Sunday, June 30, 2013

Why Do We Hate it When the Dog (or Cat or Horse) Dies?

Why is it that so many readers are particularly upset when an animal dies in a story? And I'm not talking about partially anthropomorphized animals in stories where the animals are actual pov or focal characters, though these deaths can be upsetting too. I'm talking about the death of realistically portrayed pet, working or companion animals.

Probably one of the most famous examples is Fred Gipson's Old Yeller, which was adapted into a Disney movie. I hope this is not a spoiler for anyone, but at the climax of the story, the protagonist Travis must put his beloved dog down because Yeller saved the family from a rabid wolf, thus exposing himself to the fatal and highly dangerous disease. This sacrifice is what transforms the boy into a man, but even though it was a necessary loss to make the coming of age arc complete for Travis, I always found it terribly upsetting, as if there was a complete lack of narrative justice. There are plenty of other stories that follow this same basic premise. There are also a number of lighter-hearted tales where an animal passes away after living a long and full life. This is less unsettling, perhaps, but I still have a hell of a time not crying  when I reach the end of a book such as John Grogan's Marley and Me, which was also made into a successful movie.

On a different note, there are also a lot of stories where the bond with, and ultimate loss of an animal is not the point of the story, but animal carnage still ensues. To a certain extent, this is realistic. When a man is fighting in a war, the last thing you can logically expect him to worry about is whether or not he has to shoot some horses out from under the charging enemy. Yet I still find myself being annoyed when this happens, especially if the character who does this doesn't experience any stress or conflict. We live in a world where most of us still use animals for food (and medical research, which even the strictest vegans benefit from) and where we kill millions of dogs, cats and horses every year because there are no homes for them. So it does seem strange, even hypocritical, for me to be annoyed with the protagonist in a book like Brandon Sanderson's excellent Mistborn trilogy when she [spoiler alert here--am changing font color to white so anyone who does not want to read this can skip it and anyone who does can highlight the text to read]

purchases and kills a dog so that her shape shifter servant can steal its body instead of occupying a human corpse. Honestly, as gruesome as animating an already-dead human corpse, I found the prospect of killing a dog worse.

But logical or not, my own emotional response seems to be fairly common. I even know a number of people who swear they'll put a book down or refuse to read it at all if they know this is going to occur.

In fact, that there's a web site for movie fans called "Does the Dog Die," which lists hundreds of movies where an animal or animals feature prominently in the plot. It's a three tiered rating system: a crying doggie symbol for movies where a pet dies; a worried doggie for movies where a pet is injured or appears to be dead, but ultimately lives; and a happy doggie for movies where the pet/pets all live.

I'm not a psychologist, so I'm not absolutely sure why the death of animals in books and movies is so upsetting to so many people. I'm guessing that several factors may be at work here.

1. The phenomenon of triggering. In its usual sense, this is used to when a real life or fictitious event triggers traumatic flashbacks in vulnerable people (such as people who suffer from PTSD). Though I doubt most people experience anything akin to traumatic flashbacks when they read about a pet dying, most animal lovers have experienced the grief of losing an animal companion at least a few times in their life. For many of us, the loss of an animal friend was the first significant loss we experienced as a child or young adult, and it's one we know we will experience again. I can only know about myself for sure, but for some reason, I empathize more with a character who loses an animal, or even with the animal itself, than I do with one who loses a spouse, sibling, parent or friend. I'm not sure why, because the loss of my own father was devastating. But for whatever reason, the way fathers usually die in books and movies does not "remind" me of my own loss in the same way.

2. Animals are often child surrogates. We're supposed to care for them and protect them. This doesn't mean that most of us think animals are more important than children. If I had to choose between saving my dog or cat from a burning building and some strange child I didn't know at all, I'd save the child. But I'd still mourn the dog or cat deeply and probably feel a great deal of guilt. Why? Because my animal friends rely on me and trust me to care for them and protect them. Allowing an animal to die, particularly one I'm invested in emotionally, feels like a violation of that trust. I've lost several animals in my life, and some have passed prematurely. But only one died in a manner that could be termed accidental (one of my childhood cats, Lyle, was poisoned). Decades later, it is this loss that still haunts me the most.

3. Animals are innocent. Like children again, they are uncomprehending victims of the choices humans/grown ups make. Their death often lacks any sense of narrative justice.

4. For the above reasons, their deaths often feel milked or set up, as if the author or director was  intentionally creating conflict, tension or pathos by killing or threatening an animal. Even when you see it coming as a reader, or perhaps, especially if you see it coming, you may resent it, or just find it really anxiety provoking.. I remember that when I watched the movie Alien, some of the tension I felt was worry over whether or not Jones the cat would survive.

There are probably other reasons why the death of animals (particularly ones we think of as companions or pets) is so upsetting in fiction. If anyone else has any ideas about this, I'd love to hear your comments. Are there any books or movies where the death of an animal was especially emotionally moving or evocative for you (in either a good or bad way).

                       Simon: our own Old Yeller look alike, though he lived a much longer life.
                                            Astra: even after 17 years, her loss was a blow.
                                                        Oscar: a superb cat, taken too soon.


  1. My own feeling is that #3 is the most likely. I suspect we have an inborn hatred for 'collateral damage'. Animals and children are the ultimate in collateral damage. Interesting post, E.L., thanks!

  2. Not a fan of dead dog movies.

  3. Yes, I'd agree that the child parallel is probably the primary one - and children dying in a story can be equally traumatic. Although in practice adult humans can have just as little control over what happens to them, we tend to feel they have some choice, at least. Animals and children are almost inevitably innocent victims.

    I didn't actually experience losing an animal until after I'd lost my granddad. I don't know if that's affected my reactions - I'm certainly upset by the death of an animal in a story, but I'm not sure it's quite as extreme as the way you've described it.

  4. Lol, I'm still willing to watch a movie where an animal dies, particularly if it' after a long, full life. But it's one of the few places where I want to see it coming. If that's not the arc I was expecting, it's annoying. Harry and Tonto was a great "on the road" type movie about an old man and his cat. I was prepared for a tearjerker ending where to old fellow would pass, but was gobsmacked when the cat passed instead, because they haven't foreshadowed that the cat was also old or in ill health at all. I still remember turning to my husband and tearfully saying, "Damn you! You didn't tell me the CAT was going to die." I got my revenge when I took him to see Marley and Me a few years later.

    But it's context too. I love the All Creatures books and TV shows, and obviously, a lot of animals die in those. Maybe it's the Game of Thrones principle in a veterinary setting. When there are so many story lines and characters, the stakes would not be sufficiently high if at least a few don't die.

  5. I feel exactly the same way, and I have the feeling it's a very natural reaction. My youngest, who is only a child herself said that it was always sad when animals died, either in films or for real, because they never do anything to deserve it. They are loyal, faithful and innocent of any ulterior motivation. Unlike people, there is never the temptation to think, well, he/she was no great loss.
    The film, Arn, about the Swedish Knight Templar has a terribly moving scene when Arn's horse is killed by a sneaky Saracen getting under his belly. Arn massacres the Saracen, and I thought he thoroughly deserved it. Then Arn sits with his horse, comforting it, before he puts it out of its misery. Not a dry eye in the house.