Last summer, something happened that showed me how utterly our lives are steeped in anthropomorphism. We got a dog. And she couldn’t talk. Well, that’s the shorthand version. The full text is that I’d caved in to over a decade of my children’s pleading, we’d acquired a puppy, and I found that I didn’t know how to relate to her or begin to understand her. Although she was clearly a beautiful creature, I wondered why on earth I’d taken on more responsibility when the freedom of an empty nest was just around the corner. I was regretting the whole enterprise when my sister happened to say that the puppy seemed kind. In a flash my feelings changed. ‘Kind Dog!’ I almost yelped. ‘Like Kind Dog in the Ant and Bee books!’ I felt a sudden rush of warmth and affection for this small creature which was now related to a fictional dog I’d loved as a child.
In case you weren’t raised on them, the Ant and Bee books were an endearing, lightly educational series for children written in the 1950s and ’60s by Angela Banner, in which Kind Dog helps the two insects out of various scrapes. Without really noticing, in the course of the story you learned about something: the alphabet, counting, colours. Kind Dog always wore a dark green hat, which our puppy didn’t, but otherwise she did look a bit like him.
My Kind Dog moment shows how we project human emotions on to animals and how children’s literature builds on that, as well as how long the effects of that literature endure. Our childhoods are peopled (significant word) by animals with human characteristics: Babar the Elephant, Beatrix Potter’s tales, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Black Beauty, Watership Down. There are good reasons for this. Using animals as people gives emotional distance when the message is powerful or scary or painful. It’s also imaginative and fun and outside the rules that govern real life.
Once you start playing spo
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