Animal violence in books stresses me out

I was reading a really interesting, well-written, compelling book the other day about a particularly dark time in history when a character’s pet entered the stage.

I didn’t need to know what would happen next. It might happen in 50 pages or 150, but that pet was going to die, probably in some unpleasant way, to serve the plot. Because that’s how these kinds of books go. When you are reading about unpleasant things or people caught in terrible circumstances, their animal companions are often used as props for the purpose of character development or some such, and consequently, every time I see an animal crop up in a book like that, I get nervous. When I say nervous, I mean that my throat gets a little dry and my heart sinks and my feet get restless and my stomach twists.

I used to keep reading such books (sometimes even staying up all night so I could race past the scene that I knew was coming), determined to enjoy the rest of the story rather than let one thing mar it, but I’ve stopped. In that case, I slammed the covers shut. I thought about taking to Twitter to ask if things turned out okay for the animal, but I already knew the answer — and given the vindictiveness of Twitter, someone would answer ‘no’ and then tell me what happened in graphic detail. I didn’t feel the need to read further, and thus the book joined the growing ranks of texts I haven’t actually read that I need to give to other people who are more comfortable with that sort of thing. (If you’re one of those people, let me know, because boy howdy do I have a lot of books to send you.)

This sounds like a really petty, minor thing. Issues like not wanting to read books that depict rape or murder or violence against women seem more common and clear cut, and though there are many people who do not respect them, there’s a growing awareness that it’s reasonable to at least warn people about these things, and to not sneer at people who don’t want to read those kinds of books. There’s a reason I make a note, when personally recommending a book, of that kind of content — and violence against animals — because I think that people deserve to know so they can make an informed choice about it, or so they can be forewarned. If someone is expecting a rape, she’s not going to be slapped in the face by it when it comes up, and she has time to prepare herself.

To be upset by violence against animals seems absurd to many people, who might accuse me of being soft and ridiculous in the face of real-world problems (like actual violence against animals), but I find it deeply upsetting to read. I find it upsetting to read because I love animals and don’t like to think of them suffering, because people have sent me threats specifically targeting my animals, because I have seen the cruelty and depravity visited upon animals by humans. I also, incidentally, don’t particularly enjoy books that prominently feature domestic violence, murder, and rape, especially those with an intersectional element — rape of a trans woman, or murder of a disabled person. I choose not to read a lot of those books too.

Oddly enough, just days after I finished this book, the conversation came up on Twitter, and a few of us talked about it — how even among circles where warning people about content has become more common, people often don’t warn for animal violence. It’s considered a sort of afterthought if at all and you’re expected to just kind of deal with it. So you’re either forced to stop reading when an animal is introduced, fearing what’s coming, or to keep on pressing forward and hope that you’re wrong.

There’s a reason that I warn people before encouraging them to read the Chaos Walking trilogy that yes, there is a dog, and yes, something bad happens. I don’t think that’s particularly spoilery information, and I do think that people have a right to know. At the very least, they don’t have to spend their time tightening their muscles, wondering when the other shoe is going to drop — if it drops at all. And they can also choose to skip the series either for now, because they’re not in a place to handle it — maybe they just lost a dog, for example — or permanently, because they just can’t read that kind of content.

And that strikes me as okay. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not wanting to consume media because of something disturbing or upsetting in it that taxes you emotionally. The persistent pushback against attempts to be more sympathetic about upsetting content is infuriating, especially when it comes to content like this, which people are particularly dismissive about. Once you get it into someone’s head that yes, rape in media is an issue people would like to be warned about, try tackling the next issue. Then you’ll be met with a nasty comment about ‘when will it ever stop?’ and the suggestion that people who request content notes are just being unreasonable.

As an individual, I like to be able to make informed choices about the media I consume. I like to pass on information so other people can make informed choices. I’m not always perfect — a book might contain medical trauma that’s upsetting for someone and I might not be aware that it’s an issue, for example. But I try, and when someone asks me about a specific issue, I’m careful to think back on the book, or film, or TV series, so I can give an honest and clear answer. Because people deserve that.

So hey, when you recommend media to me, consider warning me about animal violence. You don’t need to tell me what happens — just tell me that it happens. And if you’re recommending media to someone else who’s obviously an animal lover, consider doing the same.

Because if you don’t warn us, we might let it pass the first time, but after that, we’re going to be highly suspicious about picking up anything you recommend in the future.