Posts Tagged ‘animal rights’

Which Side Podcast interview available!

Thank you so much to Jordan, Jeremy, Mari & the rest of the Which Side Collective for having me on…twice. These people are good people, and if you don’t believe me, check out my interview with them here.  Listen to us discuss vegan restaurants in DC, cage-free eggs, writing, if I am an anarchist, and my handsome, handsome boyfriend.*

And….as a very special treat for folks who want a slightly more coherent version of me, you can listen to an extra, 30-minute bonus episode on humane meat, and veganism and animal rights in literature.

And that’s not all!  If you follow these simple instructions, you can win your own copy of Among Animals, along with a year’s membership to the podcast.

Don’t trust everything you hear on the internet.  Just most things you hear.

*Sorry, John.  And sorry, John.

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Today we are honoring Betty

In 2008, my best friend and I brought our bunny Archie to an adoption day run by a local rabbit rescue.  We were hoping we would find a compatible friend for him.  The other half of his bonded pair had died two months before, and Arch was depressed living alone.  So we arrived, placing Archie in a pen for some rabbit-style speed-dating.  The bunny we came to call Veronica was an immediate stand-out.  When she was placed in his pen, he hopped over to her as if he’d recognized an old friend — and it made sense: she does look remarkably like his first partner, Horatio.

But then there was Betty.  Her sideways ears showed some lop-rabbit background, and her round shape and brown spots reminded us of a ladybug.  She was adorable, and, we were told, her partner had also died recently.  She and Archie met quietly, sniffing each other’s face, and then they sat down together, clearly enjoying each other’s company.  It left us in a quandary: who to pick?  Finally one of the volunteers suggested we put all three of the rabbits together to see if they would get along as a trio.  When the girls didn’t show any aggression toward each other, my friend and I looked at each other.  It was clear.  We were going to have three rabbits.

At home, as they adjusted, the rabbits’ personalities began to truly show.  Veronica lived up to her name, hungry for attention, both rabbit and human.  She’s also curious, an explorer, although the most skittish.  She is the first to hop over when anyone approaches the pen, checking to see if you have a treat, but accepting some ear massages even if you don’t.

Betty, on the other hand, was the most laid-back.  It was obvious that she was low-girl on the totem pole.  Veronica was able to chase her away from dinner or from Archie when she wanted to assert some dominance.  Betty didn’t seemed to mind too much.  She could always take a nap and come back later.  The only time Betty became aggressive was when banana was involved.  Then she was quite willing to challenge the other two for extra bites of their favorite treat.  Yet Veronica was obviously fond of her fuzzy round “rival” too — Veronica groomed Betty as diligently as she did Archie, and snuggled next to Betty when Archie was busy grazing or destroying a wicker drawer.  Betty had a slight head tilt all her life, and Arch and Veronica took turns acting as her prop when she fell asleep.  Or all three of them piled together for naps, Archie in the middle.

When she had the space to run and hop, Betty was our champion of the “binky,” a bunny leap of joy that goes straight up and changes direction mid-air.  When she did this, landing with an expression that suggested she’d surprised even herself, we’d cheer “Betty!” and know that today was a good day.  She also liked to hurl herself around the living room, pushing off the walls or the closet door with an audible thud, then stopping short to listen for the noise.  Her ears never went in the same direction two days in a row, sometimes one up and one down, sometimes both stretched out to the side like she was prepping for take off.

Though she snuggled and groomed with the other rabbits, it was Betty who was most often by herself, dreaming her bunny dreams.  I sometimes thought of her as a little yogi, contemplating secrets of the rabbit universe that not even Veronica or Archie had encountered.  Having seen with Archie what rabbit grief is like, I often hoped as our trio got older that the last bunny would be Betty.  She seemed the most independent, the most content in her own company.

It wasn’t to be.  In late January of 2013, she became noticeably sick with sneezing fits.  Archie was recovering from GI stasis (a serious condition in rabbits), and we, the human caretakers, were focused on him, our oldest and now geriatric rabbit.  My best friend had recently moved to her own place, and my human partner had moved in.  The changes surely were stressful for the rabbits; they were stressful for us, too, though exciting.

Betty’s sneezing wasn’t enough to set off alarm bells.  We thought it was a cold.  We took her in for a check-up in February, and our vet found two lumps on her body.  Still, there were no alarm bells.  These were probably benign bumps that rabbits often get as they age.  We took her home without asking for a biopsy.  That will weigh on me forever.

