Ever wonder why animals are almost always part of children’s stories? Whether it’s a translated version of Three Little Pigs or one of our local fables, such as Ang Matsing at ang Pagong (The Monkey and the Turtle), animal characters who talk and act like humans are as familiar to us as the back of our hands. Maybe it’s because of the countless adaptations in both film and books of these tales, or the nursery rhymes taught to us when we were kids that we know by heart. Maybe it’s because of Disney films like The Lion King and The Little Mermaid that explains this familiarity of animals in stories.
The suspension of disbelief in children’s stories is what makes them enjoyable and timeless. The transforming kiss of the Princess in The Frog Prince is as satisfying as any other love story, as well as the triumph of the turtle when he outsmarted the hare in a race in The Hare and the Turtle. Of course, anyone would think it strange if someone kissed a frog in hopes of turning it into a human, and to date, there is no record of animals racing each other in the wild (excluding, of course, the chase between predator and prey). These scenarios are only conceivable in children’s stories and, more often than not, the moral that these timeless tales carry is what makes them perfect for children.
But have you ever thought of how animals are treated in these stories? What part do they play in teaching children values and morals? And most importantly, how do children see animals in real life based on what they’ve read about them as kids?
The child as a reader
Imagine children’s minds as sponges that absorb everything. They have limited understanding to differentiate the good from the bad, the real from the imagined, and the doable from the impossible. Whatever they see and learn from stories taught to them, whether in oral or illustrated form, they might accept at face value. This is why adult supervision is essential to help them process these narratives. Moreover, adults can use these stories to impart wisdom to children.
Children’s stories perform mainly two functions: to entertain and to teach. Often, these two are combined so that children don’t get bored while being educated. A more formal use of children’s stories is to teach grammar, improve reading comprehension, and even practice math. But there is a more humanistic role that children’s stories perform, and that is to teach them what is right from wrong – what values to uphold and which attitudes to discard.
In a popular version of Aesop’s The Grasshopper and the Ant, the grasshopper’s laziness is frowned upon while the ant’s diligence is rewarded. As the story goes, the ant did the hard work of stocking up food during the warm weather while the grasshopper remained idle. When winter came, the ant was well prepared and had enough sustenance to wait out the cold weather, while the grasshopper was unprepared and eventually died because of his indolence. In this story, the lesson is clear: Hard work is rewarded and should be looked up to.
The same can be said of the famous The Lion King – that to seize power at the expense of others will eventually lead to one’s own demise. It also teaches children of responsibility that power holds and how this should be wielded for the good of all. Just as we root for Simba and hate his scar-faced uncle Scar, we also hope for the return of Nemo in Finding Nemo. The stories of the seemingly weak and lost, the underdog, is at the core of every story we treasured as children and now remember with fondness as adults.
Interestingly, children see the animals in these stories as “real.” These animal protagonists are as real as Superman and Santa Claus can get. This means that children can associate themselves with the animals in the stories they read and the films they watch, and can even sympathize with their plight. This is why then and now, we want to find Nemo as much as Merlin (Nemo’s father) wants to, as much as we want our friends to always be safe and sound, and as much as we want for our loved ones to be happy and free from pain.
The Pinocchio effect
Still, the question remains, why are animals often used in children’s stories? Don’t human characters suffice in these tales?
Sure, there are child characters present in some of them while animal characters take a back seat. In Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the protagonist young Alice takes a strange yet wonderful adventure in another world where some (weird) animals exist, two of which are the Cheshire Cat with a mischievous smile and the March Hare who hosts a tea party. In yet another story, Little Red Riding Hood, the young girl who takes a trip into the forest is faced by a wolf in her grandma’s clothing. In Disney’s adaptation of Cinderella, both mice and birds are friends to the poor, disheartened Cinderella. But these animals are mere supporting characters.
One purpose of putting these animals in these narratives is to de-familiarize reality. Many works of fiction do this as well, painting reality in a different light, with the same strokes but in different colors. But in children’s stories where animals are main protagonists, animals represent the child reader.
According to famous children’s literature scholar Perry Nodelman, animals serve as metaphors for children’s behaviors – that is, the wild, the misbehaved, and the unruly. In his essay Decoding the Images: Illustration and Picture Books “published in 2002, Nodelman claims that the practice of of putting talking animals in children’s stories is an attempt at de-familiarizing human childhood,” in which children must learn to negotiate between animal-like urges of their bodily desires and the demands of adults that they repress desire and behave in social acceptable ways – that is, as adult humans do [my italics].”
Much like animals, children are difficult creatures who follow their instincts instead of thinking things through. They let emotion get the best of them in most situations and give in to primal desires – play over work, sleep over paying attention.
Remember Pinocchio? Remember how, when he kept lying and being a misbehaved boy, he not only caused his nose to grow longer but also became a jackass along with other unfortunate boys? Pinocchio turned into an animal because of doing things he shouldn’t be doing – being dishonest and disobedient, running away from home, and even being involved in vices! What can this imply to the child reader? For a child to be initiated in a civilized world, he must leave his childish ways and become an adult.
