Monthly Archives: January 2014

Jane Goodall

Cover for Reason for Hope, A spiritual journey by Jane GoodallI have very much enjoyed reading this quiet, thoughtful and intimate book. Jane Goodall is such a singular individual. She does such extraordinary things yet seems to take everything in her stride. Strolling through a forest in Africa is apparently easier than visiting a city.

Jane Goodall was asked to deliver a sermon one Saint Francis’s Day in San Francisco. She took as her text Genesis Chapter 1, verse 26: ‘And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ She goes on to explain that:

… many Hebrew scholars believe the word ‘dominion’ is a very poor translation of the original Hebrew word v’yirdu, which actually meant to rule over, as a wise king rules over his subjects, with care and respect. It implied a sense of responsibility and enlightened stewardship.

This brings us to the idea of fiduciary duty. One of the most exciting developments in the environmental movement is championed by a lawyer in Oregon called Mary Wood. She has written extensively about the duty that a government, and future governments, has to look after the people of the land.  This includes future generations, the air those people breathe and the water they drink. Clearly it must include the entire habitat and ecology around the people. I went to a fascinating seminar about this at Monash Law, introduced by Ken Coghill. I have to say I didn’t understand very much – I only did half a law degree – but I was greatly heartened by these incredibly intelligent students, lawyers and judges striving to find a way to hold successive governments accountable for the environment. Isn’t that a better way of looking at the word ‘dominion’?





Animals threatened by humans

Many books explore the relationship between humans and animals. Pleasantly, in Emily Rodda’s Dog Tales and Dodie Smith’s The 101 Dalmatians, dogs keep pets. Human pets. Very happily.

Cover of Emily Rodda's Dog Tales

In Watership Down by Richard Adams and Toad Rage by Morris Gleitzman, careless drivers offer great threat to innocent animals by accident. (Flattened and dried cane toad relatives are stored like old vinyl records.)

The rats and the bandicoots are having a war over scarce food in Patricia Wrightson’s Moon-dark. The animals have to call on the moon spirit to help them. The human threat is short sightedness and ignorance – clearing a forest has caused a food shortage for animals already crowded by habitat loss.
In The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell, the human threat is greed. The very day her foal is born she knows

…her son would be hunted as she was and as her own cream-coloured mother had been before her. (Pg 5 Brumby)

Forest by Sonya Hartnett is about a cat and two kittens; lured into a cardboard box and abandoned by a mean human in the forest. They find they are surrounded by feral cats and have to learn the ways of the wild cat tribe. Kian cannot relinquish his hold on his old tame ways and sets out to lead the kittens in a return to domestic life. They have finally left the dark forest, crossing fields towards more heavily populated areas, when they find a path and coming toward them, down the path are two men.

It seemed to Kian there was no reason to run: running was the reaction of a wild cat, a frightened cat, a cat who had no need of the human’s respect, but Kian was not wild, and he would not let the kittens be wild. Soon he would bring them home, and the siblings’ lives would be misery if they learned the wild cats fear. (Pg 201 Forest)

But he was wrong. He should have been afraid. Very afraid, because the humans kill him. For fun. Similarly in The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Dodie Smith explores human cruelty.

Cover of 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith

            They went through the open gate and up the cobbled path, wagging their tails and looking with love at the little boy—and the bread and butter. The child smiled at them fearlessly and waved the bread and butter. And then, when they were only three or four yards away, he stooped, picked up a stone and slung it with all his force. He gave a squeal of laughter when he saw the stone strike Pongo, then went in and slammed the door. (Pg 67 Dalmatians)


Missis said: “The bad little boy was only bad because he had never known dogs.” And she was probably right. (Pg 131 Dalmatians)

In Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White about a pig called Wilbur and The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith about a pig called Babe, things are a bit more deliberate. Animals are dinner.

“That was a pig.”

“What will the boss do with it?”

“Eat it,” said Fly, “when it’s big enough.”

“Will he eat us,” said another rather nervously, “when we’re big enough?”

