Kids and Critters

News Flash! April 30th through May 3, the e-book of Changer will be on sale at most major e-retailers, including Kobo and I-tunes.   Don’t have an e-reader?  Changer is also available in trade paperback (although not on sale) from Amazon Create Space or directly from me via my website bookshop.

Now to our regularly scheduled Tangent…

The questions I get most frequently asked in interviews is why I write about animals so often.

Kel and Nora

Kel and Nora

My automatic response is, “Why wouldn’t I?  Animals are fascinating and a lot more complicated than humans give them credit for being.”

This past weekend, we had an excellent illustration of just how complicated animals can be.  Nora Bartel, age six, loves animals and was very eager to meet our cats and guinea pigs.  We explained to her that our cats don’t have a lot of contact with children, so she should be prepared to have them be shy  and take time to warm up to her.

Nora understood.  At first the cats were a little shy, coming up to sniff, but backing away when Nora tried to pat them.  Then Jim went and woke up Kel, who had been napping in the back.  Kel is a gentle soul, but she doesn’t put up with any nonsense.  However, she warmed to Nora very quickly.

Soon I saw Kel inviting Nora to play, prancing away a few steps, them pausing and looking back over her shoulder in an invitation for Nora to follow.  We explained to Nora that Kel didn’t want to be chased fast, but that she wasn’t running away scared.  Within a very short time, Kel had flopped down and was inviting Nora to pat her.

Nora was delighted to oblige, and soon they were great friends.

I found myself wondering why Kel had such a different reaction than the other three.  Kwahe’e is very social, but he was content to watch and take an occasional pat.  Persephone, who, at age three, is the most likely to fling herself into the middle of things, didn’t shun Nora, but she was definitely more cautious.  Ogapoge eventually decided Nora was great, but not until Kel broke the ice.  So why was Kel’s reaction so different?

Then I remembered.  When Kel was a kitten, our nephew Christopher came to visit with his mom.  Like Nora, Christopher was very interested in getting to know our cats.  As with Nora, Christopher was told that he’d probably need to wait until the cats got to know him before they wanted to be patted.  He showed superlative restraint, even when Kel (who was an impossibly cute fur ball) came right up to him and put her paws on him.

We told him it was okay to pat her, since she’d “patted” him first and before long they were great buddies.  A six-year-old (especially one who loves baseball) will patiently throw balls for a kitten to chase for much longer than even indulgent adult cat lovers will do.  Kel would play until she literally fell asleep on her feet.

However, this was a long time ago.  Christopher is now in junior high.  Kel is seven.  Kel’s encounters between with small children have been limited.  But, based on her behavior, she remembered that a small child could be a lot of fun.

Yet “everyone” – including scientists who study animals – will tell you that animals have no long-term memory.  That certainly a few days in the life of kitten Kel would not be remembered seven years later.

Oh…  And despite the widely believed “fact” that cats are anti-social and only care about humans as sources of food and comfort, all four of our cats spent the evening hanging out with us in the living room.  All four looked to interact, including settling into bits of furniture to be part of the party.  They didn’t need to be fed or indulged.  They just wanted to be there.

One thing I think gets in the way of people writing about animals is that even those who live with animals often don’t really see them as they are, they only see the human-imposed stereotypes of behavior.

Cats are standoffish, selfish, and aloof.  Stereotypes applied to dogs vary and are often highly contradictory.  Some of these are because different breeds behave differently.  This really complicates the picture when the traits bred into one breed are applied to all dogs.

The same is true of wild animals.  Human-imposed stereotypes are applied, as if animals are instinct-driven computers.  The worst thing is that these stereotypes are often highly incorrect, based on insufficient information and a generalized series of behaviors.

A great example of this is the hyena.  Everyone “knows” that hyenas are filthy, cowardly scavengers.  They don’t hunt for themselves.  Instead they skulk around, eating what lions leave behind, and carrion when other animals drop dead.  They laugh slyly and, despite being cowards who don’t hunt, are – oddly enough – often represented as highly dangerous.

Guess what?  Just about all of this is completely wrong.  High-tech studies using devices that could capture animal behaviors on film, even at night, provided a completely different dynamic.  Interestingly, initially, the studies weren’t of the hyenas, but were of lions – because lions are (in human stereotype) the dynamic “king of the jungle.”

Turns out that the scavengers aren’t the hyenas…  It’s much more likely to be the lions.  Hyenas have long front legs and shorter back legs.  They have heavy heads, especially around the jaws.  The combination of these traits make them seem to skulk when human body-language is imposed on them.  Leaving out human prejudice, they’re actually excellent hunters.   Lions (especially those noble “kings”) are more inclined to get a meal the easiest way possible.  Because lions live in groups (prides!), they can chase the hyenas from their kills.

And the evidence was there all along, but was ignored, because it didn’t fit the superimposed pattern.

Fascinating stuff!  The fact is, most animals, even those we assume we know “well,” including domestic animals, are very different from the stereotypes imposed on them.

The same is true of children.  It seems a pity to me that children are so rarely included in fiction, unless that fiction is written for children.  If children are included in fiction written for a presumably adult audience, far too often, the child characters are treated much as animals are – not as three-dimensional characters, but as collections of stereotypical traits.

Those traits have much more to do with adult perceptions of children than the reality.  The other day, a friend solemnly explained that most boys bond with their mothers and girls with their fathers.  Certainly there are “mommy’s boys” and “daddy’s girls,” but the reverse is as often true or those terms wouldn’t exist at all.  We’d just accept the pattern as normal.  In fact, there are plenty of kids who aren’t either.  They find traits in each parent that create a bond.

