Real-Life Horror, or Why I Include Animals in my Horror Stories

*possible triggers*

I’ve worked in both animal rescue and wildlife rescue/rehabilitation in the past. But my connection to the animal world began from almost the time I was born. I was not even able to crawl yet, but I remember pulling myself across the carpet by grabbing handfuls of it, just to be closer to the family cats.

And, even though I loved horror from a young age, I found it difficult to see or read about animals being hurt even in movies or in books.
Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, The Secret of NIMH, Black Beauty—these were all early influences on me as a child. And are, to this day.
But, as an adult, I at least had the agency and freedom to get involved in animal rescue causes, and work towards making things better for animals. Mostly this revolved around cleaning kennels and bringing cats and dogs to the local pet supply shop to increase their chances of being adopted. There were really good days, when so many animals found homes. Then there were the days where your heart would break into a million pieces because you knew that it was the animal’s last chance to get adopted. And there was nothing you could do at that point, because you and your fellow workers had houses maxed out to capacity and to budget capacity in taking in abandoned and unwanted animals and all you could do was hope that a better world awaited the animal as it went on its final journey. On those days, it was hard not to fall into the practice of being an animal hoarder.
Life in a hoarding situation is no fate for any animal. A quick death is better than a long, drawn-out one. I know, I witnessed a hoarding situation firsthand. I wrote one of the affidavits for the court case that transferred the cats out of the hoarding situation and over to the care of a no-kill cat shelter that had been set up to take the cats. I was there at the shelter the day the cats were being transferred. I saw the rivers of red that ran down the drain troughs as the cats were washed clean of feasting fleas and accumulated flea residue. I overheard the chatter from the Animal Services officers “There’s so many cats they’ve crawled up inside the walls,” and “We’ve had to punch holes in the walls to get the cats out” and on and on. I tried to hang in there, but I finally hit my limit and a colleague ordered me to go home.

But the real-life horrors I’ve witnessed don’t stop there.

I’ve been onsite, and wrote a civilian report (submitted, per their request, to the local animal services department), about an underground, private animal auction I received an invitation to. It’s been over a decade, and I still see the awful images of birds and animals crammed into tiny cages.

I worked as a volunteer in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. Pelicans with their top beaks cut off by angry fishermen. Egrets with broken legs from being hit by a car that would have to be euthanized, because all their weight had to be on the wading bird’s legs. Now, someone(s) has invented prosthetics for shore birds that have lost their legs. I remember the first ones I saw had a tennis ball on the end for greater stability and grip.
I’ve been to greyhound racing protests back in the early 2000s in Florida, and learned to duck as beer bottles came flying towards us. It was just this year, I believe, that greyhound racing was banned in Florida.

But I’ve also witnessed firsthand incidents of cruelty and neglect to dogs, too. Once, I was with a cousin who works in animal rescue, sharing stories about our respective fields over coffee. As we were discussing the various styles of homes and how he helps families find pet-friendly spaces, we observed a distressing scene from an apartment balcony. He quickly took pictures, documenting a dog confined to a balcony cluttered with trash. The poor animal’s water bowl was overrun with algae, filled only with rainwater from a recent storm. It was a stark reminder that while my cousin helps families relocate with ease, finding a space that accommodates not just their style but their beloved pets is just as important. We reported the incident and later learned the dog was rescued, proving that no matter our profession, be it real estate or animal rescue, we can make a significant difference.

I struggled, sometimes, with loving animals so much, but also respecting the way of the wild. Because Nature has its own system in place that isn’t very nurturing, either. But it wasn’t painful enough to make me give up on animals.

So I read, too. In Your Face: From Actor to Animal Activist by Chris DeRose, Love for Animals Large and Small by Ingrid Newkirk, and, most recently, Sea of Slaughter: A Chronicle of the Destruction of Animal Life in the North Atlantic by Farley Mowat. After I read Sea of Slaughter, it became difficult to maintain my historian-based impartiality towards my MA/academic focus, maritime history.

I signed petitions, I educated myself as thoroughly as I could about animal testing, and I read that not only were the drug tests considered ineffective because animals’ systems are different then humans and there would be harmful effects in humans that hadn’t occurred during the animal tests. And, even then, the drugs still had to go to human testing. What’s even worse is (especially on college campuses) is that animal experimenters keep running the same kinds of tests, over and over and over again; torturing, mutilating, and even killing animals during their experiments.

I chastised myself because I wasn’t doing more. Why wasn’t I part of the Animal Liberation Front, or out on a boat with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society? Or even Greenpeace?

I still don’t have a good answer for that. I call myself out about that every other day, believe me. But I can write. I can try to give animals a certain agency within my horror stories. I want my fictional shelter animals to find homes and/or safe havens, despite the terror happening all around them. I want to write about animals that survive. Animals that successfully take back the world from humans. I want my characters to be animals with magic and power even in the midst of death and destruction.

Because, in real life, things are pretty horrific for animals.

But, maybe through my writing, I can share what I think. I can channel the horrors I’ve witnessed into my writing. I can have an outlet for what I feel. Correction: What animals think and feel and know. Because it isn’t about me, it’s about them. It’s about the non-human life forms that lived on this world before us, and, or so I hope, long after we are gone.

Find the list of places where I’ve had animal-inclusive stories and articles published, here on my blog:

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