Over the next two months, we treated Betty for her sneezing, first trying to humidify the air in the apartment.  Then we considered a bacterial infection and tried antibiotics, then anti-histamines in case she had an allergy.  We also treated her for a common parasite, E. cuniculi, that can cause head tilt and other neurological disorders in rabbits.  In the meantime, I’d noticed other lumps on her body, but somehow couldn’t bring myself to think “cancer.”

It was cancer.  By the beginning of April, Betty was noticeably weaker, unable to get traction on the floor of the rabbit pen.  Our vet thought it could be arthritis, but when I brought her in and he did x-rays, what he found was more masses inside her.

By the time we knew for sure, the options were not good.  Possible treatments — surgery to remove the masses, chemo, radiation, injections that might shrink the tumors — were expensive and, unless we opted for the very risky surgery, not immediately available.  Veterinary oncologists are rare; veterinary oncologists who treat rabbits are even more rare.  Our vet said we would have to travel to a university with a veterinary program, and Betty might not even survive the trip; nor was there a guarantee that any treatment could help at this advanced stage.  We knew the stress of the car ride wouldn’t be good for her, and long absences wouldn’t be good for Archie or Veronica either.  They were quite aware when that a member of their small warren was missing.

With very heavy hearts, we brought Betty home and turned our apartment into a rabbit hospice.  We couldn’t think about euthanasia yet, though our vet suggested we might.  We wanted more time.  We wanted the other bunnies to have a chance to say good-bye.

It’s very hard to think about those last few days, watching our furry ladybug grow weaker and weaker.  In those days, though, Betty taught me a lot about love — what it means to really be responsible to someone, to pull together with a team to give someone the best, most comfortable existence they can have.  My best friend and my boyfriend were amazing — feeding, cleaning, administering fluids and medication to keep her comfortable, petting and reassuring Betty.  And Betty surprised me.  She was too weak to hop anymore, but our little loner desperately wanted to be near the other rabbits.  Looking like a sea turtle on land, she continually angled herself to where she could see the others, even presented her face to be groomed, though we often had to keep them separated.  Our vet warned us that Veronica and Archie might be aggressive toward her when they realized she was sick, but we never saw any of that behavior.  Archie and Veronica sat with Betty, and groomed her face as she lay in her hay box.

And when she went, just a year ago today, she went gently, early in the morning, with a belly full of celery and surrounded by the people who loved her the most, rabbit and human.  We left Archie and Veronica alone with her, to say good-bye and understand that she was gone.  Hours later, we bathed her body for the last time and prepared to take her to the vet, for cremation.

Much has changed in the last year, but much is the same.  Archie and Veronica are still with us, Veronica demanding attention and Archie well into his wise-old-man phase.  My best friend brings them newspaper to chew on, and grass mats and banana.  My boyfriend takes pictures of them at their best.  And yet the dynamic is so changed.  Where once they were three, now they are two.  The pen seems a little too large.  Veronica has too few ears to clean.  Someone is missing in those pictures.

When we talk about animal rights, we are so limited.  We think “rights,” and we mean that an individual’s life has meaning to that individual.  Yes, yes, it is so.  But this is atomistic.  It is impossible to understand the full meaning of a life, the true importance of it, without understanding the way every individual is part of a group.  Part of a social ecology.  Part of a home and a family.  Part of a warren.

It is so important that we honor Betty today.  For her.  Yes, of course, for her.  But for us, too, the ones who are left without her.

Which Side Podcast

On Saturday, I’ll be recording for a podcast interview with a couple of vegan anarchists.* We’ll be talking (among other topics, I’m sure) about my short story “Meat” in Ashland Creek Press’ Among Animals, and previously published by The Again, with illustrations from editor Mike Bonsall. Stay tuned for the air date.

In the mean time, you can catch the previous interview with John Yunker, co-founder of Ashland Creek Press.

*No, no, 2008 Charlotte, it’s not those vegan anarchists.**  It’s Jordan and Jeremy from Which Side Podcast!

**Anyone close to me in the years 2007/2009 knows I was fervent subscriber and listener of Vegan Freak Radio, hosted by Bob & Jenna Torres.

