A pack of wolves follows a sled, picking off the sled dogs and then the occupants one by one, to the last man. So begins Jack London’s White Fang, published in 1906. The wolf pack is led by a wolfdog, Kiche. The ensuing story is told from the viewpoint of Kiche’s wolf pup, White Fang, through whose gaze we view the violence of the parallel worlds of animals and humans. White Fang is the narrative mirror of London’s earlier The Call of the Wild, in which a pet dog, kidnapped and used as a sled dog, runs away to join the wolves. Wildness is the true nature of animals, though the challenges of survival in the wilderness can also turn man into a beast, London seems to say. White Fang ends up enjoying domesticity with his new master, many miles away from the Yukon. Humans have triumphed over nature, but nature is still out there.
In 1952 Konrad Lorenz, a former member of the Nazi party who would later repent and go on to win a Nobel, published King Solomon’s Ring in English. A chapter imagines the start of the relationship between humans and canines. A pack of jackals followed Stone Age man’s hunting expeditions and surrounded his settlements, and were tolerated, accepted and ultimately encouraged, for the warning barks they gave at the approach of predators, and their tracking skills. The jackals, which initially followed the hunters in the hope of scraps, began to take the initiative, running before instead of behind the hunter, bringing to bay larger animals. And so was created the covenant: food and warmth in exchange for protection.
In Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez details the hate reserved for animals whom we cannot bend to our will. For centuries in the US, extermination was enacted against wolves. Lopez details the way they were treated as outlaws and criminals, subjected to public torture and execution. Crowds gathered to watch a particular wolf die as agonisingly as possible: drawn and quartered, and left to swing on the gibbet.
“The way we think about other species sometimes defies logic,” writes Hal Herzog in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, which does a remarkable job of describing and explaining our emotionally complicated responses to animals. The truth is that, when we treat them with cruelty and indifference, this is often the way they treat each other. Animals, though, are not hypocrites, and Herzog must be applauded for calling out humans, among them “dog lovers” whose quest for the perfect breed has caused unquantifiable amounts of canine suffering.
Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a plea for the rights of animals and questions what it means to be human. A young girl is raised alongside a chimpanzee “sister”. When this animal psychology experiment comes to an end, Fern, the animal, is torn from the only family she has known and sent for rehabilitation in a chimp sanctuary. The casual cruelty of the act echoes through the family’s life for decades.
Finally, how do we find a way to live together? In Coyote at the Kitchen Door, Stephen DeStefano details the interplay between urban sprawl and the natural world, which results in us living in closer and closer proximity to wild animals: the deer in the shopping mall, the cougar in the backyard, the bear in the senior citizens’ centre. Some, like the coyote and the fox, are so well adapted to urban living that all efforts to outwit them are certainly doomed. We may just have to increase the limits of our tolerance.
• Happiness by Aminatta Forna is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £14.95 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
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