[Note: This is a heavily intellectualized version of how I feel; it focuses on animality-as-narrative and animalperson-as-identity, not the actual, embodied experience of being an animal-person, which is impossible for me to put into words due to my experience of it as an inherently wordless. Mel Baggs and Akhila have described it much better than I think I am able to; I recommend reading their writing if you want to know how I perceive the world as an animal-person instead of how I feel about the narrative of “animal-person” applied to my life. This is tentative and exploratory; I do not know right now if animal person is, in fact, my primary identity, or if it’s one of many, but this is my first essay to seriously explore this narrative, and writing it was very meaning-filled and cathartic for me, so it may be. Who knows? Well, we’ll see, I guess. ^-^]
I love animals.
I always have.
I can add so many words to this, but that is what it boils down to. Above everything else–above aromantic and headmate and crazy and girl–I am an animal person.
This is a story about being therian. This is a story about being an animal rights activist. This is a story about losing my way. This is a story about falling down, down, down the rabbit hole, and getting out, and this is a story about choosing to go back.
I have never felt completely ‘human’, and I have always connected very much to animals.
When I was three, people would ask me what I want to be when I grew up and I would tell them “a cow”, “a polar bear”, “a cat”.
I grew up believing I was secretly half-cat (and this would later be labeled a delusion; while the belief went away, the feeling never faded).
I discovered santa wasn’t real in fourth grade, when I wrote, Dear Santa (parents dont read this!!!!) I don’t want anything this year just please let me tranform into a cat for christmas or else I’ll know you’re fake and not really magic!! and I woke up the next morning with a pile of gifts and a body I couldn’t stand.
When I played “pretend”, I pretended to be anything but human for as long as it was socially acceptable to do so. I would see myself in the mirror and sometimes it would be fine and sometimes there would be a disconnect–where’s my fur? Where are my ears? Where is my tail? (and this would later be labeled as dissociation and dysphoria, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real)
Not only that, sometimes my first response to things is ‘normal’, and sometimes it is to hiss, to purr, to arch my back, to mimic the birdcall to chase the rabbit to run from the car.
I feel my fur, my tail, my ears, overlaying my human body. Seeing a margay for the first time was like looking in a second mirror. In all the ways that matter to me, I am a margay.
And I was abused for it. She told me, “you are a cat,” and I agreed, and she twisted it around into just a game and you’re not a human so I can hurt you and you’re weaker than me so I can hurt you and but you’re delusional for believing me.
I have never felt completely ‘human’, and I have always connected very much to animals.
When I was five, I was nominated as a semifinalist for an award for helping animals.
When I was eight, I understood the distinction between empathy and sympathy by saying “empathy is what I feel about animals, sympathy is what I feel for humans.” I ran a fully active online animal rights group and argued eight people into becoming vegan or vegetarian.
I have always known that people hurt animals (and that people hurt me, and that I was an animal, and that these things aren’t connected to me but they’re connected in the minds of the people doing the hurting). There is a reason that dehumanization is seen as cruel and oppressive. Once you see a person as an animal, you stop caring about them, because you don’t care about animals. (The same thing happens, equally obviously, to disabled people and children–it is strange, how easily “not as intelligent in the ways that we care about, different senses and perceptions, weaker than us, or not strong in the right ways, too different” becomes bad, becomes repugnant, becomes cruelty that you are complicit in despite turning up your nose at)
When I was twelve, I cared, but I was suicidal, and I couldn’t do anything anymore except for cry and cut myself and wonder why can’t I help them anymore, why am I bad like this, why don’t I care enough, why can’t I just die already.
Talking about animal rights with my friends is always a strange experience, because I am the only one who agrees with it, and yet they are all animal-lovers who are repulsed by cruelty.
The difference is that they are also repulsed by people pointing out their complicity in the cruelty. The difference is that I know I can hold guilt without dying. Society doesn’t want you to know that, your brain doesn’t want you to know that, your entire being–dare I say your humanity?–screams at the idea of guilt, but it’s true. Shame is what they try to give you, and that is what you cannot live with.
Let me ask you: where is your criteria for who matters?
Do pigs matter? Do dogs matter? Do toddlers matter?
(They are similar in the ways that matter: they can all feel things and communicate their feelings, although none can use language; they can all learn; they all experience happiness; they all experience pain and sadness; they play games, they love, they cry. And yet we have decided, as a society: pigs are the dirt of the earth; dogs are sweet and lovely, but are generally not extensively mourned; three-year olds are by far the most important, as long as acknowledging them doesn’t make us confront any of that uncomfortable guilt that comes with acknowledging the developing world.)