I did an interview

When you write things and share them, people will occasionally ask you questions about yourself and the things you write.  When this happens in such formal settings as a newspaper, a podcast, or a blog, you can call it an interview and blog about it yourself.  As I shall demonstrate…now!

Here is an interview I did about my short story “Meat” for Ashland Creek Press, in which I discuss the material roots of oppression, ideology, escapist (or not escapist) literature, and impressing one’s English teacher.

Thank you, Jennifer, for thinking of cogent questions and putting it all together.

“Greyhound”

“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.

“Alas, Falada!”

I am slowly reading through the stories in Among Animals, the new anthology from Ashland Creek Press, which, as the back cover promises, “affirm the indelible bond among humans and animals.”  Judging from the first story, and my own story “Meat” which is included, this anthology is not quite the easy-breezy-heartwarming stuff that such a description might imply.  I have a feeling I’m going to be in tears by the end of most of these stories, and not sentimental, Hallmark-Channel tears.  Existential, what-the-hell-are-we-doing-on-this-planet? tears.

The anthology’s first story, “Alas, Falada!” by Diane Lefer, is about a worker in a zoo’s veterinary office, attempting to cope with the death of a patient — an eland, a large type of antelope, who was recently euthanized.  The narrator struggles between her job tasks and her desire to honor the animal’s life with something better than what the zoo and the local museum have in store for the eland’s remains.

The title “Alas, Falada!” is an allusion to the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Goose Girl,” in which the protagonist of the story, a wronged princess, has one stalwart friend: a talking horse who is beheaded early in the tale, but who nevertheless continues to advise and sympathize with the princess as a disembodied head nailed to a gate.  Like the narrator in Lefer’s story, this fairy tale left a strong impression on me as a child, one that horrified me to my core and yet at the same time confirmed something I knew from my cats and my hermit crab — that sometimes my truest friends were not human.  How I wished we could communicate as easily as Falada does with his princess.  In this story, Lefer weaves the themes of the fairy tale, with its horror and its magic (and its ungrateful silence on Falada’s ultimate fate once the princess has her happily-ever-after), into a very modern story about animals as objects of human fascination and study.  Subtly, the story catalogs all sorts of ways that wild animals are Other-ed in contemporary culture.  From the opening lines, “Humans get cremated.  Animals get burned,” to the knowledge that zoo animals are no longer named, to the positive differences that the misanthropic narrator latches onto (“When you save the life of a bear cub, you don’t have to worry he’ll go out and vote Republican”), the story is describing a line between humans and animals.  A la Gary Francione, I paraphrase: humans are people, animals are not.

Yet the narrative troubles that simple distinction.  On the third page of the story, the narrator informs us there’s someone at the museum she is trying to avoid.  On the fourth page, we learn that this someone is Jamal, a chimpanzee who died in the zoo, possibly a suicide, and is now a taxidermy display in the museum.  Playing with our expectations of who can be called a “someone,” the author forces us to adopt a new set of moral criteria, at least for the duration of the story.  The narrator repeatedly ruminates about the true nature of humans; and the emotional and cognitive capabilities of animals; and comes up short.  When our understanding both of what a human is like and what an animal is like are so fraught, it becomes audacious to accept facile social and emotional distinctions — at least not without a lot of angst, which the narrator readily supplies.  There clearly are differences between an eland and a human; part of the narrator’s conflict is how to treat the eland’s remains when elands can’t make wills that tell us how they’d like to be commemorated.  The narrator is emotional attached, and that’s all well-and-good, but we have no idea that any of this even mattered to the eland.  What the narrator learns above all, through her interactions with the zoo patients and her reflections thereafter, is that there are loveable humans in the world.  The Other becomes a distorted mirror that we use to learn about ourselves, ourselves being primary and the Others having little in the way of a life that might matter to them, on their own terms.

Yet the story will not let us end there, saying no more of Falada, as unproblematic as a Disney-fied fairy tale.  She matters, as an individual, as a life, as a feeling creature, and the narrator can’t help but intuit that she owes her something.  There are no answers or solutions, only complex emotion and meditation.  Lefer’s prose is transparent and smooth as water, and the journey she takes us through in this story make me very proud to be included in an anthology with her work.  Cheers, Diane.  This one will stay with me a long while.

Next up: “Greyhound,” by Jean Ryan.

