtitle of this newest work—And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience—is extending his brain imaging research into the broader animal kingdom. This is important for readers to note because those expecting What It’s Like to Be a Dog to be a wholly dog-centric read will be disappointed. (I presume the title was chosen to entice dog lovers, and I admit, it’s what initially drew me.)

At its core, What It’s Like to Be a Dog is Berns’ first-person account of his attempt to answer the question: Do animals experience emotions like people do? The science in the book—Berns provides primers on the evolution of the brain and its structure—is written for the lay reader, and it is what underlies the non-dog narratives that drive the story. These narratives revolve around Berns’ adventures tracking down and studying the brains of sea lions, dolphins, and the now-extinct thylacine, a tiger-like marsupial native to Australia.

What Berns finds, through the myriad imaging studies he performs, is that there are enough similarities in the architecture of human and animal brains to extrapolate that animals have feelings much like humans do. “Our results have shown,” he writes, “no matter which animal’s brain we examined, that if it has a cortex, the animal is very likely sentient, and that its subjective experience can be understood by degrees of similarity to ours.”

Ethical implications flow from Berns’ findings, and this is the territory in which he closes the book. If animals are indeed sentient, a rethinking of how we treat them in agriculture, in laboratories, in our homes, in our every encounter, is not simply long overdue, it is imperative.

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Book Review: Fragment

You may have read that in mid-July a massive iceberg broke off from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. Measuring about 2,000 square miles—nearly the size of Delaware—it is one of the largest icebergs ever to calve from the ice shelves ringing the continent. Scientists expect that it will eventually fracture, with some pieces remaining in the Weddell Sea and others moving into the Atlantic Ocean. They don’t expect the pieces will pose any danger nor do they anticipate sea level rise should they melt. But what if, rather than an iceberg splintering off an ice shelf, the continent’s largest ice shelf, itself, a land mass the size of France, were thrust into the ocean? How much global devastation might result from an event of that magnitude?

For the answer, look to Craig Russell’s fast-paced eco-thriller, Fragment. When the novel begins, a glacial avalanche severs the Ross Ice Shelf from the continent and creates a tsunami of ice that destroys two polar research stations, Scott Base and McMurdo Station. “The wave is not a perfect line,” writes Russell. “It is the product of four, falling, runaway glaciers, thrust like goring bulls into the Ice Shelf’s back…shards of surface ice are launched ahead of the onrushing swell. Launched like harpoons, catapulted forward at the speed of sound.” Only three people survive the onslaught: a polar climatologist, an astronomer, and a marine biologist.

Fragment is their story, but not theirs alone. The novel is driven by an ensemble cast that includes sailors aboard a U.S. atomic submarine, journalists, climate-change denying politicians, a self-promoting marketing director of a major cruise line, a Scottish sailor literate in the wild waters of Drake Passage, and a blue whale named Ring. All (of the human characters) are trying to make sense of what the ice shelf’s surge into the Atlantic could mean for coastal countries, and some are warning of the epic environmental and human carnage to come. It will be no surprise to readers that these warnings fall on proverbial deaf ears. Says a German scientist at a hastily-called European conference, “Such examples are imaginative, but we must not inflame the passions of the public…we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist view.”

In this climate change allegory, characters are somewhat thinly drawn in background, if not environmental outlook. Readers will quickly distinguish between those who are noble—who respect earth and all her inhabitants—and those who are selfish and scornful of nature. This lack of complexity in character development combined with short chapters that jump among settings, pitch the action of the story forward at a steady, page-turning clip. Fragment is hard to put down.

Perhaps the most compelling character in the novel—and certainly the purest of heart—is the blue whale, Ring. When the scientists who survive the Antarctic tsunami develop a language that makes communication with Ring possible, what follows is inter-species cooperation unlike the world has ever seen.

Fragment leaps so seamlessly from fact to fiction that it may drive readers to their computers or smart phones to find out where exactly fact ends and fiction begins. That’s how well-researched and executed I found Craig Russell’s eco-thriller.

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Wolf Haven: Sanctuary and the Future of Wolves in North America

After finishing Wolf Haven I went straight to the Internet and looked up Wolf Haven International.

I had been aware of the California Wolf Center, located outside San Diego, but was not aware of Wolf Haven, located just south of Mt. Rainier. And now I can’t wait to visit.

But make no mistake; this is no petting zoo. In fact, the sanctuary goes to great lengths to keep many of the wolves far away from people so they stand a better chance of survival when they are introduced back into the wild. Just last month a number of Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced into northern Mexico after having spent time at Wolf Haven.

