In this blog, we’re pleased to introduce Michael J. Gilmour, Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, and author of the book Creative Compassion, Literature and Animal Welfare. He is Associate Professor of English Literature and New Testament at Providence University College, Canada. We interviewed Michael to learn more about his research and how it can better inform the practice of humane education.
What inspired your interest in pursuing animal welfare issues from an academic perspective? Have animals played a significant role in your life personally?
There is certainly a connection between the personal and the academic for me. There were always companion animals around and an almost instinctive revulsion at cruelty, but the real ‘Aha!’ moment occurred after adopting retired racing greyhounds, three of them across several years. Doing some research on the racing industry proved unsettling. I found it hard to believe that people treated these gentle, sensitive dogs with such callousness. And for what? Entertainment and profit hardly justified the brutality. From there, it spread to a broader concern about human-caused animal suffering. The academic side soon followed. It occurred to me that the subjects I teach, literature and theology, have much to contribute to conversations about ethics.
Throughout your book, you demonstrate how literature is a powerful tool for building compassion for animals and that it can succeed where other strategies might be less successful. What would you describe as the unique advantages of using literature as a pedagogical tool?
One key advantage, I think, derives from the solitary nature of reading. When settled in a favorite armchair, book in hand, we are liberated from our self-consciousness, not embarrassed by our emotions as we might be in a public forum. There’s also freedom from external pressures to conform, to accept the barrage of messaging that insists people are all that matter and animals exist solely for our benefit. When welfare-inclined authors draw us into other worlds where animals have worth, they disrupt conventional thinking. They invite us to consider other ways of interacting with our nonhuman neighbors.
Other efforts to persuade, to urge reform––like legal or philosophical or political or religious arguments for animal rights––certainly have their place, but they do not resonate with everyone. Welfare-inclined creative writers find other, often larger audiences. I suspect Anna Sewell, Hugh Lofting, and Richard Adams have done just as much if not more for the cause than many working toward the same ends in other contexts.
In your book, you list a set of commonalities that are often found in books that promote compassion for animals (e.g., the stories focus the foreground on individual animals, go beyond use of animals as mere figures of human experience, introduce religious or otherworldly language and imagery, and tell of the experiences of actual animals through fiction). Do you think educators should look for these elements when selecting books for their classrooms or youth programs? Or do you have other suggestions for selecting books about animals for young people?
I’m not sure it is necessary for educators to seek out those elements specifically. I tend to think of it the other way around––when we find a good story promoting compassion, on whatever grounds, we might discover it has one or more of those features.
As for selection––I need to be careful here, not being a parent or child educator––maybe it’s enough to say that stories teachers find compelling are (more) likely to prove so for students. (Sometimes the reverse is true as well––some stories included for discussion in my book were recommended by children I know.) Choosing a book with an ‘in-your-face’ welfare message is not necessarily the best choice and might backfire if it doesn’t hold a child’s attention. The trick is to find a well-written story that enchants and entertains while also modeling compassion. For purposes of humane education, it’s important for young readers to recognize something of the real world between the covers. Middle-earth doesn’t exist, but they discover something sadly familiar in the mistreatment of Bill the pony. Naturally, young readers admire the hobbits and their friends, and the kindness they show Bill offers a positive model of behavior and an alternative to the neglect and cruelty they see in their own neighborhoods. Bill’s adventure in The Fellowship of the Ring also reminds us that compelling welfare lessons are possible even in episodes incidental to the larger plot.
There are educators who are concerned about books that include anthropomorphic animal characters. A common argument is that these books might confuse children since young children cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality. However, in your book, you demonstrate how sympathetic anthropomorphism — used in books such as One and Only Ivan and Watership Down — can build empathy and inform people about how animals are treated in our society. What are your thoughts about this concern and the use of anthropomorphism specifically in children’s literature?
I quite like a sentiment in C. S. Lewis’s short poem “Impenitence,” first published in the 1950s. In it he defends his love of children’s stories like those by Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame with their anthropomorphic animals. Why? Because the “love so / Raised [for such fictional characters]––it will, no doubt––splashes over on the / Actual archtypes.” What he means is that an affection for the imagined Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle or Nutkin has the potential to awaken love for the actual hedgehogs and squirrels on which Potter based her colorful creations.
As educators, we want to encourage diverse reading. Yes, there are limitations and problems with anthropomorphic stories from a welfare point of view, but hopefully that’s not all our students read. The teacher’s goal is to create habitual readers who wander around libraries freely and enjoy all kinds of tales. Regardless of what holds their attention in the moment, even if it’s the anthropomorphic stuff, we ought to nurture that love of reading first, all the while nudging them toward the next set of shelves to continue the joy of discovery. Personally, I would go crazy reading only the realism of, say, Jack London. A little fantasy and whimsy are good for the soul and, no less for that, occasions to learn.
Your book demonstrates how literature about animals can help illustrate important existential topics such as spirituality, death, and how we connect to one another. Parents and educators often must discuss these heavy topics with youth. What insight might the literature highlighted in your book give us about these challenging topics?
The best writers get us thinking on different levels. Wilbur faces fear and grief as he learns hard lessons about his own mortality and Charlotte’s. The story encourages us to think about animal welfare but also to contemplate those difficult subjects along with him. As he processes those familiar dreads––death, loss of loved ones, pain, abandonment, and so on––we also see how he gets through emotional troughs (pun intended). Wilbur’s fears are real, and he confronts them, but we also see him discover and then draw upon the powerful resources of friendship, love, and memory. With Wilbur, we discover that despite our tears, “Life in the barn [is] very good––night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days.”