In January, I had the good fortune to catsit Pierre, the prettiest feline known to man, while his owners moved to Melbourne and found somewhere to live. For the good part of a year they had been my neighbours, and Pierre often wandered into my flat and sat on my drafts as I wrote, or stretched out on my bed in the sun and sleep. If it was a summer afternoon and I was dozy with heat, I often curled up next to him and napped too. Unfortunately, over the year, the kitten owned by the neighbours on the other side of my neighbours grew into a feral tabby, festooned with a studded collar. One evening of catsitting, while Pierre was casually watching the world beyond my screen door, he suddenly hissed and arched. The tabby was on the other side of the door, wanting a fight. I scared it away and Pierre shot me a look of pure venom for not allowing him out the door and at the tabby.
It was a shock to see this sweet-natured creature, who was allowed to sit on my red velvet couch (at that point not even my sister's children were allowed on it), who slept on my feet or woke me up at 5am by touching his wet nose to my forehead, transformed into animal who was pissed off for me for trying to protect him. I became aware of how much cat-ness I projected onto him, and how alien we were to each other.
This slippage between the animal and the human is explored with sophistication and deftness in Eva Hornug’s Dog Boy. The novel opens with a four-year-old boy, Romochka, who discovers he has been abandoned by his mother and uncle in the depths of winter. He ventures outside for food and follows a dog, Mamochka, back to her lair in a basement. He suckles with her pups and grows into part of their pack, learning to utilise his senses as a dog might, by concentrating on smells; or how a dog’s teeth can be read the way a human mouth can; or by listening to the sounds of the pack as if they are words. Not only does Romochka become more like a dog, but the dogs themselves are imbued with human qualities, for example, ‘Mamochka treated [Ramochka] with disarming solicitude’ (22), which enables the reader to emapthise with them, as Romochka does. As the boy grows, he learns to think and survive as a dog, but is inevitably drawn back to the human world, dragging his pack with him, with painful consequences.
The story is told in third person and is largely focalised through Romochka. When he is captured by authorities, however, and handed to the doctors of a children’s centre, the lyricism of the story is lost, as the focalisation shifts to the doctors. If this move was designed to represent an abrupt shift back into the clinical human world, it worked, however I found the representation of the doctors to be two-dimensional and unsatisfying. In particular, the reports which the female doctor tabled on Romochka were bland, stilted, and contributed nothing to the text. It was a pity, because the story was otherwise rich, sensitive and sensual (even as it canvassed the distasteful). It is one of the cleverest pieces of writing I’ve read for a long time, making one question what it means to be human, and if the human condition — given the contrast between the cruelty of some of the people in the text and the kindness and protection of the dogs — is necessarily better than that of being an animal.
Similar themes were raised at a talk I attended in May at the University of Queensland Art Gallery. It was chaired by the admirable Dr Donna McDonald as part of Diversity Week, and was held in conjunction with the Animal/Human exhibition. Marvellously, the sliding doors of the entrance to this exhibition were imprinted with an image of a herd of cows, so that one had to wait for the herd to part as the doors opened.
Donna is a senior lecturer and convener of the Disability Studies Program at Griffith University. She had arranged for an Auslan interpreter, even if there was no one in the audience who read Auslan, as she was keen to raise awareness of the necessity of making public spaces accessible to all people at all times. The panel also included Sam Leach, one of the artists in the exhibition, and Mandy Paterson, Scientific Research Officer with the Qld RSPCA. According to the scrawl in my notebook, the discussion touched on how animals teach us to become familiar with the unfamiliar, the diverse and the different; how we negotiate relationships and connect with some animals, but not others (for example, connecting with cats, but detesting cockroaches); how the borders between animal and human can be disrupted, for example by a woman who was rolled by a crocodile up north and lived, and realised she wasn’t a person anymore, she was meat.
There was also, importantly, the observation that we can never enter into another consciousness, not even another human’s, and this I think is essential for understanding the relationships that many have with the disabled: people lack the imagination to conceive of the difficulties of another person’s life and, in doing so, they dismiss them as less-than-human, as something that needn’t be bothered with because it’s simply too much hard work.
This lack of empathy continues the long association between the disabled and animals. Deaf people, for example, were believed to be no better than animals because they couldn’t hear the word of God, and therefore they couldn’t have a soul or attain a state of grace. In World War Two the deaf were one of the groups rounded up by the Nazis and gassed because they were thought to be inferior. And neither are these attitudes confined to history, as witnessed by Campbell Newman’s recent refusal to put forth any funding for NDIS trials. His actions speak loudly, even to a deaf person: he believes the disabled aren’t worthy of the same care and education as their abled (for want of a better word) peers. Newman would do well, I think, to read Dog Boy, but then I don’t think he reads, because he canned the Premier’s Literary Awards.
During the drinks after the talk, Donna took me to see a piece by Patricia Piccinini which I had overlooked (I’d seen Piccinini’s other hyper real exhibit of a man holding a blob fish and, approaching it from behind I thought, ‘Geez that man must be pretty tired holding that thing all day,’ and then realised it wasn’t real). The exhibit, encased in a glass box, was of a newborn baby curled up, asleep, surrounded by three or four green frogs. The baby was so lifelike that my response was instinctive and visceral: I pressed a hand to my chest, suppressing an impulse to pick the child up and cradle it. For all the cultural hardwiring of Darwin’s survival of the fittest, we are really not so different from animals: we fight when threatened (as happened to me when attacked in London: I became, for a few seconds, an animal completely evicted of reason, being instead motivated by adrenalin and nothing else), and we nurture and look out for our own (although our esteemed Premier might not).
Pierre continually lost the fights against the tabby, and I was so upset that I retrieved my plant spray bottle from the cupboard, changed the nozzle from misty diffuser to thin and hard, and sprayed the feral cat whenever he came close, which sort of worked. Pierre is now he is very happily keeping his owners warm in the bitter Melbourne winter, but it took a while to stop hoping that he would appear at the gauze door as I wrote, miaowing insistently for entry.