What are some of the best, and best-known, short stories that feature animals? Many classic stories feature other species in prominent roles, whether it’s talking cats, dogs telling us their life stories, or primates giving academic reports at a conference (yes, really).
Below, we select and introduce ten of the most iconic and famous stories about animals of all kinds, from cats to dogs, axolotls to wolves.
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Black Cat’.
One of Poe’s most unsettling tales, ‘The Black Cat’ actually contains two black cats – although the second may be a ghostly reincarnation of the first. An unstable narrator tells of how alcoholism and an increasing short temper led him to harm his pet black cat – with devastating results for everyone (not least the cat). To say any more than this would be to risk mentioning spoilers…
Mark Twain, ‘A Dog’s Tale’.
My father was a St. Bernard, my mother was a collie, but I am a Presbyterian. This is what my mother told me, I do not know these nice distinctions myself. To me they are only fine large words meaning nothing. My mother had a fondness for such; she liked to say them, and see other dogs look surprised and envious, as wondering how she got so much education …
This 1903 tale is one of several stories on this list which are told from the dog’s perspective. The dog in question is sold to a new owner and is sad to leave her mother behind, but the family she goes to live with are kind to her. One day, a fire breaks out in the nursery of the house – and the dog comes to the rescue …
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Cat that Walked by Himself’.
One of Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902), and the longest tale in that classic collection of origin stories, ‘The Cat that Walked by Himself’, as the title suggests, describes the cat’s independent spirit and refusal to be fully tamed.
Few short story writers have written so well about children and animals, but Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1914), better known as Saki, could write about both. ‘Tobermory’ is about a man who teaches a cat to talk, with disastrous results: the cat begins to tell the ‘respectable’ people at the party exactly what he thinks of them, and to gossip about everyone. Beware, though: cat-lovers may not like the ending.
Franz Kafka, ‘Investigations of a Dog’.
Kafka is a master of the weird, the unusual, the not-quite-right, his stories and novels haunting us long after we have finished reading them. And although he’s well-known for longer works like The Castle and The Trial, he was also a master of the short story form, including the long short story (witness his masterpiece, ‘The Metamorphosis’).
This 1922 story is another tale narrated by a dog, telling us about its experiences. But Kafka’s canine narrator is a philosophical creature, who is interested in the deeper meaning behind his existence and who seeks rational explanations for the things which have befallen him.
Franz Kafka, ‘A Report to an Academy’.
Kafka is so good on animals that we’ve included two of his short stories in this list. ‘A Report to an Academy’ was written in March and April 1917. The story takes the form of a speech delivered by a former ape who has learned to mimic human actions and speech, and who is reporting his life and experiences to a group of academics, hence the title, ‘A Report to an Academy’.
Formerly an ape in the African jungle, the narrator relates how he was shot and captured by a hunting party which packed him onto a ship bound for Europe. He reflects on this sudden loss of freedom as he found himself imprisoned in a cage on board the ship. He longs to escape, but knows that if he ended up in the sea, he would drown. He begins instinctively to realise that his best chance of escape rests in learning to imitate the behaviour of the crew.
Kafka’s story raises interesting questions about human behaviour, and invites us to reflect on how ‘civilised’ man really is when compared with his ‘wild’ relatives among the primates.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The God’s Script’.
Sometimes translated under the title ‘The Writing of the God’, is a 1949 short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). The story concerns a Mayan priest who is imprisoned with a jaguar; the priest comes to realise that his god has hidden magic writing within the jaguar’s skin. ‘The God’s Script’ takes in, among other things, some quintessentially Borgesian themes including the infinite, the power of writing, and the individual who is granted access to arcane knowledge.
Julio Cortázar, ‘Axolotl’.
‘Axolotl’ is a short story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar (1914-84). The story was published in Cortázar’s 1956 collection End of the Game and Other Stories. ‘Axolotl’ is narrated by a lonely man who regularly visits the local zoo, where he becomes fascinated by the axolotls in the aquarium. In time, he states that he, too, is an axolotl, and feels he has become one of them.
The story is about our ability to identify with other species. Cortázar’s narrator detects something ‘human’ about the pink faces and golden eyes of the axolotl (a larva of a particular kind of salamander) and feels a deep sense of kinship with the animals, to the extent that he hallucinates (if it is a hallucination) that his mind has entered the head of one of the creatures and ‘he’ is now inside the aquarium looking out.
Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Wife’s Story’.
‘The Wife’s Story’ is a short story with a twist. Published in 1982, it’s a short tale whose narrator, at the end of the story, turns out to be different from what we have been led to believe. One of Ursula Le Guin’s best-known tales, ‘The Wife’s Story’ is story narrated by a wife, who (spoiler alert!) turns out to be a wolf who is ‘married’ to a werewolf.
Le Guin’s story exploits our assumptions about the characters speaking to us (or being described to us) in order to make a point about how we view both ourselves and other species. Man is othered, defamiliarised, perhaps even dehumanised: viewed through the eyes of the lupine narrator, the man who was her husband in a sense becomes the animal, the outlier, and alien amidst the pack.
Angela Carter, ‘The Company of Wolves’.
Following on neatly from Le Guin’s confusion of man with wolf, here’s a short story by the British writer Angela Carter (1940-92) on the theme of lycanthropy, inspired by the famous Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.
‘The Company of Wolves’ is one of the most shocking stories in The Bloody Chamber because of the way in which the adolescent girl ‘tames’ the big bad wolf. In order to save her own life, she must give herself to the male by making love to him. Carter prefaces her story with a long introductory section which deals with the history of werewolf folklore.