BEWILDERNESS: Reality Fiction Bred While Working in Animal Shelters by Kat Brown
Updated: Aug 12
Your image of an animal shelter may be many things, depending upon your perspective and life experience. You might think of a place for kittens to be adopted by happy kids, and you would be right. You might conjure a humane sanctuary for lost or abandoned dogs who are adopted by families and individuals who live out long and fulfilling years together, and again you would be right. You might picture the dog collector, or the experts called when a neighborhood nuisance animal gets out of hand, the person who many times has saved the day with all sorts of common conundrums—kittens stuck up in the tree, snakes let loose in the house by mistake, a skinny domesticated rabbit or a canary with a broken wing found in your yard. Most of us don’t know how to deal with these creatures, but thankfully there are people who do.
We admire these people and see their work as important, but most of us do not know them, and rarely do we get a view of the much weirder, wilder, and astonishing worlds of the animal shelters where they work. By definition, an animal shelter is a place where human lives intersect with animal lives, and today many humans have an ambivalent relationship with animals, who are sometimes adored family members, sometimes lovely wild visitors to our gardens, sometimes hissing, quarrelsome, loud or scary creatures we simply want gone and out of sight. But humans who work in animal shelters cannot avert their gaze. They see the complexity, sweetness and cruelty of our human relationships with animals close up, and definitely personal.
Every now and then one of these people is also a poet and writer, someone who is called to bear witness. Author Kat Brown worked in an animal shelter in Santa Cruz, California with suburban and rural areas, and later as Assistant Director at the city shelter in San Francisco two hours north. The unforgettable book she has woven from those experiences is fittingly titled Bewilderness. Over thirty years, she not only found homes for kittens and dogs, but was the person asked to deal with the strange, the unpredictable, the hilarious, the confounding and the heartbreaking. Bewilderness not only draws back the curtain on the unseen world of animal shelters, but also gives us an uncanny mirror into our human world as we travail the confusion and heartbreak of disconnected modern lives.
Brown’s stories are epic and unforgettable—always moving, full of visceral moments that have stayed with the writer, and in the telling will stay forever with this reader. We encounter not only lost dogs and cats and their human companions, but every other kind of animal in a town or city—in Golden Gate Park, the municipal zoo, exotic animal parks, urban hotels and mountain hideaways. We meet handsome cowboys, troubled professionals, urban immigrants, people living in cars with their beloved animal companions, and humans of every stripe whose worlds have been changed in profound ways by the animals in their lives.
In addition to compelling storytelling and vivid characters, Bewilderness is a book that often inspires and heals. The author is at heart a philosopher, a student of Eastern philosophy and a lifelong practitioner of Tai Chi. She sees the essential mystery at the core of life in our human relationships with animals, and her understanding is subtle, humble, intelligent and graceful. Her book shows an unwillingness to offer simple answers to complex, multi-layered issues—which is often so hard to do, but is perhaps humanity’s only true answer. Her writing teaches us how to live in the essential messiness, violence, pain and confusion of our world today--and to still not look away.
As I read Bewilderness, I thought often of our human tendency to disdain or vilify the Other, those who are different from us and assumed to be less than and not worthy of compassion or concern, or not even to have sensations or feelings. For much of humanity this applies to most animals today, with the exception of those accepted into the home as family members. Of course, this was not always the case for our human ancestors, and is still not the case for many indigenous communities, who understand the animals with whom we share the Earth to be vital, life-giving, sensitive and powerful companions and often our teachers.
Most modern humans have not only forgotten this, but we have also become tragically expert at "Othering" members of our own species. Humans who are different from us are regularly slipped into the category of Other, not considered entirely human, at best ignored, often feared, hated and attacked. In Bewilderness I found myself witnessing our society's Others again and again, both human and animal, and I was moved and profoundly grateful. Nothing about the human relationship with animals is clear-cut or easy, and once again I appreciated Brown's unwillingness to settle for simple answers to profound societal and political questions. What she offers is compassion and truth-telling in elegant, thoughtful language.
At one point Brown tells her animal shelter staff, who had worked hard to unsuccessfully save an unfamiliar type of animal, that instead of throwing up their hands at the complexities, they will work on the puzzle. “We will work to expose this mystery,” she tells them, “not to solve it.” She writes that we must be, “Unafraid today that beneath it all there is a jewel: the testament may be a dark song, rhythmic hint...that comes with paying attention, listening to the humble, daring to witness the other.” In my view, this could be the ethos of a life well-lived.
Some humans choose to not, or simply cannot, look away. They live in the in-between world where we meet the Other. Sometimes they bring back to us what they have learned. Bewilderness is an important offering that helps us to see with new eyes. A fascinating, funny and often astonishing book, readers with a long interest in animals as well as those who have rarely thought about them will come away a wiser and more enlightened citizen of our embattled and gorgeous Earth.
For more on Bewilderness: Reality Fiction Bred While Working in Animal Shelters, see Kat Brown's website.
Kat Brown by Devi Pride