A Brief History
On October 18, 1851, the Herman Melville classic, Moby Dick, was first published under its original or alternate title, The Whale. Not surprisingly, a particular enormous Sperm Whale, that happens to be white in color, is the star of the story, never mind the human drama that interferes with the exciting whale parts! People have often written books and stories about animals, whether those critters are loved pets, feared predators of humans, or just focusing on the animal as an individual persona. Some of the stories are scary, some sad, some fictional and some really happened. These are those animal related tales we think are the most significant, or moving, or interesting, and of course the list reflects our opinions only and does not rely on sales numbers or other data. We are purposely avoiding fairy tales, fables, and books for little kids. You are encouraged to agree or disagree with our list and tell us which stories you believe belong here instead. If we are being American-centric it is because that is our overwhelming history of experience. We especially encourage people from other nations or regions to nominate those animal tales we may not be aware of. (The order of the list has no significance.) Honorable mention: Dr. Doolittle, Gorillas in the Mist, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Moby Dick, Herman Melville, 1851.
There have been many stories about a person’s quest for a particular animal bordering on obsession or other such tales centered on the idea of a hunt, such as Gilligan’s Last Elephant (Hanley, 1962, adapted as the major film The Last Safari), The White Buffalo (1977 movie where Wild Bill Hickok and Crazy Horse team up to hunt a giant white Bison), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996 movie), and others, but all take second place to the classic tale of the White Whale. In fact, the “White Whale” has become a metaphor for any extremely difficult to reach or unobtainable goal. We are tempted to assume you are familiar with the Moby Dick story, after all, several motion pictures have been made from the book, but just in case, we will remind you it is about a sea captain named Ahab that has an obsession with finding and killing the giant white Sperm Whale that took his leg on a prior whaling hunt. The hapless crew of the Pequod, a Nantucket whaling ship, is along for the ride, mere stage pieces in Ahab’s world of revenge against a sea creature. (Spoiler: The Whale wins!)
Old Yeller, Fred Gipson, 1956.
Dogs are man’s best friend, period. Nothing and no one else comes close. The bond between a dog and his human has been evolving and growing for something like 30,000 years, and maybe more. This tale of a boy and his dog takes place in Texas in the 1860’s. The “yeller” (yellow) dog repeatedly saves the lives of his human family members, earning him a great big spot in the heart of the Coates family, especially Travis, the boy who is the nominal owner of the hound. Tragedy! The original owner shows up to claim his dog, but seeing the love between Old Yeller and Travis, he relents and Travis keeps his buddy. Then, once again, Old Yeller risks his own life to save the family, this time from a rabid wolf. Alas, Old Yeller is bitten and must be put down, a bitter ending to a wonderful friendship between Travis and his dog. But wait! Old Yeller has sired some pups with a neighbors dog and Travis gets a new puppy to take Old Yeller’s place, somewhat easing the terrible pain of his loss, just like we dog lovers periodically go through. The book was adapted as a movie in 1957, and both the book and movie are classics. Prediction: You will cry.
Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945.
Published as World War II was wrapping up and the Cold War was about to begin, Orwell uses anthropomorphic animals instead of humans to create an allegory and cautionary tale about the siren song of communism. Kind of racist in an animal sense, Orwell makes the pigs the greedy bad guys in the story, notably one named Napoleon. (Orwell was English and the English are notorious bashers of Napoleon Bonaparte.) The farm animals rebel against the cruel and incompetent human farmer and take over the farm themselves under the banner of equality of the critters, where all critters are created equal, but some are “more equal” than others, just like our perception of the communist states extant in the world then and now. Inequality and a new class of oppressors rise in a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” sort of way. Yes, the book has also been adapted for film.
Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, 1877.