Do dolphins matter? Do schizophrenic people matter? Do elephants matter? Do I matter?
(We are not all similar, yet you see the point: we feel pain differently, we feel happiness differently, but we do feel. we communicate, even if you can’t understand us. we love; we are happy; we are sad; we feel pain and pleasure. we are capable of horrible things and wonderful ones; not all of us are considered human.)
The effective altruism movement gave me anxiety and scrupulosity spirals for months, almost re-awakening my eating disorder, curled up into a ball of but eating is basically murder because the money that gave me one meal could have bought 10 meals for children in the developing world.
Then I found ACE–then I discovered, you can save 14 animals for just one dollar.
And what I felt, it wasn’t anxiety, it wasn’t guilt and shame and fear, it was awe and wonder and empowerment, because I can save 14 animals!
It felt like, I have been working my entire life to save animals (to save people like me, because animals are people and I am an animal), and here it is, I can. I can do something to help them. I can do something to save them. And that’s how I understood–this is what the movement is. It’s not about guilt–it’s about the amazement and hope of I can save lives.
I read books and I want to scream. I want to claw away at my skin, with real claws, not blunt fingernails, tear it off. I see myself in the characters: the dissociation, the escapism, the desire and the need and the trying desperately to make the need go away because it doesn’t work, it will never work, all it does is mark you as not-normal, so you try to hide in yourself and make yourself disappear. You shut yourself up, repress and disconnect, in the name of selflessness, of protecting the people around you from you. And it doesn’t work. It never works. Or, it does, but when it works, it works too well and makes everything worse. It never makes you happy. But I don’t always see myself in the text of the situation, and I am afraid to talk about my identification, as if saying I relate, this is me, this is what I have done, will be perceived maliciously as if I am taking over, so I do not even comment on fanfiction and blog posts, just copy them into my journal o quotes.
This is what books do, for me, this is what they always have done: they make me imagine what it would be like to transform into a cat, for the first time in years since I have tamped down, hidden, repressed, that desire–no, that need. They talk about my feelings, the way that high schoolers who don’t look right, don’t feel right, the ways we all self-destruct and hide from our needs, the ways that nonhumans exist and think and feel, the ways that my brain glitches and cracks and screams and self-destruct, and none of it is quite right but it’s all I have, because I need stories. Books have made me delusional; books have saved my life. And sometimes when I read them, I see what I am missing, what I am missing because of the things I need that aren’t okay, aren’t allowed, aren’t even always possible.
I doodle cats on my homework before even realizing what I’m doing, and then I glance down absentmindedly, burst into tears because I cannot stand it, go home to gaze at the faces of kitten Pepper and cat Lion, and envy them so much for just existing as they are. I see their faces and I ache because I want it, I want what they have so effortlessly, I want to be able to purr and meow and walk on four legs and scratch and bite without training myself ever-so-carefully, practicing for weeks, days, years, trying to teach my human body how to do it, but also training my animal brain how to not-do it, how to smile carefully and use words and not act too weird where people might see me, and I want things that I cannot want (I want to be small, I want to have fur, I want to have large eyes and paws that can rotate 180 degrees to climb up trees and then back down, headfirst, I want to look in a mirror and feel a connect with who I see there).
I shave my legs for the first time for a chorus concert, trying not to cry, watching the closest thing I will ever have to fur fall to the floor in tiny, thin clumps.
I hide from my reflection. I want, desperately, more than anything in this entire universe, to become a cat. I never grew out of wanting to play-pretend, except that this doesn’t feel like playing pretend, it’s not a delusion with that sneaking back-of-my-mind knowledge that it’s not real. It’s immediate and important and necessary, I want to be a cat I need to be a cat, I need this more than I have ever needed anything in my entire life. I spent three years in an eating-disordered dreamworld of repressed hunger and need. It is hard to describe that gnawing starvation that turns into utter binging because you cannot control your hungers to someone who has not experienced it. And yet those needs are still secondary–more than food, more than water, I need two things: to not-be-alone, and to be a margay. And one of those is achievable, and one of them isn’t, and I don’t know how to come to terms with that.
