There are an estimated four million dogs and two and a half million cats living with us in Australia, and two thirds of homes have a pet (although the 11 million fish inflate this figure!). So why do animals not feature more prominently in writing? We share ‘treetops’ here with a short-legged black dog, Milton, and a long-legged cat, Pippa and I must admit I haven’t thought about featuring them in fiction. I did consider, though, a story about two previous cats, now deceased. One was a big black one who arrived as a stray at six months old, the other a petit tortoiseshell I’d had from a kitten and whom I’d got to keep me company during a year I took off to stay at home and complete my university thesis.
The little one was loving and shy, the big black, tough and streetwise. The stray came to our door one wet, windy winter. Feeling sorry for it, but not really wanting another cat, I put a box with a towel in for it on the porch outside the back door so at least it could sleep somewhere out of the rain. One morning I got up looking for the little cat only to find her curled up in the box with the stray … Of course my heart melted and of course we adopted big black but once the interloper had joined our household she bullied the little cat mercilessly, who in turn gave way to her adopted sister and just kept out of her vicinity. I always loved my little cat best but she died early and I had big black for eighteen years. I often thought the psychology of this story had a Wuthering Heights-ish dimension but I could never work out how to translate it into fiction.
That brings me to the lack of animals in adult fiction. There is Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog (on my ‘to read’ list) and I recall the dogs in Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore. I couldn’t finish this book but the dogs made an impression on me, The dogs, black as licorice, came out of the trees, stopped, heads up, looked around as if seeing the land for the first time. Explorers (TBS). While its not adult fiction Sonya Hartnett’s beautiful and sad Forest, is unforgettable. It is narrated entirely from the POV of wild (yes, some would say ‘feral’) cats. But on the whole you’d have to say animals don’t feature in creative writing to the extent that they inhabit our lives. Could it be that we don’t view them as complex and dramatic, or they are seen as peripheral and are edited out?