Approximately 200 of the Wolf Haven residents are forever residents; either captive bred or simply unable to survive on their own, Wolf Haven gives these animals some much-deserved peace. I wish I could say that the underlying message of this book will bring the reader peace, but the sad truth is that there is war on wolves, one that began a long time ago.

It’s estimated that when European settlers first made their way across North America that there were more than two million wolves here. But when settlers imported cows and sheep and steadily moved west, wolves soon focused their energies on these animals. Before long, the war on wolves had begun.

In about a hundred years wolves declined to as few as 1,500 animals. The eastern Red Wolf is still on the edge of regional extinction, along with the Mexican gray wolf in the United States.

Here in Oregon, few issues agitate animal lovers more than the plight of wolves. As Wolf Haven notes, our governor Kate Brown (despite the fact that she claims to care about the environment) allowed the wolf to be removed from the protected list. Apparently the government believes that a few dozen wolves constitutes “enough” wolves in this state. And now, tragically, their numbers will dwindle again as hunters and ranchers go after them.

With this in mind, the book Wolf Haven is a fitting tribute to a wolf sanctuary that is doing its part to protect these species.

If the measurement of a successful book is inciting someone to action, then Wolf Haven certainly qualifies. It has inspired me to give to this organization and one day make the trip up north to visit.

And to also remind our governor that wolves do matter to many residents of Oregon.

Wolf Haven: Sanctuary and the Future of Wolves in North America

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Zoomorphic magazine now accepting submissions

zoomorphic

We first introduced Zoomorphic a year ago with this Q&A.

Zoomorphic is now accepting submissions for their next two issues. Here is the call:

Zoomorphic magazine was founded a year ago and is now an established eco-literature publication. We have featured work by many award-winning and respected international writers in our first 5 issues.

We are now seeking submissions of fiction, journalism and creative non-fiction for our summer and autumn issues. We are happy to receive material from published and unpublished writers, and will give editorial feedback to new writers with strong ideas. Work concerning oceanic wildlife is particularly encouraged.

Essays and fiction should be between 500 and 3000 words.

Submissions guidelines can be found here: zoomorphic.net/submissions.

Or contact James Roberts (editor@zoomorphic.net) to discuss your ideas.

 

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Book Review: Only the Animals

A Russian tortoise launched into space during the Cold War. A Lebanese parrot abandoned on the doorknob of a pet store during Israel’s 2006 bombing of Beirut. A US Navy-trained dolphin called to serve in the Second Gulf War. These are some of the protagonists in Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey’s captivating collection of short stories that explores the many expressions of the human-animal relationship.ResizedImage600906-onlytheanimals2

The narrators in Dovey’s fictional tales are animals—not their live selves, but their souls—and it’s this convention that sets up the tension in each story, along with the settings—human conflicts dating back to the late nineteenth century where the animals, directly or indirectly, meet their end.

In addition to the tortoise, the parrot, and the dolphin, readers hear from a blue mussel whose life begins in New York City and ends attached to the hull of a battleship docked at Pearl Harbor; a Germanic wolf-dog exiled to a Polish forest by his master, Heinrich Himmler; a black bear starving in a Serbian zoo during the siege of Sarajevo. Still other storytellers include a camel in colonial Australia, a female elephant in Mozambique, an ape in Germany, and a Parisian cat on the front line during World War I.dolphins-pixabay

This premise—animals’ life-stories divulged in their afterlife—might seem gimmicky, but Dovey succeeds in both craft and content. In so doing, she gifts her readers stories that are at times amusing and quirky, at times sad and haunting, but always richly imagined and thoroughly researched.

Indeed, the research Dovey has done, allowing her to authentically build the scenes in which she lets loose her imagination, is expansive. Beyond studying wars of the past hundred-plus years, Dovey, a Harvard-trained social anthropologist, also delved into the literary works of writers who have populated their stories and poems with animals. Many of these writers—some well-known, some less so (Google may come in handy)—have cameos in the stories. Thus, the Navy-trained dolphin writes letters to Sylvia Plath and disdains the animal poetry of her husband, Ted Hughes. The nomadic mussel speaks with the voice of Jack Kerouac. And the Russian tortoise endears himself first to Tolstoy’s daughter, then to George Orwell, and finally to Virginia Woolf, who, Dovey tells us, believed that throughout history, great writers have turned to animals to speak for them when they “could at one stage find no way to say what they wanted to say.”