Notice how Pinocchio regained his boyhood, his human form, when he began to repent and find his way home. When he learned the error of his ways, he gradually bcame the boy he once was – a boy who will become an adult if he keeps outgrowing his animalistic, childlike ways.
“Ang Unang Baboy Sa Langit”
I first came upon The First Pig in Heaven while browsing through a collection of children’s stories by popular Filipino author Rene O. Villanueva for school work. Immediately, I was hooked when I saw the title, thinking it strange that a pig would be in heaven. In Christian belief, a person entering heaven is someone good, just, and even holy.
So, I began to read the story with the premise that this pig had done something right in his life to be rewarded so greatly as to be the first pig in heaven (considering the fact that the belief didn’t initially include animals). Much to my surprise, the story did not sound right at all.
In the story, Butsiki, the first pig to become a saint, was described as different from his community of pigs. Unlike his neighbors who were filthy, ate garbage, and smelled horrible, he was clean, had good manners, and preferred healthy food and environment.
Because of this, his own kind hated him. They turned him away and outcast him – he was not one of them, not a “true pig.” But Butsiki stayed true to himself and went on with his daily good morning habits.
Eventually, he attracted the attention of pigs from other towns, and they praised him for his attitude. Apparently, being a tidy pig prevented the spread of disease and improved one’s health. From an outcast, Butsiki became a model pig to look up to.
At this point, the message implied is still linear: Butsiki represents a kid who has good grooming habits. The character of Butsiki teaches children to clean themselves and eat healthy food. So far, this sounds good, right?
At the turning point of the story, the treatment of Butsiki’s character shifted. He was butchered at the next feast. Why? Because he was a clean pig. When he rose to heaven, angels sang this praise: “Walang silbi ang baboy na hindi naging litson! Walang halaga ang baboy na hindi man lamang naging tsittsaron! Ipaalam sa lahat, si Sta. Butsiki ang magiging unang baboy na patron. (A pig that does not become a roast pig is useless! A pig that does not become a cracker made from pig fat has no value! Let it be known, St. Butsiki will become the first patron pig.)”
His legacy of cleanliness went on and other pigs followed suit. They revered him so much that they aimed to be as clean as him to fulfill their purposes, too.
I don’t know how a child reader would respond to this story, especially since I read this the first time as an adult. What I do know is that it has grave consequences on how children perceive pigs in reality.
Do pigs really go to heaven when they die?
Most pugs live their lives in pens much like Butsiki. However, they do not think of being clean the way we humans think of being clean. It is essential for them to muddy themselves to cool themselves, since they aren’t capable of sweating like we are.
Unlike Butsiki who has the option to prefer cleanliness, pigs in real life do not have much choice in the upkeep of their environment. In factory farms, pigs are not given much space of their won and they are forced to live in crowded spaces. They don’t see much of the sun and don’t breathe in fresh air. In most cases, they only see glimpses of sunlight, some for the first time, through the cracks in the trucks that carry them to slaughterhouses.
It is still up for debate if pigs can go to heaven. One thing is for sure: We have caused their lives to be a living hell. And if death is their way out of it, then maybe they can have a piece of heaven.
Retelling the tale
When I told my mentor about the story, he did not exactly share my sentiments. He told me that all children’s stories have well-meaning intentions: to teach children values and wisdom.
Sure, I can imagine children being entertained with Butsiki’s story and the storyteller emphasizing the value of good grooming habits. It is an interesting way of reminding kids to brush their teeth and comb their hair. But what I wanted to say to my mentor was, “Well-meaning for whom?”
It may be written with the best intentions for children, but I cannot say the same for the animals in stories like these.
I am reminded of how straightforward the narrative of Finding Nemo is. A young fish taken away from his parent and brought to a strange place so small as compared to the whole ocean.
No matter how engaged a child would have been with Nemo’s story, I doubt that they would be able to sympathize with real-life fishes the way they would have with Nemo. I don’t discount the innate compassion of children; however, even if they ask the hard questions, they might end up being dismissed by adults. Rarely does it happen that children extend the same compassion to animals in real life when touched by stories like this, and when some do, adults are quick to “correct” them.
Sure, children’s stories are well-meaning. But well-meaning for whom? In the tradition of reading children’s stories that include animal characters, seldom do we think of the implications of these stories on real-life animals.
In the case of Butsiki, it only serves to normalize violence against farmed animals, such as pigs. On the one hand, they are used as objects of humor and wit; on the other, they are subjected to cruelty with death as its extreme form. And by immortalizing this cruelty in stories told time and time again, children get the notion that it’s okay to emphatize with animals in films and books without having to extend the same sentinent toward real life animals.
I think children’s stories can be rewritten to cater to animals, too. After all, they are not much different from children.
This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s January-February 2021 issue.