Publication – Among Animals

It’s launched!  Among Animals, the collection from Ashland Creek Press, is now available.  My short story “Meat” appears among fourteen others exploring the ways humans and other animals interact.  A big thanks to author and editor Midge Raymond for her hard work on this, and all the folks at Ashland, especially Jennifer Hartsock for her thoughtful questions.

Book Review – Dead Witch Walking

Dead Witch Walking (The Hollows, #1)Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up the audio book of #4 in the Hollows series on a whim, and the writing and cosmology was intriguing enough that I’ve decided to start from the beginning and read the full way through.

Harrison’s urban fantasy, so far, is an entertaining, breezy read, but the character development, world-building, and plotting is far superior to other urban fantasies I could name, which also feature plucky heroines with supernatural abilities and a weakness for fashion. Maybe I just appreciate Harrison’s Rachel Morgan most because she’s into combat boots and leather pants instead of pink dresses and clip-on hair bows.

Harrison creates a believable, alternative Cincinnati, on an earth where a world-wide plague (somehow spread by genetically modified tomatoes? That part I’m a little fuzzy on) wiped out 10% of the human population. After “the Turn,” as everyone in the book refers to it, supernaturals stopped hiding their existence from humans. This includes vampires, Weres (as in -wolves, but other types of shapeshifters too), witches, pixies, and fairies. A couple generations later, modern day Cincinnati has an uneasily mixed population, and two agencies are tasked with keeping the peace (really, keeping the supernaturals from victimizing humans too much): the human-run FIB, and the supernatural IS. Rachel is a mid-twenties witch working as an agent for the IS, a “runner” as they’re called here. Chronically bored with her job and fed up with her asshole of a boss, she decides to quit, and takes two of her co-workers with her: Ivy, a vampire, and Jenks, a pixie, to open their own private firm. This doesn’t sit well with her boss; apparently, the IS is not the type of job you can just quit. The last runner who tried it wound up dead, and sure enough, Rachel immediately faces a variety of cleverly designed supernatural assassination attempts. Gotta love a story where the feds are the bad guys — or at least the very, very morally ambiguous guys.

The plot revolves around Rachel avoiding these threats, finding a way to pay off her IS contract, and her developing relationships with Ivy, Jenks, and a human named Nick, who’s probably more than the mild-mannered librarian he claims to be.

The narration is first-person from Rachel’s POV. I was concerned when her first order of business was describing her outfit, which led to a lame joke about guys assuming she was a hooker. However… if you can make it past the first section, Rachel becomes more likable as her problems mount and humanize her. There’s not only the physical threat of IS assassins, but more practical problems like moving in with new roommates. The fact that the roommates in question are a vampire and a pixie adds layers of charm and intrigue. Ivy’s character has lots of possibilities for future storylines, and Jenks is often hilarious — and poignant. The problems (and advantages) of being four inches in a world designed for six-footers are written with a lovely plausibility — as are most supernatural elements of the world. It’s a complex and layered place, with varying types of vampires (living high-born, living low-born, undead), and differing branches of magic. Harrison is skilled at giving just enough exposition that the plot can move forward, without making things too convenient or too complicated for readers to follow.

There’s some interesting thematic debate about good and evil, vis-a-vis White magic versus Black. In keeping true to trope, Black magic is more aggressive and damaging — killing its target, for instance, rather than sending them off to a nice sleep. But the doing of Black magic also has a higher cost: in earth magic, that means the sacrifice of a living animal; in Ley line magic, some damage to the doer’s soul that must be repaid at a later date. Rachel, who uses earth magic, firmly places herself in the White camp, telling us she’s never killed anyone or any animal for or with her magic. It’s interesting the way this conflation of evil with killing animals works its way through the story. Later, when Rachel is placed in the position of killing a rat or probably dying herself, she rejects the idea of killing “even a rat.” There’s no pro-vegan statement here (given the good guy characters’ penchant for wearing leather and eating bacon on their pizza, described with nary a pause), and yet there’s a latent, undeveloped concept of animal rights. The strong distaste for destroying another life is central to Rachel’s morality — a morality which is challenged, to be sure, and probably shall be again in later books.