At its heart, Dovey’s collection of stories probes how humans and animals encounter one another in a fraught world, and how humans encounter each other. “Why do you sometimes treat other people as humans and sometimes as animals?” the dolphin asks. “And why do you sometimes treat creatures as animals and sometimes as human?” Dovey provides no answers to these questions or to questions about the human capacity for empathy and the futility of war. What she’s done in Only the Animals is focus her anthropologist’s eye on the interactions and interconnectedness of all beings as a means of illuminating human nature.

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Do Unto Animals: A Guide to Raising a More Compassionate Family

do-unto-animals

I grew up around cats, so it always struck me as odd when people didn’t understand what a cat’s purr signified.

Then again, I did not grow up around cows or goats or sheep and don’t understand their behaviors.

You have to learn how to live among animals. How to read the languages they speak through their body language and the noises they make. And since not all of us were raised in households with pets or by outdoorsy parents, how do we learn how to peacefully coexist with animals when we don’t have much practice?

This book provides a great start.

What I liked about this book:

  • Stewart advocates for adopting dogs from shelters and not buying them (Adopt Don’t Shop).
  • She sings the praises of pit bull and black cats (black cats are considered lucky in countries like Italy and England).
  • She encourages readers to support the wildlife they share their yards with — and not just bees and butterflies, but snakes and spiders. Even the much-derided mole gets some compassion.
  • She includes plenty of craft ideas for getting your kids involved in interacting with your pets and exploring the nature outside.
  • I appreciated “The Hurtless Hunt” – a section on naturing that doesn’t require killing nature to take it back home with you.
  • Stewart is an active supporter of animal sanctuaries and provides ways to help that go behind simply writing a check.

The most significant section is about farm animals. I was impressed to see Stewart explain why she doesn’t eat meat — and then explain just how special cows (and all farm animals) are: The sorrowful sounds a cow will make when separated from her calf. The personalities of each of her adopted flock of sheep, with accompanying illustrations. For Stewart, dogs and cats are not any more deserving of affection than goats and sheep and pigs; they all are equally deserving.

Stewart writes that she and her husband have a mixed marriage — he eats meat and she does not, and the children get to choose their diets. But much has changed since this chapter was written — her husband, Jon Stewart, no longer eats meat.

Despite the strong messages included in this book, it is by no means preachy. Stewart has a warm, welcoming voice that encourages all readers to simply take a moment to see the world through the eyes of animals.

The book is loaded with illustrations and interesting asides. It’s a fun read and can be reused by readers referring to the numerous craft ideas they can put to use with their children.

If your family plans to adopt animals or simply wants to better appreciate the nature outside your front door, I recommend this book.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the title of the book derives from the golden rule — a rule that we should apply not only to how we treat our own species but all species. The world will be a far better place when we do.

Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better
Artisan Books

Further endorsement of this book comes from Leon, pictured below, a Maine coon mix who is currently up for adoption at the Jackson County Animal Shelter in Southern Oregon.

Leon

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Submissions for Among Animals will close December 15

We are pleased to announce we’re on the home stretch toward choosing stories for the next edition of Among Animals.

We’re still looking for a few more great stories and have set a deadline of December 15. So if you’ve got a short story you think might fit, please send it along!

And for more details about what we’re looking for in these stories, check out our first edition, which will give you a good idea of what the anthology is all about.

And thanks to everyone who has shared their work with us so far. We’ve been honored to read your stories.

amonganimals_250

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Book Review: Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir

Sharona Muir’s Invisible Beasts is an absolute delight, and not only for animal lovers. This smart, whimsical novel takes readers not only into a world of “invisible beasts” but into the mind of a charmingly quirky character.

Invisible-Beasts

The novel is written in a nonfiction style, as a personal bestiary by a woman with a genetic gift (passed down from her granduncle and occurring again, she learns, in her nephew)—the ability to see invisible animals.

“Why have I written a book that could expose me, and my family, to ridicule and imputations of lunacy?” Sophie asks in her introduction. The answer sets the tone for this wonderful journey: “Human beings are the most invisible beasts, because we do not see ourselves as beasts. If we did, we would think and act differently. Instead of believing ourselves to be above animals, or separate from them, we would understand how every aspect of our lives—spiritual, psychological, social, political—is, also, an aspect of our being animals.”

In addition to an introduction and epilogue, Invisible Beasts is divided into five sections, including Common Invisible Beasts, Imperiled and Extinct Invisible Beasts, and Rare Invisible Beasts—yet while carefully structured and grounded in science, the voice is anything but staid. The novel begins, “A night of passion is a hard thing to remember (no pun intended). The moments blur into a warm blush on your brain, from which it’s hard to extract the details later, if you want to brood over them and confirm just how he did what. So it’s lovely to find a Couch Conch in your bedroom the morning after.”

