Jennings Michael Burch’s 1984 semi-autobiographical book “They Cage the Animals at Night” is a retelling of the author’s childhood experiences in being repeatedly housed in and transferred among orphanages, foster homes, and other institutions, beginning when he was only eight years old. The use of that particular phrase for the title sets the bleak tone of a book that actually does contain some positive, inspiring portraits of individuals who helped the young boy as he grew, despite the dismal failures of the “system” in which he was placed.
It is no secret that conditions inside orphanages can be bleak, as well as inside some foster homes – at least in the cases of foster parents who approached their situation in purely monetary terms and provided little or no emotional support to the children placed in their charge. Consequently, nighttime, when darkness replaces light, and loneliness increases, can be a terrifying time of each day for these children. The title of the memoir, “They Cage the Animals at Night,” comes from an exchange young Jennings had with one particular nun in one of the orphanages in which he was placed. In answer to the child’s questions regarding the treatment of animals – in effect, why they are placed in cages -- she responds: “Well…We don’t want to, Jennings, but we have to. You see the animals that are given to us we have to take of. If we didn’t cage them up in one place, we might lose them, they might get hurt or damaged. It’s not the best thing, but it’s the only way we have to take care of them.”
It is entirely probable that Jennings is using the story of the treatment of the animals as a metaphor for the experiences of the children placed in orphanages. Just as with the homeless animals, the orphaned children must be kept locked up at night to prevent the loss of any of them, and to guard against injury. It is a dismal existence, made far worse when placed in institutions or with families for which his happiness and welfare were afterthoughts.