Most of the other urban fantasy stories I’ve read in the plucky-girl-narrator genre fall into a depressing cycle, with a few strong male personalities who control the heroine’s life and choices, and (when presented as a love interest) get disturbingly rapey. Dead Witch Walking avoids those missteps. Rachel does need a lot of saving and protecting in the story, but it’s as often Jenks or Ivy who come to her aid (or her elderly neighbor Keasley, as far as I can tell the only person of color in the story) as it is her love interest Nick. Rachel is self-aware enough to criticize her “damsel-in-distress” attraction to Nick, who, refreshingly, isn’t physically domineering and, in Ivy’s estimation, “a geek.” He and Rachel actually meet by joining forces to save themselves together, not through him saving her.

Fundamentally, it’s Rachel who is responsible for her own fate. Her decisions drive the plot forward: first in leaving her job, second in investigating a local councilman and CEO. Her voice is also smart, if headstrong, and she matures over the course of the story, learning from her mistakes and improving her working and living relationship with Ivy and Jenks. Ivy is a planner; Rachel is a by-the-seat-of-your-pants doer. By the end of the story, Rachel’s come around to appreciate Ivy’s point of view and talents, and Ivy stops insisting that Rachel stay home and be safe.

If there is a character who’s trying to control Rachel’s life, it’s Ivy, not Nick. Their character dynamic is reminiscent of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, or Sookie Stackhouse and Vampire Bill: vampire attracted to young woman, wants both blood and sex, tries to make decisions for her while professing selfless concern for her well-being, skirts (and often crosses the line) between lover/friend and stalker/rapist. That Ivy is female creates an interesting question for readers: will we respond to Ivy more positively than a male vampire, and will we think Rachel is less of an idiot for sticking around? Ivy challenges the easy woman=victim, man=attacker mindset that feminists and non-feminists alike are socialized to accept. That Ivy is presented as absolutely terrifying to Rachel (in moments) and also genuinely a good friend and a trustworthy ally, for me achieves the moral ambiguity of the “good vampire” much more effectively than Edward Cullen or Bill. I suspect it’s because I don’t also automatically see her relationship with Rachel as emblematic of the patriarchy. That isn’t to say, however, that Ivy isn’t morally ambiguous: her attempts to control the object of her affection are still bad and her motives in supporting Rachel aren’t all unselfish. It’s just easier to admit that the good qualities mixed in are, indeed, good, without feeling like a sexism apologist.

I am so looking forward to reading the rest of the series. More Jenks! More Ivy! More Ivy’s mom! There’s promising stuff there. So put down that Charlaine Harris! Pick up Kim Harrison!

View all my reviews

New story collection, coming February 2014

“Meat” will be appearing in a new short story collection from Ashland Press, Among Animals: The Lives of Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction.  I thought the title was going to be Animals Among Us, so the change got me thinking.  Animals Among Us could imply that (non-human) animals are interlopers, creatures who don’t rightly belong — they are among “us,” but not part of “us.”  Among Animals carries just the reverse implication: we are the outsiders here, struggling to relate and live on a planet where, as one of my old tee shirts reads, “They were here first.”  Of course humans are animals, too, and a collection with this title could just as well feature human-centric stories.

I’m very excited to read the work from the other contributors, and to hear feedback on “Meat.”  Since the story was published in The Again, it’s brought out some good discussion with friends and family about the practicality and challenges of veganism.  I’m hoping, with the publication of the book from Ashland, this discussion can continue in more public forums — readings and author events — as well as informally.  In particular, how can (or should) a concern with animal rights jive with other progressive agendas, like protecting the natural world, organic, small farms, or indigenous rights?

Comments welcome if you’ve got ’em.

Book Review – We3

We3We3 by Grant Morrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I saw the cover of this comic, I thought “hmm…” Three pets (a dog, a cat, and a rabbit) in mech-warrior suits. When I read the cover treatment, I thought “oh, cooooool.” A story of lab animals breaking free. Of course it had to go on my reading list.

The story lived up to its cover and more. Since Charlotte’s Web or maybe Three Bags Full, this is the first fiction I’ve read that takes its animal heroes seriously, with their desire for life, and life on their own terms. In fighting to escape from the callous U.S. military, and to return to the safe place they vaguely remember as “home,” the three protagonists are firmly sympathetic. In part this is because the narrative makes them as beloved pets — we see the “Lost Pet” signs that their respective families made searching for each of them — but to its credit, the story is not about the grieving (human) families, but about the animals themselves. In fact, we never meet their human “owners.” It is the animals who matter here.

