“Greyhound,” by Jean Ryan, the second story in Among Animals, is a little cipher of a tale, about the ways we never really know anyone, yet still somehow connect. The narrator of “Greyhound” adopts a former racing greyhound with the hope that the dog can help bring her partner Holly out of…something. Holly swears she has no inner demons to exorcise, but her psychosymatic symptoms say otherwise. The dog they end up with, formerly called Clara’s Gift and now called Fawn, is an apparently troubled soul — eerily meek and obedient. Holly lists the ways that greyhounds have been bred and shaped for the track, until it seems (in Fawn’s case at least) they no longer know how to be dogs. Fawn has none of the behaviors we would recognize as “dog”: she doesn’t bark, beg for food, play with other dogs, or jump for human affection. She was taken off the track after one race in which the chute opened and she simply did not run. In fact, she has not run since, not even to play or exercise. Nothing is physically wrong with her, but it is as if she has forgotten how, or running is so much a part of her former life at the track that she refuses to do it again. Getting Fawn to regain this piece of herself–this certain something that makes a greyhound a greyhound–becomes the focus of the story. At the same, the narrator is watching Holly, hoping to see her, too, regain a piece of herself that seems to be missing.
Reading through this story, I thought automatically of Jason Hribal’s book Fear of the Animal Planet, in which he chronicles zoo and circus animals’ escapes and refusals to perform as a form of resistance to their exploitation. Fawn’s refusal to run is written more like a surrender than a rebellion, yet her actions do sabotage her racing owners’ intentions for her, and get her to a more desirable life as a domestic companion instead of a sports’ commodity. I thought about a conversation I had with a friend re: Seabiscuit, about whether horseracing was wrong since horses like to run and even race with each other in the wild. [My conclusion was yes, horseracing is wrong, since the horses themselves have no institutional say over when they start and stop–either in a particular race and over their careers as racers–and the industry that exists around the races has nothing to do with what horses like to do and everything to do with making profits for their owners.] I also thought about the ways humans have interacted with domestic animals, none more so than dogs, and changed the evolution of whole species (of course, other animals have effected the way human beings evolved, too). Now, when we talk about what’s natural for a dog like a greyhound, we’re talking about a set of behaviors that were bred and trained into the animals for an expressly human-determined purpose. There’s no room in our conceptual framework for a greyhound that doesn’t run; Fawn is a walking oxymoron. Even in contexts where animals are wanted and loved, they cannot escape the imposition of other expectations. This is, in fact, a problem not just for other animals, but other humans–even when we mean each other well, we each carry a framework for what constitutes a happy, healthy life, and push and nudge and cajole our loved ones toward it. Yet non-human animals have the added disadvantage of all the human-built structures around them, physical and social, that don’t let them push back on us with equal force. What can they do but surrender-rebel, like Fawn?
There’s much to like about this story, from the loving and matter-of-fact portrayal of a same-sex couple, to the descriptions of the miniature worlds Holly makes. I admit, though, that I grew more skeptical about it as it went on. The animal-as-therapy trope is always squishy, and tends to give the importance to human characters, using the animals as a means to an end. But the story saves itself, for me, by never telling the reader exactly what is going on with Holly or Fawn. Are they getting better? Are they wrestling with inner demons? Have they been fine all along, floating on a sea of existence, letting the waves wash over them? There is no knowing, and yet somehow the narrator’s continuous love and support for Holly, and both the narrator and Holly’s love and support for Fawn, are meaningful. They create a circle of acceptance, where one could wrestle demons (if there are any demons to wrestle), or one could just be.
Over at the Ashland Creek Press blog, interviews with each of the writers featured in Among Animals are trickling out. You can find one with “Greyhound” author Jean Ryan, and with Diane Lefer, who wrote “Alas, Falada!”
And…if you like your interviews in print, there’s an interview with author and editor of Among Animals, Midge Raymond, in the March issue of Vegetarian Times.