Am I really an animal? I don’t think I’ll ever truly know. But this is what I do know: for two years (three?), I wasn’t dysphoric, laughed at my past self for being so silly as to believe that I was an animal, and those were the worst years of my life, those were the years where I counted out all the pills in the house and made funeral plans (give all my money to charity; hire my friends to sing; make me into a tree, because even in death i didn’t want to be human), cut and starved and cried myself to sleep every night. So this much is what I know: being allowed to be an animal–or, more accurately, an animal-person, because my experience of being animal is tied together in a million ways with the ways that animals are people who are treated like not-people and the ways that framing my life with models and narratives is a human thing and the way I speak in words and think in feelings, the way that I am not human not animal somewhere in-between–it feels like some of the weight lifts off my chest. Is it a delusion, a hallucination, a depersonalization, a metaphor taken too literally, an extension of a childhood spent psychotic? Who cares? This is what I know: when I bike fast enough, I feel my fur rippling in the wind, and for once everything in the world feels like it might be okay.
This is what being an animal-person means to me: it means that, even on a cocktail of antidepressants and antipsychotics and antianxiety medication, even with supportive family and friends, even with the best therapist I could ask for, even with writing as an outlet–I will still look down and feel a deep wrongness at my skin, I will still dissociate when I look in the mirror, I will still get random intrusive thoughts about needing to destroy my body, rip off chunks of flesh, claw my way out of the pit in my stomach and drop this body like a shell, I will still consider suicide because there is no other way out of this body that is so intrinsically not mine, this species that is destroying my kin with its ideas of superiority. It means that, when I have bad years, I cut and starve and puke and cry, panic and scream and rave and hallucinate. Being an animal-person means trauma.
(To those of you who will read this and say that I’m batshit insane: yes, that’s the point, I’m glad you’re paying attention.
To those of you who will read this and conclude that I’m too crazy to matter, to be allowed to define my own story, write my own narrative, title this essay animality instead of schizophrenia: fuck you.)
This is what being an animal-person means to me: it means I have empathy, incredible empathy, for the plight of other people trapped in a world that doesn’t think of them as people, other nonhumans and other dysphorics and other neurodivergents and, yes, other animals; it means that I experience the world as a primarily sensory being, without the world filtered through words until I choose them to translate my experiences; it means I get huge amounts of joy from small pleasures like hands on tree bark and teeth biting into food, it means I get to experience the richness and vividness of life and pay attention to all of it, it means I can nuzzle and purr at my moirail and she will cuddle me and pet my fur, it means I can bond with her over wings and fur and being not-quite-human and trying to fit in and not always succeeding, it means I can foster kittens and connect with them and understand them, and it means I get to read and write and draw and sing and listen to stories. It means I can try to help, to make up, in some small way, for the wrongs not-quite-my species can create in this world. It means I get to experience the liminal space, not human not animal but something between the two, or maybe combining them, constantly shifting, transforming, intertwining, becoming something–someone–new, a perpetual motion machine of animality and humanity weaving together, understanding things instinctively that most humans and most animals will not, without the strange in-between experience that is my life.
(To those of you who will read this and say that none of those are really inherently animal things, or even animal-person things: I know. But to me, in my narrative, in my web of connections and love and being, they are. They may not be for other people, I’m not here to tell your story, I’m here to tell mine.)
This is what being an animal-person means to me: playing with an ocelot figurine in the bathtub every night when I am 3. giving away my birthday money to animal charities when I am 5. telling my friends I am a werecat, transforming at midnight at the full moon, when I am 7, and believing it myself because the alternative–humanity–is too painful. realizing when I am 9 that I am not in fact a cat in any meaningful way, but still wanting to be one, connecting more with my kittens than my friends, becoming suicidal, roleplaying warrior cats online where I can pretend to be a cat, going vegetarian even though meat makes me feel like myself because I can’t bear to hurt any other animals. discovering the word “therian” when I am 11, and instantly knowing, calling myself feline therian: ocelot–no, oncilla?–no, margay. i’m a margay, looking at a picture of a margay for the first time and writing bad poetry about what it’s like to see yourself, not just see your body but see your self, for the first time, recognizing yourself in a photograph 11 years later than you were supposed to. naming myself, Sofia, at age 13, realizing that I’m allowed to be a person. now, age 15, heart still too sensitive, writing this, this confused mess of here is what being an animal-person means to me.
(To those of you who will read this and say I’m young: I know. Perhaps someday I will be old, perhaps I will die before then. Perhaps things will change. But I will not refrain from writing just because I am young. I have always been young, so far. I am young and confused and crazy and animalistic, dehumanized, othered, and I am trying to learn to extend myself the same empathy, the same love that I extend to everyone else, and that starts with recognizing myself: my name is Sofia, and I am a margay, and that matters.)
In all the ways that matter, I have always been a person, and I have always been an animal.
(To those of you who might read this and recognize yourself: Hello.)