Review: Bewilderness: Reality Fiction Bred While Working in Animal Shelters
Updated: Jan 15
Though I am not typically inclined to make absolute statements, I think I can pretty much guarantee that you have never read a book quite like Bewilderness: Reality Fiction Bred While Working in Animal Shelters, by Kathleen Brown.
Bewilderness is grounded in a series of stories accumulated from decades of animal shelter work, with Kat (as her friends know her) starting her career cleaning cages at our local Santa Cruz SPCA and eventually, as Deputy Director, being part of the leadership team of the progressive San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control Animal Shelter. Kat is an exceptional storyteller and her material is simply beyond imagination. I am reminded of the phrase by writer/poet Deena Metzger: “You can’t make this shit up.”
A perceptive observer of humans and other animals, of ecosystems and social constructs, by nature Kat Brown is an ethicist, a philosopher, and a bold thinker who avoids platitudes and simplistic thinking like a coyote sniffing out a trap.
Based on actual events with details and names changed to protect identities, these stories explore our very complex relationships with the animals that we profess to love. They are never told in service of melodrama or shock appeal, though some are indeed shocking and dramatic. Conveyed with respect, each story - whether painful, poignant, educational or hilarious - also illuminates difficult ethical quandaries regarding the inevitable compromises animal advocates must make when faced with the competing needs and interests of individual humans, animals and society.
While her dedication to the more-than-human world is obvious, Kat is also a word lover, and can’t resist that playground with chapter headings like Introduction/Intro-Duck-shun or entitling a scholarly chapter about shelter history and their internal workings, “Making Do with Doo-Doo.” And don’t be surprised, in the midst of a nail-biting scenario, to find her suddenly pouncing on a word’s etymology and layered meanings, relentless as a terrier digging out a gopher.
Each story is quite unique and some will live in my psyche forever. In one, a woman brings a monarch butterfly with a torn wing to the Animal Shelter front desk and asks, “What can you do for this butterfly?” The worker, a youngish man with advanced AIDS, tells her the vet is very busy but what if they work together at the desk with super glue and repair the wing? Eventually, in this tiny tale that feels like a parable, the monarch is able to fly off, the kind worker dies, and the woman becomes a dedicated volunteer. What would this world be like if we treated all beings with such earnest respect and care?
There is another story that I think of often. A homeless woman, who has lived in her car with her beloved hermit crab, reluctantly relinquishes her crab to the shelter while she goes into the hospital for emergency care. The story is too well told to paraphrase it here, but despite or perhaps because of the shelter’s extensive efforts to care for the crab, the crustacean dies, the woman is inconsolable, and the question stares at us regarding the harm we might do even with the best of intentions.
Kat Brown’s prose is clear and beautifully rendered. This at the end of a chapter about standing vigil with an old mare dying on the hard rocky ground near the wild chaparral: “We are drawn back to the mare by who knows what, like the way we lost time last night in the mystery of the vagus nerve’s relaxation and dream world; maybe it was the coyotes’ yellow eyes, the bone-chilling draft, the waning moon from behind cloud cover. But we are back, the mare is dead and now cold, and we notice with tears running down our faces that she is in peace. We place a warm hand on her chest, stroke her muzzle, wish her safe travels. We promise we will never forget.”
As I type those sentences from the book, my throat clenches with emotion, not only because of this particular tender moment, but because almost every story in this dense small book could end with that line: “We promise we will never forget.” Entangled with that pledge, every chapter holds these questions: Who is grievable? Who is worth saving? How do we make these choices? While there are no easy answers, she calls on James Baldwin for perhaps the only honest response: “Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
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PURCHASE YOUR COPY at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Independent Booksellers, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and ebook. You can find links to these on Kathleen Brown's website.
And if you are local, please join us for a LIVE BOOK RELEASE CELEBRATION for Bewilderness. Author and teacher Carolyn Brigit Flynn will be emceeing, Kat will share her stories, and I am very honored to be a guest reader, along with Marcy Alancraig.
Saturday, February 4, 2023 at 2 pm
Jade Street Park Capitola Rec Center
4400 Jade Street, Capitola, CA
This is free and open to the public. Due to Covid and other respiratory illness sensitivity, masks will be required indoors, but the space extends to an outdoor patio.
AND one more event that promises to be very lively and thought-provoking. Kat will be interviewed on our local radio station, KSQD 90.7 FM, on the Lori Katz program: Katz on Dogs, Insights on Both Ends of the Leash. Tune in on Sunday, January 29th at 6 pm.