Fantastic Beasts and How to Love Them – A Study in Strange Animal Companionship
Suited for ages 13+
As many of our readers out there likely know by now, I myself have fallen on multiple occasions in the category of an owner of an odd pet. In third grade, I adopted a Dumbo rat named Jones and loved on him endlessly until he unfortunately passed away of cancer about two years later. After Jones, I had two small female fancy rats, Licorice and Latte. Ever since then, I’ve been an avid advocate for not just caring for and adopting small rodents, but for people being open to a plethora of unique pets, whether they be frogs, snakes, stag beetles or butterflies.
A few weeks ago, I found myself reminded of this fact randomly during a discussion in my Creative Writing class, after I shared a poetry piece I wrote where I described my kinship throughout my childhood to insects and attempted, as other girls do with dolls or paper cutouts, to act in ways I considered ‘motherly’. I won’t share the entire piece in order to preserve its status as an unpublished piece for upcoming writing contests I may want to submit it to, but below is an excerpt:
mothership / hive mind by Zoe Smith-Holladay (Me!)
“the relationship of
the little kid
to the small, trapped animal
( whether a sick mouse, a ladybug, some goldfish won from the Alabama County Fair or a few scatterings of ants scraped off the pavement with a spoon into a plastic ant farm, complete with a little playground )
—-“I bet they’re like me, monkey bars are their favorite!”
is unrivaled in complexity.
After all, how great is it to be six years old and say,
small and bony and six years old….
six years old, wearing just a bucket hat and a sweatshirt from an airport she’s never been to
holding a spider tied around dirty floss string—-six years old
‘stubborn like her mother’ six years old, crouching in a field and saying:
“the ants? this is what they like. this is what they want.”
I am a mother, I think.
I am a mother, but have little worries
of whether my children live or die.
my little kid mind imagines a mother not necessarily as protector, carer of a brood, but rather by observation of her grandness, power in relation to her meager children.
the queen of the colony: proud and commanding I stand in parallel with sci-fi video game archetypes,
a gelatin mass of sustenance and the promise of offspring deliverance,
in charge of creature armies, million-fold——exoskeletons.
running, hopping, unravelling in a crooked spiral
all for a sliver of leftover Ritz cracker,
a crumb fallen from the wrinkles in my dress when I stand up.
maybe, for the ants, there is relief?
———in their surrender to complete powerlessness?”
This story is about a caterpillar, but captures some of the same aspects of personification.
As my classmates gave me feedback on this piece following my reading of it, one thing that stuck out in many of their minds, including my mentor and teacher, Azar Kohzadi, was the acting out of “becoming a mother” in some sort of way. This socialized act of play and parentage was something that most people could remember attempting to fit in to as children, especially as a little girl trying to carve out some sort of path or meaning towards womanhood. But what struck many of those who read it in particular was how I described wanting to reach out to insects for kinship–a creature which us as people typically regard with disgust and as unfavorable. And, to an extent, this is a fair point; it is incredibly difficult for us, as members of the human species, to personify something as completely alien and microscopic as a bug. But as I explain due to my childhood, spent in great part on my own outside in nature and discovering little objects on the ground, I could make that connection.
So overall, the significance and symbolism of my relationship to insects as a child says something about me, at the time period and at the present, the young adult I am today. This idea, and the juxtaposition between a person’s relationship to a strange animal and perhaps the relationship of them to society, got me thinking hard about some other examples I’d seen reflecting this concept.
Theodore Roosevelt and “The Teddy Bear”
As a kid, like many who loved reading and insignificant facts to spout off at the dinner table or in the car on the way to school, one of my favorite books was “Presidential Pets”, which I’ve done a blog post on before as it showcased the strange and often dangerous animals which different U.S. presidents have had throughout history. If you’re interested, you can be shocked reading about presidents who cared for everything from alligators, hyenas to a one-legged rooster. However, the story which still piques my interest to this day is that of Theodore Roosevelt showing mercy to a cornered bear on a hunting trip. Many may recognize the ‘fun fact’ that the toy teddy bear which children have been raised with and adore was made in honor of his actions, but not quite know why. On a bear hunting trip in the fall of 1902, Roosevelt, known as a skilled big game hunter, refused by personal conviction to shoot a black bear which his assistant had tied to a tree for him, ordering for the defenseless bear to be released. As a president, Roosevelt may have been known for being ambitious, dedicated, diplomatic, and optimistic, but this true story goes to show how the side of him being raised as a soft-spoken and sickly, asthmatic child perhaps never quite disappeared. In fact, those tamer, gentle sensibilities may have worked to make him a more distinguished and commanding leader after all.
BoJack Horseman from “BoJack Horseman”
Due to our long, COVID-19 induced period of social distancing, I have found myself watching much more TV and other forms of entertainment which I usually, oddly enough, tended to find little interest in. In the titular equine character of this hit adult-focused TV show, one of the first things that is plainly seen is that a large portion of the cast, including the main character and many supporting characters, are animated as anthropomorphized animals. Unlike the other examples I’ve given here, this one is more contemporary and also requires teasing out the connection to human-animal in a bit of a different way. The way that I perceived the show overall was that, not only do the animal characters often add to the color, tone, and unique detail of the fictional world (for example, many of the transitional scenes including puns or gags based on the natural abilities or looks of animals who exist as and alongside people), but also deepen our conceptualization of Bojack’s psyche. Horseman is seen regularly partaking in the usage of drugs, sex, or burning the bridges of his past relationships, which we’d all consider pretty mainstream for a representation of a self-destructive and narcissistic fading star, however the deliberate, although often comedic, placement of his identity or reality as, quite literally, a horse, speaks to the same ideas of isolation and feeling out of place.
As a literary figure generally regarded as intelligent and studious but self-destructive and troubled, the flitting and clever allure of even just the common feline seems to fall in line quite well with what is known about Sylvia Plath as both a poet and in personal life. Whether sketching a curious cat peeping over a corner, or poetry characterizing an old woman who lives with almost a dozen cats, the imagery of the cat seems to be of striking significance in her art. Equally, of the few pictures of Plath in her childhood one which stands out (particularly to us excitable and equally-curious writers who tend to fangirl about our literary icons) is of her and her younger brother in approximately 1941. Both children seem fixated on what appears to us to be a blurry striped mass cradled in the grinning young Plath’s arms, giving us some context to what she truly held dear in her early childhood.
Interestingly enough, I have found through-lines between this symbolic fascination of Sylvia Plath’s and another artist, Chiyomi Hashiguchi, who used the pen name “Nekojiru” to bring to life hundreds of colorful, both macabre and artistic scenes, many of which depicted feline characters. Although Nekojiru’s work has been spread and appreciated to a much lesser degree outside of Japan, one of the few recorded pictures of her was taken enjoying the presence of a cat, in 1992. But as it turns out, the two artists have more than just an affinity for cats; both Chiyomi Hashiguchi (age 31) and Sylvia Plath (age 30) took their own lives after lifelong battles with depression and mental illness. It can be argued strongly that human characterization of felines, and all animals, is seldom based in reality and rather a reflection of ourselves as people, however it is indeed fascinating to think about the ways in which “the cat” relates to and affected both of these talented and complex artists.