This first beast we encounter, the Couch Conch, appears in one’s bedroom the morning after and displays, “in the film of pale shell that overlays its radiant pink,” what transpired the night before. “It’s wonderful that mollusks, who don’t care about us, can show us what our bodies express,” writes Sophie. “But mollusks are full of lessons. They know all about the balance of hard and soft, rigidity and acceptance, firmness and flexibility, from the way in which they compose their nacre, the iridescent glaze that makes pearls precious and conches beautiful.”

This mix of magic and science, fantasy and reality, appears throughout, among the many invisible beasts Sophie introduces. The invisible Grand Tour butterflies out-distance the monarchs; in the embryonic stage, “humans, basking sharks, and Beanie Sharks look exactly the same.” And just as it’s wonderful to be visited by a Couch Conch, so it is to be accompanied by Truth Bats (who only show up among non-liars) or an Oormz, which restores memory like “a bandage between your animal past, sadly forgotten, and your present.”

The novel isn’t all animals, however; there are lovely moments between Sophie and her practical, straight-talking biologist sister, Evie—and in one chapter, we witness Sophie’s discovery of her nephew’s gift. A few passages, despite the mythical qualities of the book, are firmly grounded in reality: In the chapter on the Foster Fowl, Sophie wonders to what extent her own selfishness led to its extinction; the chapter “The Riddle of Invisible Dogs” was inspired by the author’s year of volunteering with animal cruelty officers of the Humane Society and is tinged with the sad realities of animal abuse.

Throughout this small, compact book are allegorical gems—Sophie’s sister Evie tells her, “Without imagination, we can’t stop extinction”—and laugh-out-loud observations: the Wild Rubber Jack, we learn, is “an invisible American ass” that stands as tall as a man. “To this day,” Sophie writes, “we lead the world in the enormous size of our asses.”

Invisible Beasts is a wildly inventive novel that invites us to consider, in ways both fun and serious, the depth of our connections with non-human animals, as well as all that they can teach us.

Learn more from this Q&A with author Sharona Muir here.

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Book Review: Ruby Roth’s Young Activist 3-Book Gift Pack

Ruby Roth's Vegan is Love

Here’s a great gift for your favorite young activist, vegan household, to celebrate your Veganuary, or for your local or little free library. Ruby Roth’s delightful and inspiring children’s picture books are a must have for the vegan bookshelf. No children required.

Ruby Roth children's booksAdults will appreciate the beautiful illustrations and straightforward explanations of the vegan lifestyle, too. Tired of feeling like an outlier? Fed up with odd questions about your diet? Need a reminder why you went vegan? These books make it refreshingly simple and obvious.

Animals are “friends, not food,” our treatment of them is cruel and harmful to the planet and a vegan lifestyle is a powerful, loving choice. Each book ends with tips on what kids (and all of us) can do to make a difference.

Roth’s first book That’s Why We don’t Eat Animals: A Book About Vegans, Vegetarian, and All Living Things (2009) focuses on farmed animals — chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese, pigs, cows — in short paragraphs on animal science.

No “heigh-ho, the derry-o,” it scraps the “happy cow” and “petting zoo” myths and shows the reality of modern farming and animal use and abuse.

“A factory-farm pig may spend her whole life alone, fattened in a pen so tiny that she won’t even be able to turn around. A free pig never poops where she eats or sleeps, but on a factory farm she has no choice.”

“Pigs need the sight sound, and touch of one another. Sometimes they snuggle so close that it’s hard to get them apart. Love is part of their nature.”

Then, it talks about the environment and human impacts on the ocean, fish, the rainforest, and endangered species, “We must consider how the foods we eat affect the planet.”

Ruby Roth's Vegan is LoveRoth’s next book is the perfect vegan Valentine. You could enjoy it just for its cover, which features a darling elephant and her heart-shaped trunk. Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action (2012) takes a global view and pictures an assortment of animals, wildlife and domestic.

It introduces the harms to animals of our use of them for clothing and entertainment from animal testing to zoos, the circus, bullfights and rodeos. The images here are dark and distressing.

Then, it shows how eating with love aids our health and impacts our planet from the forests, to our oceans, to the arctic. The brighter images and happy animals return.

“The truth is we do not need to eat meat or dairy. Most animals in the world are herbivores, and just like them, we can grow strong and healthy by eating from nature’s gardens.”

V Is for Vegan: The ABCs of Being Kind (2013) is a cute and funny primer on the vegan lifestyle.

“Aa is for animals —friends, not food. We don’t eat our friends, they’d find it quite rude.”