Nor are the animals anthropomorphized or cutesy (a failing that Charlotte’s Web does sometimes have). While the story uses the conceit that part of the experiments done on them have given them human speech, the animals’ syntax and vocabulary is distinctly other than human, and their perspective, at least so far as human authors and readers can imagine, is suited to their animal identities. The rabbit, for instance, is interested in grass and munching. The three animals have been taught to work together as an elite team of super-soldiers, but their emotional bond with one another makes sense in a non-human way. They are a pack, a pride, or a bonded trio.

Predictably, the dog is the most loyal, conventionally moral, and pro-human of the three; the cat is most aloof and stubbornly anti-human; and the rabbit is a sweet, simple soul who tries to smooth over the others’ disagreements. These are stereotypes of these species, to be sure, and yet believable characters in their way. I grew up around cats, shared an apartment with a dog, and now live with rabbits; I have known individuals of each species who fit these descriptions, and the characterization of We3’s heroes resonated with me. The artwork on the animals also impressed me with its accuracy, capturing the anatomy, expression, and personality of each.

The storyline, simple as it is, carries big themes. Not only do the three main characters’ lives matter to them (and us the readers who are following them), the plot explores the speciesist contention that animals matter less than humans, v.s. the idea that companion animals (pets) deserve special consideration, and the animal rights perspective that all sentient lives are equally important and valid. The bad guys here are the U.S. military and a politician who want to make non-human soldiers out of animals, thus saving humans from death on the battle field. For the time being, their work has been kept secret, in part because, while they believe in the ethics of their goal, they realize the American public may not be on board. One boss tells the researchers that, in contrast to their work thus far, they need to breed animals specifically for this purpose; if animals are bred to be used as war-machines, their exploitation and deaths will be more palatable, rather than if family pets are press-ganged into it. For me, this perfectly articulates what Gary Francione calls the “moral schizophrenia” of Americans toward animals. In our society, when a pet is harmed in some unusual and outrageous way, there is public outcry and disgust; at the same time the daily exploitation, suffering, and death of millions of chickens, cows, pigs, rats, fish, and other species in slaughterhouses and labs is ignored. What might have been empathy and calls for justice is tempered with the sense that those uses are what those animals “are for.” We3 troubles that narrative; the three protagonists are sympathetic, yes, in part because we know these animals are pets and we’re probably familiar with their species’ traits from experience with our own pets. But other victims of the lab experiments are also presented as pitiable (lab rats and even the monstrous mastiff who is to replace the main three when they are euthanized), as well as wild animals the escaped soldiers meet.

If one does not read the story literally (as many critics insist on doing with stories about animals, perhaps uncomfortable with the ethical imperatives that would result from taking animals’ lives seriously), it is like many tales of workers who find out they’ve outlived their usefulness to their bosses and are now disposable. It is about a small group of such exploited people resisting, revolting, and ultimately escaping the machine. Here, the story is triumphant, and the heroes (mostly) succeed because of inter-species cooperation. At no point do the “good” characters, animal or human, understand each other perfectly. Yet, in spite of this, they empathize, and put themselves in danger to protect one another.

If the story has any faults, it is in some early sections, when the graphic narrative is difficult to follow. I had to repeat a sequence told only through images on CCTV cameras a few times to understand what had happened. Other readers will, I’m sure, question the violence and gore of some of the images. I wonder about that myself, if it’s strictly necessary to show so much blood and mutilation. Yet overall, the explicit images (much as I felt watching Django Unchained) are there to expose the violence of an unjust system. While the scientists, military, and politicians wax poetic about how they will save human lives, the storytelling makes them hypocrites. The violence they unleash on the animals and human bystanders through their super-solider program is just as horrific, brutal, and disturbing as any human-fought war. (The story does not explore the reason or need for war itself. That wars happen and must be fought is a given.)

I wasn’t expecting this quick little read to grab and twist my heart quite so much. Sure, reading about animals in danger always gets me. But in the surreal world of comic books, I thought the effect might be softened. Nope. Nor was I expecting such a powerful, serious treatment of species. While I cannot speak to the author’s particular political orientation vis-a-vis animal rights or research on animals, Morrison has created an excellent text to start that conversation, one that gets beyond purely theoretical debates about sentience and ethics. If you’re ready, I highly recommend it.

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