Animals in Literature

Choosing Animal-Themed Books

Animals are ubiquitous in the lives of children. Many young people have pets, visit zoos, or observe squirrels or magpies in their communities. Children’s art, films, and books also heavily feature animals. This is likely, according to research, because children tend to have a natural affinity towards living things. 

However, the messages that we send to children though these media are not always positive or accurate. For instance, many stories glorify the taming or taking in wildlife. In reality, these actions are problematic for both animals and people. People may become injured by wild animals, either physically, from scratches or bites, or through zoonotic disease infection. Animals can also suffer from inappropriate interactions with people. Bears that become habituated to campsites, usually from food or garbage left by humans can be killed as these bears become less fearful and present a danger to people. Furthermore, taking in wildlife is harmful to animals as most of us are not equipped to care for a wild species (and is in fact illegal without appropriate permitting in Alberta).

Regarding pets, it’s rare to see a film with a cat who isn’t drinking milk. Although this scene commonly plays out, it does not reflect appropriate care as many cats past the kitten stage are lactose intolerant so milk would cause them to feel ill (water is best for cats!). Although there are plenty of great stories that might not accurately demonstrate appropriate care or relationships with animals, they can provide opportunities for teachable moments if they are reflected on critically. 

Here are a few things to consider when selecting books with an animal theme:

Points to consider when selecting and discussing animal-themed books

How are attitudes about animals portrayed?

  • How are people’s attitudes towards animals reflected in the story? Or are any species depicted negatively? For instance, are snakes or rats made out to be bad or evil?  Is there harm in demonizing certain species? We know from research that the animals we have negative attitudes towards have poorer animal welfare outcomes. These negative attitudes can be reinforced through stories. Ask students if they think these depictions are fair.

Is animal care represented in a realistic way?

  • Does the story demonstrate realistic or appropriate care? Or does the story
    promote misconceptions? Cats drinking milk is a good example of this! Not Norman: A Goldfish Story is a book in our AnimalTales book program that
    features a pet fish. However, in the story the boy brings his pet fish on
    the bus to school. Ask students how the fish might feel being carted around all day. Is this the best way to care for a fish? Encourage young people to
    point out when stories get things wrong.

Does the story depict appropriate human-animal relationships?

  • Domestic animals depend on us to meet their needs. Is this reflected? There are
    plenty of stories that depict domestic animals thriving without human care,
    which in reality is not typically the case. Does the story show potentially dangerous interactions with animals?  We see many picture books where children lay on or hug their dogs. Although many dogs will tolerate this behaviour, most tend not like it and the inability to read dog body language may lead to injury. The vast majority of dog bites that children receive are from a family or friends’ dog. Ask students to point out interactions that may be

Does the story depict animals with human characteristics (anthropomorphize)?

  • There are many stories where animals are anthropomorphized, or depicted with human characteristics – Disney has plenty of examples of this. Although these can be wonderful stories, they don’t typically build empathy for, or understanding of, different animal species. But some degree of anthropomorphization can be positive if relationships with, and treatment of animals are realistic or if the story fosters moral lessons about how to recognize self in others which helps to build perspective taking. 

Are wild animals realistically portrayed? 

  • Does the story glorify the taming of wildlife? This can have negative (and sometimes lethal) consequences for both animals and people. Respecting wildlife by protecting their habitat and giving them lots of space is an important concept for young people to learn. Critically thinking about the messages in books is a great way to evaluate our own attitudes, and foster empathy for and understanding of animals.
Visit Books with Animals for popular books that feature animals reviewed through an animal welfare lens to provide opportunities for critical thinking and awareness.

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