I don’t know why it is that many people – including writers, who I would like to think should be a bit more observant – find it so much easier not to see what’s around them and to instead choose to impose simplistic patterns.

Me?  I’ll keep writing about animals and including children in my adult novels because, despite the adult human prejudice, animals and kids are as much – or more – a part of life as adult humans!


7 Responses to “Kids and Critters”

  1. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I never knew that about hyenas! I still believed the stereotype. Animals are different; I know of two dogs who changed owners and didn’t recognize their original owner when she visited, and a third who greets his former owner with great enthusiasm on the rare occasions when he sees him. Congratulations on the “Changer” ebook; I seem to remember people have been waiting for that.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I definitely agree with you on animal personalities, and I’ve seen cats with long term memories too.

    As for hyenas, it’s too bad the Hyena Research Colony at UC Berkeley was shut down last year. The reports that came out of there about their social lives and intelligence were eye-opening.

    You’re quite right about spotted hyenas being extremely efficient predators. As I recall the hyena/lion issue, the end result of more research was the finding that carnivores in general are perfectly willing to steal each others’ kills, depending on which side has greater force and is more willing to fight. Both lions and hyenas are equally willing to kill and scavenge.

    Even a few human hunters have been willing to steal lions’ kills. They wait until the lions have eaten, then bluff them off and take some part of the remainder (taking all of it begs for an attack by the lions). They never do this with hungry lions, for fairly obvious reasons. They also never hunt at night, tend to hunt and gather in groups, and move camp if a hungry lion (especially a solitary and/or sick hungry lion) is spotted in the area. Finding all this out made me realize just how much the presence of large predators structures the lives of the people who share their habitat. When you look closer, there are little things like that all over Africa, from the way South African game wardens are taught to sleep in camp (with boots on and head towards the fire, so that a marauding lion grabs a foot rather than a head and they’re ready for action in either case), to how some tribes draw their bows (using the hilt of a specially shaped knife, so that if they shoot a leopard, they have a blade in hand if the arrow doesn’t kill the cat and things get ugly). Isn’t it lovely when the presence of big carnivores in fantasy literature has similar impacts on the lives of the people who live in their habitat?

  3. Nicholas Wells Says:

    This post in interesting since I often wonder if I focus on animals too much myself. Wolf book, sci-fi foxes, seems like animals are a mainstay of my work as well. And yet, I use it as a joke, but in some ways I think it’s true. I understand animals better than I do people. It’s easier for me think in animal terms than humans, because humans do the most absurd of things for the most bizarre of reasons. As one of my characters will someday say, “Don’t try to understand WHY humans do the things that they do, just understand that the DO the things that they do. Your head will thank you.” I also don’t believe a breed is predisposed to one mentality or another. I have two pit-bull mixes that only present a risk if you stick your hand in their food. Even then, only because they eat with great energy. They aren’t aggressive at all, they just may nip your hand by accident as they inhale their food. Otherwise, they’re very sweet and gentle dogs, if a bit energetic at times.

    Children as well I think aren’t given enough credit. I’ve met kids that never grew up (who a, I kidding, I haven’t either), and I’ve met five-year-olds that are more mature than some adults. The idea of a kid reacting well in a crisis is seen as impossible, yet I have seen it happen! I could totally believe a young kid, especially a Boy or Girl scout, wanting to run around with the adults helping others in a disaster. The idea of hiding the nasty things in life from them… to a point maybe, but not to such a degree as we do. When a kid comes up to me at work, I don’t treat them like kids, I treat them like people. And as a person, I can use my gift of reading people to adapt to how best to interact.

    Animals are the same way. I understand mammals best, canines even better, but I treat them like intelligent, thinking beings. As such, I don’t fawn over them when hurt. Comfort yes, of course, but they need their alpha/companion to be calm and collected, not losing themselves in their pain. I don’t treat them like humans because they aren’t. I do treat them like beings with thought. Even if they don’t understand my words, they can sense my energy, which is enough. And I don’t insult their intelligence. Our Houdini pit-bull Ben will cure you of that real quick.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I love your point about pit bulls. For years they were the Family Dog of choice, featured in film and story as stable, responsible dogs.

      Their current “bad” reputation rests on a few cases…

      Also like your point about how kids react having more to do with their experiences than with being “kids.”

  4. Alan Robson Says:

    Our friend Dylan has been animal mad all his life. One day, when he was about 5 years old, he visited us and as normal, our cats Bess and Harpo ran away from him.

    “Why are they running away?” he asked. “I only want to be friends.”

    “They don’t know you,” we explained. “When they know you properly, they will stay and let you pat them.”

    Dylan thought about this, and the next time he came, as soon as he walked through the door he said, “Hello Harpo, hello Bess, I’m Dylan.”

    The cats ran away. Dylan didn’t understand. “But I’ve introduced myself to them,” he said. “They know me now. Why won’t they stay?”

    Did I mention that Dylan has the most logical brain of any child I have ever met?


  5. Lori F Says:

    A quick congrats on making Changer available as an e-book. I just read it in paperback and really enjoyed it, look forward to reading more about Shahrazad in Changer’s Daughter–she made a great impression, especially at the end (no spoilers!).

    On animals and communication–the more I learn, the more I respect them as individuals, and their distinct biological and cultural group dynamics. It’s so much more interesting than anthropomorphizing them. I love the way you walk that line in your writing, and liked how Changer dealt with his coyote daughter as a coyote, and how that also shifted when he was in human form. (And I’m still hoping for another Firekeeper/Blind Seer “Wolf” novel…)

  6. Paul Says:

    Changer’s Daughter… Yes!

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