“Bless you,” said his mother. “People only eat stupid animals. Like sheep and cows and ducks and chickens. They don’t eat clever ones like dogs.” (Pg 17 Sheep-Pig)

The fact that humans can threaten animals: subdue them and have dominion over them, means that humans must be different to animals.  We’ll explore this idea in my next post.

Cover of Charlotte's web by EB White

How do they know? Epistomology.

Millionaire writer, Joe Eszterhas once wrote that audiences are no longer interested in character, pointing out that two of the biggest grossing films in the USA over the last few  decades have starred a giant ape and a mechanical shark. He’s correct about the shark, that being only glimpsed, but surely the ape had personality? His statement raises other questions, too. Do animals have a character or merely characteristics? Do humans impose personality upon a creature or can the animal be perceived to have its own interior life? Can animals demonstrate a theory of mind? Could we suppose, like Herman Melville that a whale could have ‘the rare virtue of a strong, individual vitality?’ (68.7 Moby Dick)

There are many issues at play with human relationships with animals. This is what lies behind my books, The Ektek Trilogy. I have pondered upon the different aspects of what it is to be animal – not only for humans.

One aspect of animal character, epistemology, is fascinating. What do animal characters know and understand, and how do they come to know it, especially about the human world? Are things named at all in the animal kingdom? Certainly they are in fiction but then, fiction is written by the human animal.

…the other lifted a dark stick — a stick, Kian saw, that must not be a stick, for it uttered a boom of noise. The noise struck a raven and the bird somersaulted, its great wings spread wide. (pg 202 Forest by Sonya Hartnett)

How do some animal characters know the names for stick, trees, sheep, and yet not know the names for other things, like gun? How can their perceptions appear consistent in the world of their books? In the world I have created for Ektek, the animals use computers but they cannot understand the sounds of human speech.

Dogs can never speak the language of humans and humans can never speak the language of dogs. But many dogs appear to understand almost every word humans say, while humans seldom learn to recognise more than half a dozen barks, if that. And barks are only a small part of the dog language. A wagging tail can mean so many things. Humans know that it means a dog is pleased, but not what a dog is saying about his pleasedness. (Really, it is very clever of humans to understand a wagging tail at all, as they have no tails of their own.) Then there are the snufflings and sniffings, the pricking of ears—all meaning different things. And many, many words are expressed by a dog’s eyes. (Pg 52, 101 Dalmatians)

How can we know what an animal knows?

We’re animals. We know what we know!

Vegan cartoonist – Dan Piraro

Cartoon of lab chimpanzee questioning scientist

The Cure?

Find more of Dan Piraro’s great work here.




Anthropomorphism in objects and gods

There are so many animal characters in our media now, from Kermit and Miss Piggy to Snoopy and Garfield, we’re surrounded by them. And not just animals. Anthropomorphism can apply to everything, from objects to ideas. Who said, ‘I could murder a curry’?

Death, of course, from Mort, by Terry Pratchett, an anthropomorphic personification if ever there was one.


Terry Pratchett stands with a brush with Death thanks to

Terry Pratchett has a brush with Death thanks to

If we think of Thomas the Tank Engine, Spongebob Squarepants, The Magic Pudding or even those grubby mouldy carrots in the bottom of The Young One’s fridge we can see that talking objects and plants can be used by storytellers to great entertainment effect. We all remember when hippy Neil, dressed as a police officer, walked into a tree, and was hit by the Special Branch.

POLICE CHIEF: That’s right, that’s right! Now, you practice going, “CCCCHHHHHH”. And if you don’t get it right, I kick your head in.

NEIL: Fascist!

POLICE CHIEF: Si! Okay, now, here is the uniform [he hands Neil the uniform] take that with you, and as you go out, watch out for the Special Branch.

[Neil walks out of the station and hits his head on a tree branch] NEIL: I don’t see what’s so special about that.

TREE BRANCH: I’ve got a degree in Computer Science, that’s what.

NEIL: Oh, yeah, that’s quite special.

Watch the last bit of the ep here!

