And the Winner Is...
So many wonderful contenders for the top spot in my heart! In the end, though, choosing my absolute favorite animal-related book/movie wasn't hard at all.
I don't remember how old I was when I first read Black Beauty. Certainly young enough that the idea of cruelty to animals was new to me. I'd never heard of tail docking much less the use of bearing reins, and had never considered how the exploitation of animals might be harmful. Even if people did make animals work, they were kind to them, right?
Black Beauty was my first glimpse into the dark side of humanity and it gave me my first understanding of the nature of cruelty. Though at the time I would never have had the words to express it as such, it sparked in me a moral outrage that set my young and impressionable conscience ablaze.
But for all that, the themes of abandonment and abuse, neglect and wasted life would never have been so clear had not the themes of love and loyalty been painted in such achingly beautiful contrast.
It's been many years since I've read Black Beauty and it could well be simply nostalgia and a child's awakening that color my remembrances -- save for one thing: A fairly faithful movie adaptation recently stirred those same coals of moral outrage and managed still to reach in and touch my hard adult heart.
And the Runner-Up Is ...
In the 1960s, comic books were ubiquitous. You could find racks upon spinning racks of them in drugstores and grocery stores and at the local 5-and-Dime. They were mainly "boy" books but I sneaked plenty of peeks at the ones my brother bought. The first one I ever spent my precious allowance on wasn't a superhero book but a gorgeously illustrated comic book adapted from Ernest Thompson Seton's popular collection of short stories, Wild Animals I Have Known.
It was undoubtedly the best 12 cents I ever spent.
Since comic and anthology are both prefaced with it, it's no spoiler to say that Seton's stories of noble and heroic animals all end tragically. Let me tell you it's hard enough to read the anthology (which I begged for after reading the comic book since the comic book contained only a handful of the stories collected in the antho), but adding visuals reinforced Seton's lessons about the brutality of life in a profound and truly unforgettable way.
Two of the stories that affected me most:
A mother rabbit battling a half-frozen river tries to save her tiny son. She manages to save him but not herself as her gentle eyes close in acceptance and, buoyed by the river and surrounded by ice floes, her body floats away while her stricken son looks on.
After a two-day ordeal, a magnificent wild mustang is chased to the edge of a cliff by a wrangler and his team of relay horses. As a lasso whistles toward him, the mustang deliberately plunges over the cliff. I may not remember the final line perfectly but I do remember it well enough: "Down, down, two hundred downward feet to fall to land upon the rocks below, a lifeless wreck but free."
My favorite animal stories taught me about abuse and death and ultimate sacrifice in a safe if heart-wrenching way. Vicarious and cathartic, these stories helped shape my ethics and my heart. I'm forever grateful for every tear they made me shed.