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Animals I Have known

“Every scrap of evidence that you can gather is fine gold—a new fragment of the priceless mosaic that is a dream of every wise one, more beautiful and amazing than any of our dreams, for it will be the truth.”


in my choice of title for this post, animal enthusiasts will possibly recognize my allusion to the book, Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson-Seton (1898-1946). The English-born Canadian-American author and wildlife artist was an early pioneer of the modern school of animal fiction writing, Wild Animals I Have Known being his most popular work. By my count, the prolific Seton produced 77 works on animals, several published after his death. (The wonderful quote above comes via the following website)

I was a huge fan of stories about animals as a child, proceeding from dogs to horses, wild animals in general and finally to the works of Alberta naturalist, Andy Russell (a passion I shared with my father-in-law). Russell’s undoubtedly worth a whole post on his own. Clearly my evolution to being a fantasy writer using anthropomorphic animals was inevitable.

After first settling in Lindsay, Ontario, in 1866, the Seton family moved to Toronto, where the author spent most of his childhood. As a youth, he retreated to the woods near to the Don River, to draw and study animals as a way of avoiding his abusive father. His talent as an artist being clear even as a teenager, he was able to attend the Ontario College of Art in 1879, soon winning a scholarship to attend London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

According to Wikipedia, on Seton’s 21st birthday his (accountant) father presented him with an invoice for the entirety of his childhood expenses, even including the fee charged by the doctor who delivered him. In his autobiography, Trail of An Artist-naturalist: The Autobiography of Ernest Thompson Seton, the writer discusses the incident in detail. Since he hadn’t “a cent of money” and could not repay the debt, he went immediately to work. When Seton had accumulated the necessary funds ($537.50, a huge amount in the late 1800’s!), he repaid the outstanding amount, left the household forever and never spoke to his father again. (Although I’m tempted to say it was an appropriate, even astute response to a penny-pinching upbringing, Seton’s incredible work ethic may have been the result of such a start in life.)

A year later, in 1882, he joined his brother on a homestead outside Carberry, Manitoba. The town and neighborhood, only 30 minutes by car from where my family first lived in that province back in the mid-1950’s, was well-known for its unique desert topography and immense sand dunes (at least they seemed immense to a boy of five years old), which never failed to bring visions of Lawrence of Arabia to mind).

Here, in Carberry, already a skilled artist, Seton began to write. The Seton Centre celebrates his time in the town in the latter part of the 1800’s. In 1891, he published The Birds of Manitoba and was appointed Provincial Naturalist by the Province. He continued to publish books about the province for decades to come, including The Life Histories of Northern Animals: An Account of the Mammals of Manitoba. In 1930, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here the now-wealthy Seton eventually built not only a 32-room castle but an entire village.

I’ve spoken before about my collection of Classic Comics. I’m sure I had a copy of Wild Animals I Have Known (#152), but I guess it didn’t manage to survive the many years of reading and storage. But three by an equally famous writer of his day on wildlife, Frank Buck, did survive.

Frank Buck (1884-1950), the American animal-collector (for zoos and circuses), author and hunter came along a generation later. In addition to his books, he also starred in eight adventure films about his exploits. Although Buck produced only eight works, he was no slouch in the world of self-promotion.

Today, Buck is considered more as an entertainer or, by some, an outright fraud. His works, representing a bygone era reeking of colonial mentality, are largely forgotten. Still, the exciting stories resonated with youngsters and hopefully inspired many to visit zoos and care for the world around us.

Buck’s legacy has been eclipsed by the accomplished work of professional naturalists like David Attenborough and Gerald Durrell. The latter’s My Family and Other Animals was published in 1956, just as I came of reading age.

Hutchinson & Co, London, 1958

One more British filmmaker/author must also be recalled here – Cherry Kearton (1871-1940); although he’s long been forgotten by the world, except possibly by historians of photography. Kearton and his brother, Richard, were two of the world’s first wildlife photographers. In 1892, Kearton took the first ever photograph of a bird’s nest with eggs, and in 1900, he made the first phonograph recording of birds (a nightingale and a song thrush) singing in the wild. As usual, Wikipedia has much more to provide those interested in more about the two brothers.

This book, a gift from my parents, was published by Kearton’s widow, Ada Forrest, 18 years after his death in 1940. Ada, a famous South African soprano with a distinguished career in opera, devoted her life to Kearton’s work after marrying him in 1922. The book, aimed at the children market, recounts the stories of several animal friendships during his frequent visits to Africa: Simba, the “lion dog” (Pip, a fox-terrier, renamed due to his bravery in tackling a lion); Toto and Mary, the chimpanzees; Mr. Penguin; Timmy the Rat: and Mrs. Spider (a trapdoor).

All these came to mind, when I’d come across a news story about the humble donkey (The New York Times, Mar. 14, 2023): At Long Last, a Donkey Family Tree, written by Franz Lidz (accompanied by several gorgeous, even moving photographs by Samuel Aranda).

As a writer of a seven-volume fantasy series, one involving many separate species, I’ve naturally been drawn to any story that crosses my path involving my characters. Last June, I posted about the swift based on another New York Times article, and in 2021 I wrote about Canadian wildlife in general. I’ve seen articles about polar bears (plenty of those), wolves, falcons and animals in general. All being well, I’ll turn each of these stories into posts.

Donkeys play a key role in my Ravenstones series and in it they are far from humble or overlooked. My protagonist, Eirwen, must confront them at every turn. The NYT donkey story touches on many aspects, but focuses on a recent genetic study by the Center for Anthropobiology and Genomics in Toulouse, France, that aimed at searching the origins of the donkey. As the article notes, the “donkey is a key, if marginalized, character in human history”, having been largely eclipsed by the horse and cow, especially in the developed world. The key find of the research team composed of 37 labs who analyzed 207 donkeys from across 31 countries and skeletons of 31 more, some dating back 4500 years is that donkeys were domesticated only once, around 5000 BC by herders in the horn of Africa and prsent day Uganda. From there, they spread northward to Egypt and then into Europe and Asia. After that, bloodlines became progressively isolated.

While the study of genetics may not be the most captivating content for a post, it is still important in many ways: for agriculture, scientific understanding and human health and medical research. For any of my readers who are interested, the following brief from the US National Library of Medicine is well worth reading.

More – and an entirely different take – on the intrepid donkey next time.

Cover Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash