If you consider yourself an animal-lover, you would like to think that you understand them. After all, true love begins with understanding, doesn't it?
But stop for a second and consider: What if the animal in your life suddenly gained a human-level consciousness and you could talk to him or her one-on-one? What would you say? What would you ask? We've wondered for years how animals learn to love, marveling over the bonds they nurture among themselves as well as humans. It's why we "ooh" and "ahh" over YouTube videos of dogs cuddling babies and funny GIF roundups of cats. But the reality is not rosy-colored: the relationship between humans and animals has not always been a loving one. As a population, we've mistreated generations of animals with our negligence and wiped out entire species with our greed.
That is the premise behind The Awareness, a remarkable fiction novel (co-written by Gene Stone and Jon Doyle) in which all mammals on the Earth are suddenly gifted with a human-level consciousness. In particular, the story follows four animals gifted with awareness: a wild bear roaming through the Yukon, a circus elephant in Texas, a house dog in suburban New York and a farm pig in the South. Some revolt against humanity, some protect their human caretakers and some stand indifferently, simply taking in their new surroundings. Together, they offer a straightforward, heart-wrenching narrative that gives us a sneak peek into the life of an animal living in a human's world.
We caught up with co-author Gene Stone to ask him more about the deeper intricacies of the human-animal relationship explored in this book.
YourTango: This book really changes how we think about human-animal relationships. And we often take for granted relationships like the one between Jesse and her dog Cooper. We think animals (like dogs and cats) don't have a human-level of awareness, but they are still very capable of love. Why do you think we take for granted (and sometimes, advantage of) this unconditional love?
Gene Stone: Human relationships are so complicated that when it comes to our animal companions, we just want to assume they are there for us, no matter what. It's so much easier to have a dog around the house than a partner. And for the most part, we are kind to our dogs and cats. But too often people forget that animals have feelings and emotions, and they neglect them. In New York City shelters alone, 300 cats and dogs are put down a week — sometimes because people don't neuter or spay them, and because they just throw them out on the street. If animals are willing to give us their unconditional love, it's our job to give it back to them. Part of the point of the novel is to remind people that treating animals well is a mark of a good character, and a good country. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "The greatness of a society and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals."
YT: Why do you think we as a culture are so inspired by love stories between an animal and a human? (Think YouTube videos, viral stories.)
GS: There's never been a time when people have been so exposed to animal cuteness. Google "cute animals" and you get many millions results. There's something about animals looking adorable that makes us all take a moment and smile. And yet, and this is one of the points of the book, we don't then associate those warm feelings that with our own treatment of animals. For instance, baby pigs are all over YouTube because they're just so darn adorable. But even though many people know how horribly they are treated at factory farms, they still eat them. Sigh. Paul McCartney once said, "If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian." Having seen a slaughterhouse, I can tell you that’s true.
YT: Why did you start and end with bear? He was the one who hesitated at revolting against the humans and took one in with open love. Why was he different from the other animals?
GS: My co-writer, Jon Doyle, and I chose four characters to represent all mammals — an elephant in a circus in Texas, a pig in a hog farm in North Carolina, a dog in New York state, and the bear in the Yukon. The dog knows humans well, and loves them — he has a terrible time trying to decide what to do when the war between humans and animals begins. The elephant and the pig have been badly treated, and hate or fear humans — they're ready for action. But the bear has never met a human. He has to learn about the interaction between humans and animals — that's why he's the most complicated character.
YT: When the bear gains awareness, his first thought is a warm, loving remembrance of his mother. Why did you choose this?
GS: People often forget that animals have families, they have mothers and fathers and brothers. Obviously that’s more meaningful for some species than others, but, for instance, elephants and bears are very aware of their families. The more people are willing to entertain the idea that animals are very much like humans (or that humans are very much like animals), the more likely we are to respect them.
YT: How does love guide his actions through the story?
GS: The bear's ability to love is of the major themes of the book. Unlike the other animals who are already filled with anger, resentment, or hostility, the bear is open to whatever his experiences reveal to him. So he experiments with his newfound awareness, and all the emotions it brings. He tries both loving a human, and going to war against them, to see where he stands. In the end, it's the battle that takes place in his mind between war and peace — and his eventual understanding that this really isn’t about mammals versus humans, but good creatures versus bad ones — that drives the book.
YT: How does love guide the actions of every animal in this story?
GS: That's a great question because it was important to us to show each of the animals in loving situations. The elephant is guided in part by her terrible memories of her family being slaughtered. The pig is flabbergasted when she realizes that humans are allowed to have families and loving lives, and she cries when she realizes that she cannot have this. The dog is very much in love with his companion, Jessie, a young girl who loves him back, and he can’t bear the thought of hurting her. But at the same time, he feels the ancient call to war. And the bear, as mentioned above, decides that love so what matters, no matter what species you are, no matter how aware you are.
YT: At one point, another bear asks the bear "What good are thoughts if they put you in danger?" All of the animal characters encounter this dilemma at one point in the story. Do you think it's better or worse for us to be clearly aware in matters that can hurt us — like love?
GS: Another one of the major points of the book is that it's hard to be human. Each of the animals at some point realizes that all the thinking that humans do, all the thoughts and worries and conflicts — these are not easy! Awareness has a price. But both Jon and I think that even with all the difficulties awareness brings, all the animals are grateful for the chance to be able to think, to wonder, to dream, and to be able to express all this. No one said being conscious was easy. It's not. But it has its rewards.
YT: What makes a loving bond between an animal and a human more special than between humans?
GS: Well, I'm not sure it's more special — I'd prefer to think of it as special in a different way. But there's something so remarkable about inter-species love that makes all of us smile — one of the most common animal videos on YouTube are ones of different animals who've becomes each other's best friends — a horse and a cat, a dog and a parrot, a goat and a cow, etc.
YT: Are you a pet-owner? If so, what would you want your pet to know?
GS: I do have animal companions — I have a cat named Gus, who is a rescue cat from Manitoba, Canada. Long story how I got him, but I'm grateful because he's wonderful. I'm also on the board of a terrific organization called Ready For Rescue that places animals from the New York City Shelter system into foster homes, so I always have at least one other foster cat at home. What’s so amazing about Gus is that each time one of these frightened and lonely cats appears, Gus patiently endures their initial snarling and hissing until his essential good nature wears them down, and he eventually becomes friends with all of them. I do wonder what Gus would say to me if he had the chance. Sometimes, I think it might be some mysterious message from inside the feline mind, but often I think it would be, why don’t you feed me more often?
YT: What is the ultimate message you want readers to take away from the book?
GS: The book is about the day all the mammals get awareness and they go to war against humans. But the title is something of a double entendre — it's also about what I hope will be an increasing amount of awareness that takes place among people who read the book about animals and their plight. I can't pretend otherwise: I'm a vegan, and if this book gets more people to think, even just now and then, about skipping their cheeseburger and trying some vegetables instead, I'll be happy.