We admit it, we are not really horse people, but 50 million copies of this book mean it must be a pretty good story about a horse. (Or if you speak British English, an horse.) This time, the tale is told from the point of view of the animal, as the horse, Black Beauty, narrates his own story! From a carefree happy time as a young colt, to involuntary servitude as the motive force for a London taxi (they used to be horse drawn back when the story was written) to his happy retirement days in the country, Black Beauty comes across and experiences all sorts of trials and tribulations, victories and defeats, kindness and cruelty, and each incident has some sort of moralistic sense to it. The book actually caused some reform in the operation of London’s horse drawn cabs. At least 9 films have been adapted from the story, as well as an audio-book (on an LP record in 1966). Horses and people do not go back as far as dogs and people, but the relationship does go back pretty far and the bonds between horses and their people can be as strong as any other.
Jaws, Peter Benchley, 1974.
In this story, fish catches you! The tables are turned on an enormous Great White Shark that terrorizes a New England resort island, so of course, the stalwart lawman (Jimmy Stewart was not available, so Roy Scheider had to play the part in the movie) must team up with the anti-hero, Quint, to hunt down the mighty beast. Throw in another character for color and we have an epic tale that resulted in a blockbuster book (the hardcover edition on the best sellers list for 44 straight weeks, at least 20 million copies sold) that was quickly turned into a blockbuster movie. Lines for the theaters showing the 1975 film stretched around the block and often every seat was filled. Audiences were not disappointed, and Jaws has become one of the most watched films in history, and it spawned 3 sequels, as well as an ongoing public fascination with sharks that persists to this day.
The Call of the Wild, Jack London, 1903.
Yeah, we could have used White Fang (1906) instead, since it is indeed named after the title character (a wolf), but The Call of the Wild is the senior story and White Fang is kind of a companion book to the major work. The Call of the Wild is about Buck, a big strong dog of St. Bernard and Scottish Shepherd heritage that starts off in happy and sunny California, until one day a greedy and sleazy man steals the wonderful pet and sells Buck to be shipped to Seattle for sale to Gold Miners heading for the Klondike in Canada. Buck is slated for work as a sled dog, and sled dogs are in great demand during the Arctic gold rush. Buck is taught “the law of the club,” and beaten into submission. (Man bad, dog good. This mantra is not just a story line, but in many cases seems to be quite true!) Buck adapts to life in the harness, and eventually kills the mean lead dog to take over as lead dog himself. He has many adventures, gets a feel for the great wilderness (“Call of the Wild”) and even meets and pals around with a pack of wild wolves. When his human owners are murdered, Buck gets revenge against the Native Americans that killed them by murdering the Indians himself (no such thing as Political Correctness back then), gets himself attacked by wolves, kills some of the wolves, and then joins the wolf pack, naturally ending up (assumed) as their Alpha male and becoming a local legend. Oh, and for good measure he and his wolf buddies kill more of the Yeehats (the fictional Native American tribe). The book was adapted as a movie in 1923, 1935 (probably the definitive version, starring Clark Gable), 1971, and other film versions, including animated takes.
Born Free, Joy Adamson, 1960.
First a book, and then a movie (1966) accompanied by a hit song of the same name (covered by Matt Monro, Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Ed Ames, Roger Williams and others). In fact, the song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The story is about a lioness, Elsa, that is raised in captivity and released into the wild to live free and presumably happy in some sort of fairy tale way. This true story starts in 1956 when the author’s husband, a game warden in Kenya, shoots and kills a lioness that attacked him. So sad! He learns the she-lion was merely protecting her 3 cubs. George Adamson takes the cubs, turns over 2 of them to a zoo, and he and Joy raise the little cub, whom they name Elsa, making sure the young lioness learns to hunt and survive. When Elsa is ready, the Adamsons release her into the wild and Elsa survives as a wild lion. At least until 1961, when an infection from a tick bite kills the magnificent beast. Elsa had 3 cubs of her own, which unfortunately began to prey on local farm animals. The Adamsons prevented the killing of those cubs by capturing them and having them transported to Tanganyika Territory (now the country of Tanzania). (Note: The brother and nephew of the author visited Tanzania in 2018 in a nifty expedition to study local fish. The author has been to Kenya.) Adamson also wrote 3 other books about Elsa and or her cubs.