It shows kids enjoying nature, helping in the kitchen and planting seeds. It illustrates what’s good to eat, “Ll is for legumes, often called beans,” and what’s not, “Eg is for eggs from a chicken’s butt?! Wow.”

Roth’s artwork helps us see animals and our treatment of them with fresh eyes and wonder, countering the complacency of the status quo. She offers an empowering message.

“While the power of nature can move mountains and make rainbows, the power we have as humans is boundless too. Every day, we have the freedom to change our lives. In fact, when we treat animals respectfully, we practice world peace. That’s why we don’t eat animals.”

What do your kiddos have to say? It would be great to hear children’s reactions to these books. Have you read them to your children? Do leave some kid quotes in the comments.

Inspired by these books? Check out Farm Sanctuary’s Someone, Not Something project for more information about farm animal emotion, behavior and intelligence.

What next? Read Roth’s blog post “Why Being the Lone Vegan Makes You a Power Player“.  See the EcoLit review of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, another essential for the young activist bookshelf.

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Story Review: Fox 8 by George Saunders

Fox 8As children, we read short fairytales and fables in which animals joined humans on quests or spoke and explored together. As adults, we may have turned to a reading life of ponderous nonfiction and novels with nary an animal. If so, it’s time to reconsider.

To add one good animal story to your reading diet, try George Saunders’ “Fox 8” (2013). It’s told by a fox who has learned to speak human by listening to a mother tell stories to her children. The fox has also learned the elements of a good story and sets down his tale in an attempt to improve fox/human relations.

It’s an unusually styled story (the fox is not a good speller), which rewards the adventurous reader. The fox’s quaint simple speech, in the fashion of nonnative speakers, lends his words poignancy.

He begins by expressing his appreciation for humans roused when he watches a human mother nuzzling her children in much the same way a fox mother loves her kits.

“It made me feel gud, like Yumans could feel luv and show luv. In other werds, hope full for the future of Erth!”

Later, he expresses admiration for all humans can accomplish, but this is also where the story takes a dark turn and dives into its power.

The fox asks, “Why did the Curator do it so rong, making the group with the gratest skills the meenest?”Fur-Fox-Black

In a presentation on eco-fabulism, writer Matt Bell pointed to this story and made the case that the literary community should employ the fantastic to bring attention to the world’s ecological problems — climate change, for example.

Imaginative fiction might inspire desperately needed creativity. As Saunders quotes Einstein, “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” Inundated with a world of worthy problems, we need creative solutions and a sense of urgency. Thus, our fate may well depend on fables.

“Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth,” says Saunders.

Speaking at Seattle Arts & Lectures, Saunders talked about the transformative power of short stories. We enter the black box of the story and come out believing less in our own separateness. Stories soften the borders between ourselves and “the others,” he said.

Too often animals are these “others” and in peril because of it. Imagine, instead, the world as the animals do in “Fox 8,” “kwite cheerful.”

“Troting thru a forest, I wud heer such things as Berds swooping down prasing all nature, and Mise saying its is a super day, and Cows in a nearby feeld going, O wow, isn’t the werld grate and so farth, we are reely loving this super grass.”

Listen to the fox wax rhapsodic about his environment.

“O, the lite threw the Trees! The moving shadows when the wind wud blow! The millyun grate smells, such as water not far away! The wind in the hi part of the Trees, and sometimes a branch will crak!”

Tell it like it is, o, talking fox! Saunders says writing helps him counter his own passivity and become more heart full. And so, acting out of love for the animal instead of fear of anthropomorphizing, he expands his circle of empathy to include a fox and give him voice.

It’s a cute story, sure, but not trivial. Short stories spin the smallest details into powerful magic. “We don’t have anything but those small motions of the heart and mind. Short stories remind us of that,” said Saunders on winning the 2014 Story Prize for his collection The Tenth of December.

Before setting out on his hero’s journey, Fox 8 asks himself: “And sinse I luv you, shud I not do my best to save you?”

It’s a question any one who loves animals might well ask. It is a question with great heart.

“I think that fiction has a part to play in urging us, as a species, toward compassion,” says Saunders.

Screen Shot 2013-06-08 at 10.58.41 AMWhat next?
For more adventurous animal stories, read Ashland Creek Press’ own anthology Among Animals. Reviewed at Our Hen House, Booklist and Karuna for Animals.

For more fox point of view, watch the luminous soulful eyes of the foxes living in wire cages on the edge of a wood at a fur farm in the documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine (2013). As Saunders says, “The real world is darker than any story.” Still, these foxes might well agree with Fox 8’s conclusion about humanity.