To Peter, the Velveteen and Roger
I think we can all remember a time as young children when we first encountered death in the animal world. Whether it was a dead bird on the sidewalk or road kill on the side of the highway, there was a point where we all understood it was dead. I remember asking my Dad why the bird on our driveway was dead, why it was lying there. I remember feeling so helpless and lost when he explained that it wouldn’t fly anymore because it was no longer living.
This of course shocked me, because I lived in a world where my favourite books had talking animals that wore dresses and overcoats. (Wind in the Willows, Tiggy, the Little Critters, and then some). I had a collection of stuffed animals in my toy box that I would play house with, and assign personalities too. One night when I was being tucked in, I told my Dad I did not want to sleep with Blackburn, the stuffed hound dog, because he was boring. My Dad then gave him a voice, and Blackburn “walked” with his head hung down back to the toy box, moping like Eeyore, until I felt so guilty for hurting Blackburn’s feelings that I slept with him for a week.
We always had a pet cat growing up, and neighbours had dogs, and these animals became part of my circle of friends. Dogs were dressed to fit whatever role we bestowed upon them. My cat became the evil monster that would walk across board games and swat at my stuffed animals.
But now we’re grown up, and I’m not sure I want to stop imagining that animals have personalities. I don’t play with stuffed animals, and I don’t read many books with talking animals. But there is still a part of me that thinks the scurrying chipmunk in my mum’s backyard and the squirrel who runs up my back stairs have little rodent personalities that drive them to scurry as they do. It is this feeling that makes me sad to read about animal cruelty and the like. Logically, my brain tells me that a rabbit is a rabbit and does not know that lipstick is being applied to it in a testing lab. But Beatrix Potter has taught me that even if I can’t understand what it’s saying, the rabbit is unhappy, by virtue of its personality.
I’m not sure if I’m alone on this or if it’s even healthy to imagine that animals have personalities. But I know it’s a virtue and a vice, because I can giggle and smile at the sparrows that bob their heads amongst each other in competition for the bird seed, (I imagine their chirping to be a flighty argument between them, “My birdseed!” “No mine, I was here first!”), and feel sad when I see one fly into a windows, slide and down and be done flying forever.