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Wendy Were - Animal Writes Warrior

Wendy Were yesterday ... "a toddler has an innate desire to [connect with animals] but I think as we grow older, we disconnect in some way." Inset, Snuffleupagus, who died earlier this year.
Photo: Jon Reid

May 10, 2008

Wendy Were, head of of the Sydney Writers' Festival, has a passion for animals that shapes her connection with literature, writes Sharon Verghis.

Wendy Were lives a life of the mind, is immersed in a world where ideas and words and abstract issues - social justice, feminism, racism, creativity - are key currency. But there's another, private world she moves in, and it's the kingdom of animals. Here, all things winged, furred, shelled and clawed hold sway.

Were, 34, a West Australian academic who was appointed head of the Sydney Writers Festival in 2006, is a lifelong animal lover - she describes this private passion as "something pure", almost an obsession. She talks passionately about animals as sentient, conscious beings, is quietly sorrowful as she recalls putting a trapped rabbit out of its misery, laughs as she recalls the personalities and quirks of pets long gone, and bonding with the famously private author J.M. Coetzee over a shared love of a stray dog. Is she a dog person or a cat person? "Both. I love the glorious, incredible love dogs provide, and I also have a great respect for catty hauteur." Add pet lambs, pigs, sheep and goats to this roll call. You suspect Were has never met a thing with claws or fur or whiskers she didn't like.

This passion has its roots in an early childhood spent on her grandfather's sheep farm in New Zealand's South Island, in a tiny town called Mataura. Were was born in north-west Western Australia but her family, including an older brother and sister, moved there when she was two weeks old (she lived there until she was six). A key figure was her Scottish grandfather - an "ancient", benevolent, bagpipe-playing sheep farmer who managed to marry the pragmatic aspects of his profession with a deep kindness and compassion for animals. "He instilled those values in me. The fact you could develop relationships with animals, that was something that struck me as young child. I was taught never to be cruel."

Were recalls a bucolic childhood of roaming the farm and befriending its non-human occupants. "There were always animals around me. There were pet lambs, working dogs and house dogs, we always had family pets. We had goats, too - I loved the goats. They're very intelligent. They'd be behind an electric fence, and they knew about the fence, and they'd watch and wait for people to come and get shocked. One of the favourite stories in my family is one about the pigs. We had a big wooden sty, and I would go there all the time, and one time, this pig shot its nose out and got me in the face. So of course, all the jokes were, 'ha ha, Wendy's been kissed by a big old pig'."

She laughs as she recalls returning to the sheep farm when she was 17, and the cultural gap she experienced. "I'd become a vegetarian. One of my cousins looked around and said" - she puts on a stilted Kiwi accent - " 'so which one is the VEGETARIAN?" She chuckles. "It was like, 'so which one's the alien?' ".

So strong was her passion for animals that Were initially had her heart set on becoming a vet, but narrowly missed out on attaining the entry score. She is candid about how she may not have been able to cope with the emotional strain of treating animal cruelty cases, in any case. She prizes, however, her ability to always be shocked. "I did my PhD on [Nobel laureate] Toni Morrison, and she's described some of the horrors of the civil rights movement, school buses being overturned and set on fire, and so on. She said 'I always want to be shocked, I never want to [lose that]'. It's the same thing for me. If you become immune to that kind of horror, it's a sad thing."

A measure of a civilised society is the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Were sees it as connected to a wider social breakdown. "That recent story of the woman whose dog was run over deliberately [intentionally by three young men] ... " her voice trails off. "It's something that I cannot reconcile. It is just inconceivable."

Also inconceivable is a life without animals in it. Even when she travels abroad, she finds herself seeking out animals, patting dogs in Paris, befriending strays in New Caledonia. She sounds bereft as she talks about having to leave her dog, a black Labrador cross called J. Edgar Hoover, in Western Australia with her partner. J. Edgar's predecessor Snuffleupagus died earlier this year. "It's the first time in all my life that I'm living [without a pet]." What's the story behind the name? She laughs. "As a puppy, he used to raid the laundry for women's underwear."

Were's private passion occasionally intersects with her other world of words and ideas, from shaping her programming for the Sydney Writers Festival; one of the guests is the intrepid adventure writer Peter Heller, author of The Whale Warriors, to connecting with the likes of Coetzee. She speaks about the connections and relationships between words and animals, the way we react to, and portray, these relationships in writing (as a child, she says she was powerfully moved by Richard Adams's seminal Watership Down and Jack London's White Fang).

Animals represent a powerful central narrative in so many children's classics - think Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, or Steinbeck's The Red Pony - but are largely absent from adult literature, Orwell's Animal Farm aside. "I do think it goes back to that relationship that children have with animals," she says. "A toddler has an innate desire to [connect with animals] but I think as we grow older, we disconnect in some way. There are animals in adult writing, but it's not as overt."

There are powerful exceptions - she mentions Coetzee's Disgrace, and the author's use of the image of caged dogs in it to represent South Africa's dark politics. Were built an unlikely bond with the Nobel prize-winning author when they were both invited by the French Government to the New Caledonia Arts Festival last November. She chuckles as she recalls how it all began - on a dark night, when a mangy, starving puppy appeared at the door of her straw hut. "I befriended the dog, used to steal food for it from the buffet, we'd go for walks on the beach. One night, I was wondering where my dog was, and I saw two figures in the distance on the beach, with the dog bounding along behind them. As I drew nearer, I saw it was John Coetzee and his partner Dorothy. And I thought, of course, who else? At dinner that night, I was sitting near him and I said, 'I believe we're sharing a dog. And he said, 'what, that mangy mutt?' ". She laughs.

She first got to know Coetzee a few years ago when he was a guest at the Perth Festival. "I know he's a vegan, and he has the same kind of politics that I have in terms of animals. He gives voice to them in Disgrace, in Elizabeth Costello, and in its precursor, The Lives of Animals. He's a very private man, but I think from reading his work, it's fairly clear what his thoughts and views are."

Festival guest Jeanette Winterson is another writer who shares a passion for animals, speaks about how she seeks out their company wherever she goes. Do academics and writers, those who live an intense, often solitary life of the mind, have a special relationship with animals? Were thinks so - the companionship aspect is crucial.

The battle over the moral and ethical rights of animals is getting increasingly heated, given momentum by radical animal activists such as Ingrid Newkirk, or through the passionate treatises of academics such as Peter Singer or Dame Gillian Beer (Were is a fan of Beer, who has written widely on evolutionary science and anthropomorphism). Another festival guest, Peter Heller, who recounts his experience on board an anti-whaling ship pursuing the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctica in The Whale Warriors, explores these new battle lines very well, Were says.

"One of the big conundrums is that it's become a war between people, between these vegan eco-pirates and whalers," she says. Asked about some of the more radical animal liberation tactics adopted by the likes of Newkirk, Were says one good thing is the way the shock factor of first-hand accounts cuts through our detachment. Too often, animal cruelty disappears into the culture's "white noise", she says.

The artistic director sighs as she talks about her unhappily dogless situation, but perks up as she outlines her steps to remedy it in the near future. "I'm so time poor. But after the festival, I've put my name down to walk dogs for people who are too old to do it."

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