Just Like People: Dogs & Cats Get Bookish

Jon Katz writes books about dogs — lots and lots of books about dogs: Soul of A Dog, A Dog Year, A Good Dog, Dog Days and many more. He lives at a place called Bedlam Farm (also the name of his web site), sharing accommodation there with numerous dogs, a variety of livestock — and his new wife, an artist named Maria Wulf. Her intensely loyal but troubled dog Frieda is the subject of Katz’s latest book, The Second Chance Dog: A Love Story (Ballantine Books, November 12, 2013). Despite Frieda’s initial erratic behavior and refusal to go near Jon, the author used patience, determination, and “five hundred dollars worth of beef jerky” to convince his wife’s beloved canine to accept him.

Katz believes we over-anthropomorphize our pets (or “companion animals,” to use the latest parlance). By attributing too much emotion and soul to domestic animals, Katz thinks we fail to understand and respect their animal nature — their real reason for being on earth. I highly recommend The Second Chance Dog to anyone who is looking for a great read about dogs and their human counterparts this holiday season.

While I know Katz is right about animals not experiencing “feelings” the same way that humans do, I have long experienced the power of anthropomorphization. Haven’t we all? It starts with those bunnies in Goodnight Moon, continues with adorably dressed forest creatures in Beatrix Potter, and keeps on going through the myriad of children’s adventure books in which mice and foxes and badgers gird their loins with armor and fight evil reptiles and such. It isn’t easy avoiding this kind of thing in our society. But although a dog’s panting shouldn’t be mistaken for a “smile,” reading about a fictional creature’s humanized adventures may be forgivable if those adventures lead us to a greater understanding of our role in living alongside animals.

That’s why this week’s “backlist” volume is a slightly obscure book by Paul Gallico, who is perhaps best known for his novel, which was later made in a popular movie, The Poseidon Adventure. It’s called Thomasina, The Cat Who Thought She Was God (how’s that for anthropomorphization?). In a turnaround, I saw the movie version, “The Three Lives of Thomasina,” which was adapted by Disney, before I read the book, and it isn’t particularly fantastic. But Gallico’s book is a quirky, magical-realist story about a cat who dies from tetanus, goes to a gay-fabulous “cat heaven” (which is full of Egyptian-themed statues) and is then reanimated through a little girl’s love. It’s a rare thing: A book you’ve never heard of that is actually entertaining and just sentimental enough to give you a break from your latest book-club “serious read.”

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