I’ve always been fascinated with stories filled with anthropomorphic animals since I was a kid. Anthropomorphism is, according to Dictionary.com, “the attributing of human characteristics… to inanimate objects, animals, plants, or other natural phenomena…” I’m sure you can think of some modern cultural examples right away- Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Friends, or cereal mascots like Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam! You might not even realize how ingrained the concept is to storytelling- some of the most iconic stories, movies, video games, and folk tales through the years have utilized the troupe of anthropomorphic characters. As I got older, I realized that these “Animal Stories” could appeal to a much wider audience- not just children- and can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of race, sex, gender or background.
The Furry Fandom, although severely misunderstood due to years of pop culture misrepresentation, is the celebration of these anthropomorphic animal characters in media. I recently attended Anthrocon* in Pittsburgh, PA, the record-breaking biggest Furry Convention in the world, earlier this month. It was incredible to see thousands of people coming together over a shared artistic expression, compassion for community, and interest in personal expression through anthropomorphic animal characters and their stories. The subculture has been a hub for sharing and creating historical and contemporary Animal Stories, in the form of short stories, zines, animations or comics, since its creation in the 1970s.
Some of the selections below are not suitable for children, and have been banned or challenged due to their mature themes and topics. I chose to include them as examples of Animal Stories that have broken the mold, and appealed to older audiences throughout the past two centuries. They are not the only Animal Stories that have tackled mature issues like starvation, violence, animal testing, racism, sexism, death, and war; nor do all Animal Stories have to be made solely for an adult audience. The genre has been around for hundreds of years, with a vast and wide array of media for anyone to enjoy!
Check out some of my favorite Animal Stories books and movies below!
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
If you’re a big fan of Disney’s 1949 anthology film, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, you might be excited to learn that Mr. Toad’s animated short was based on roughly two chapters of Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows! There’s many more English countryside adventures and loveable animal characters found in this delightful 1908 novel. If you’re a A.A. Milnes Winnie-the-Pooh fan, The Wind in the Willows has the same cozy, laid back vibes, with some snarky comebacks and sarcastic whips spliced in. There’s also some thought-provoking imagery and concepts that may not be understood by children, but adults can appreciate.
The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit Edited by Julius Lester
The original telling of Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1881) by Joel Chandler Harris, while historically relevant due to its preservation of the oral African American folk tales in the deep South, is not necessarily a piece of literature I’d recommend to a modern audience. The depictions of Uncle Remus, and his heavy dialect throughout the novel, has been criticized thoroughly in the past century for being derogatory and stereotypical against African Americans living in the South during the time of its publication. I went into this retelling cautiously, wondering if it had kept the more racially charged elements. However, I’m surprised to admit that I actually had fun reading Julius Lester’s contemporary takes on Harris’ tales, removing the problematic Uncle Remus character and focusing solely on the animal stories in the Brer Patch. These trickster folk tales focus on Brer Rabbit outsmarting Brer Fox or Brer Bear, in very sneaky and silly ways.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
A story about wild, anthropomorphized rabbits living in Southern England, seeking a new home after their countryside is being taken over by man and destruction, might not sound overly dramatic or violent. But these actions and themes, and the rabbit’s push for self-survival against the dangerous and predatory world around them is the reasons for Watership Down‘s banning in some school districts and countries. The first film adaption came out in 1978 and has some very artistically unique and striking visuals that still hold up to this day; Netflix came out with a CGI animated mini-series in 2018 that’s also worth a watch.
Watership Down (2018) by Netflix, here.
MAUS I & II by Art Spiegelman
Another widely challenged and banned book, Art Spiegelman’s magnum opus MAUS is a two-part graphic novel retelling of his parent’s experiences in Poland leading up to and during the Holocaust, told through the lens of animals. Spiegelman uses the allegory of animals to the test; Polish Gentiles are depicted as pigs, Nazis are depicted as cats, and Jews are depicted as mice. This controversial usage of the animal allegory on such a dark part of human history has been both commended and ridiculed; however, I think using such sharp and graphic imagery helps to further amplify the emotion and heavy topics in MAUS. I could write a whole post about the historical significance of MAUS, how it redefined graphic novels and the comics world as a whole, and it’s legacy since the publication of the first book in 1986… so keep an eye out for that in January, for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien
As a personal fan of Don Bluth Studio’s filmography, I was surprised to learn that their first feature film, The Secret of NIMH (1982) was a film adapted from Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971). Both stories focus on Mrs. Frisby (changed to Mrs. Brisby in the film to avoid copyright issues with Frisbee), a widowed mother whose youngest son Timothy falls ill with pneumonia, right before the frost melts in the spring. When the frost melts, the creatures living in the farmer’s fields must evacuate up to their summer homes in the woods before he runs his plow, but Timothy is too sickly to be moved. With time running out, Mrs. Frisby must visit the Great Owl to ask for advice on how to move her family, their house being built into an old cinder block and unable to be moved by mice alone, and the Great Owl demands that she visits the rats- a dangerous society living below a bush next to the farmer’s house- for their help. I won’t spoil the rest of the story- you’ll have to read the book or watch the film to find out what happens to Mrs. Frisby and Timothy!
I intend to write an article about Don Bluth Studio and their other films in a future article- this gem of an animation studio is often overlooked by modern audiences, despite being Disney’s sole competitor during the 1980s and making some of the most beautiful traditionally animated films, most of which have held up through the years.
The Fandom directed by Ash Kreis
This 2020 documentary is a historical and present-day look at the Furry Fandom, made by lifelong members of the Furry Fandom. I included this documentary- although it’s only available to watch on Youtube- because of it’s dedication to the historical preservation of this subculture and fully diving into everything that the Fandom has to offer. I recently fell into a Underground Comix and Comic Con history rabbit-hole earlier this year, and it’s interesting to research how these different subcultures were born out of the desire of self-expression in the late 1970s, pushing the boundaries of censorships in comics and growing alongside one another. While superhero comics became mainstream, only recently publishing stories with minority and queer themes (check out my other article- Cat’s Picks: Pride Month Comics), the Funny Animal comics that contributed to the beginnings of the Furry Fandom have been accepting of these themes since the very beginning. The Fandom is a great watch if you’re into subculture history- specifically fandoms and their evolution through the decades- and interested to learn more about what the Furry Fandom really is: an art-driven community that embraces self expression, love, and acceptance, with an appreciation for anthropomorphic animals at its core.
The Fandom can be viewed on Youtube here.
* Westlake Porter Public Library is not associated with Anthrocon, its staff or other affiliations.