Neil from The Young Ones

The third edition of the Concise Macquarie Dictionary defines anthropomorphism as: “Ascribing human form or attributes to beings or things not human, especially to a deity.” Whoa! A God?But which came first, the God or the human?

In Genesis Chapter One verse 26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Amusing annotation here 

So if humans are made in God’s likeness, then are not all humans Gods? Or did God not make an exact likeness? Is it anthropomorphic to think that God can make anything at all?

Let’s talk about dominion another time, shall we? For that is at the heart of our relationship with nature!

Painting of The Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo

The Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo



Clearly, Ektek is anthropomorphic, there’s no getting away from it. Or you could think, like the scientists in The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams, as they discuss his own work;

People like Adams represent animals acting as if they were humans, when actually it’d be nearer the mark to consider them as automata controlled by the computer they inherit in their genetical (sic) make-up. (pg 442 The Plague Dogs)

Cover of The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

Cover of the Plague Dogs, thanks

I have been writing about animals, particularly endangered creatures, since 1993. My play, It’s NOT the end of the world, was first presented by Polyglot Puppet Theatre in 1994. Instead of animals, anthropomorphism animated an endangered family of string bags threatened by a hamburger corporation.

In 1996 I commenced work on an unsolicited bible for a television series (working title Ektek) about endangered Australian animals. In 1997 I realised production would be unlikely unless I could get the stories published as books first. The first book was rejected seven times. Three of the rejections came about at John Marsden’s Publisher’s camp. When I pitched the idea to the publishers represented they said Ektek would never work because young adults do not like anthropomorphism.

When I prepared the proposal for the second draft of the book I included a list of anthropomorphic books, such as Animal Farm, Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, to demonstrate that books written from the point of view of animals might be profitable for a publisher. This proved unconvincing, as that ms was also rejected seven times. I placed Ektek deep in the bottom of a drawer. Of course, it’s since been retrieved, reworked and resubmitted and rejected many more times. Now, it’s free for you to examine as you will because publishers are reluctant. Is anthropomorphism to blame?

As I looked at more and more books about animals and thought about anthropomorphism, it slowly dawned on me that when a book is about a type of animal, be it horse in The Silver Brumby, Dog in The101 Dalmations, or Cat as in Forest, there is always reference to the other species – the most dominant of all. I began to wonder if when writers use animal characters, they are actually exploring what it means to be human.

Zoologist Colin Tudge, writing in Last Animals at the Zoo, believes anthropomorphism is a primitive and easy way to attempt to understand animals. He explains

… the portrayals of animals from Aesop to Edwin Landseer – cunning foxes and noble stags – are anthropomorphism of a kind, animals with human qualities, presented as symbols of those qualities. The animals of children’s stories – Two Bad Mice and Jeremy Fisher, Wind in the Willows, Rupert Bear, Donald Duck – are humans, in tweeds and spats and sailor suits.  Because of the way they look and behave, however, they are presumed to have some of the character of the animals whose physiognomies they have assumed; pompous Jeremy, bumbling Mole, irascible Donald. (Pg 193 Zoo)

cover of Last Animals at the Zoo; how mass extinction can be stopped

Humans have told anthropomorphic stories for hundreds of years. Ektek is just one more.

What’s it like to be an animal?

My friend, Jenny, heard an environmentalist called Bob Mack on the radio. She was so impressed, she went to meet him to talk about nature. They went for a walk while they chatted. He took her to a secluded nook of Studley Park and said, ‘Right. Get your gear off.’

She thought, ‘Uh oh. Here we go.’ But, no, he insisted, there was an environmental reason to get naked. After some badinage she very reluctantly agreed and eventually squatted down amongst the saplings and sparse scrub with no clothes to protect her. He pointed out that she was now as close to a wallaby as she could get.

How do you think that felt?

Vulnerable, sitting naked in the bush, hoping that nobody came along and ready to run like hell if anyone saw her.

He gave her empathy.

Yellow-tailed wallaby at the Adelaide Zoo

Yellow-tailed wallaby at the Adelaide Zoo

He helped her to understand what it might be like to be an animal because we don’t really know.  We have to imagine.