The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, 1938.
The best selling American novel of 1938 and still the 7th best selling American novel in 1939, the story is set in 1870’s Florida, where a rural family has had their first 6 children die in infancy before the birth of their son, Jody, who survives. The poor family struggles to make ends meet, suffering the theft of their hogs by a rascally neighbor and predation by an ornery bear called Slewfoot. Jody is unable to have any pets because the family cannot spare the food. Mom gets bitten by a rattlesnake and has to shoot a female deer (doe) in order to use its liver as an antidote to the snake venom. Alas, the deceased doe had a fawn, and young Jody adopts the little deer, named Flag, as his pet. The boy and deer become close companions and BFF’s, but the story takes a sad turn. The maturing deer has to eat, and the family corn crop is the logical source of food for the hungry cervid, which cuts well into the needs of the human family. Parents tell Jody he must take Flag out and shoot the critter, but of course Jody does not want to murder his friend. Mom does the deed, but only wounds Flag, so Jody is forced to apply the finishing shot, killing his deer/dear buddy. Jody tries to run away but ends up back home where he grows into a man. The unconventional nature of having a close relationship between a human and a deer make this story different from many more conventional human/animal relationship stories.
Lassie Come-Home, Eric Knight, 1940.
Lassie started life as the title character of short stories, until popular demand caused the author to create a novel about the Rough Collie and his boy, Timmy. If you have not read the books or the short stories, perhaps you have seen the television show created from the tale (1954 to 1973!) or even one of the feature films (1943, 1994 and 2005). (The television show was originally aired in Black and White, becoming a Color production in 1965.) The television version was also revived at different times as well. The popularity of the Lassie story and screen appearances was reflected in the popularity (pupularity?) of the Collie breed of dog, making it one of the most popular American pets (in the top 10 of favorite American dogs during the 1940’s through the 1970’s when Lassie was at peak popularity.) The Lassie story evolved on the small screen, with Lassie becoming the companion of a Forest Ranger instead of little Timmy. The movies also digress from the original story, but the bottom line is, loyal, loving, and brave dog serving the people she loves. Dogs are amazing!
Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton, 1990.
Animals just do not get more epic than dinosaurs, and Jurassic Park is undoubtedly the greatest of the dinosaur related stories. A cautionary tale of man messing with nature being a not so good thing, scientists manage to clone the ancient critters from DNA scavenged from Amber deposits that contain prehistoric mosquitoes and other biting insects. Greedy capitalists create a massive zoo/resort on a Pacific island for people (who pay big bucks to do so) can see living dinosaurs in “the wild.” Of course, things go wrong, so read the book and watch the movies! The books are excellent and the movies are some of the most epic and popular films in science fiction history. The first Jurassic Park movie (1993) certainly raised the bar on special effects in dinosaur films and the follow on films keep getting even more realistic looking, though the story lines may not match the original. After reading the book in hardcover this author was thrilled to find out a film version was being made and waited eagerly for release. Though slightly different than the book, the movie was thrilling and did not disappoint. The Jurassic Park franchise has certainly raised awareness and popularity of dinosaurs among the public, much like Jaws did for sharks.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite animal related story? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. Brilliance Audio, 2015.
Gipson, Fred. Three Dog Tales: Old Yeller, Sounder, Savage Sam. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007.
Mellville, Herman. Moby Dick. CreateSpace, 2018.
Morpurgo, Michael. Greatest Animal Stories. B.E.S. Publishing, 2017.
Rawlings, Marjorie. The Yearling. Turtleback Books, 1988.
The featured image in this article, a 1970 U.S. Stamped envelope commemorating literary masterpiece Moby Dick, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.