Margaret Atwood, a Canadian poet, essayist, and literary critic, is a staunch defender of animal rights. While she has written on a variety of topics, there is no question that her commitment to environmentalism and social justice strongly influence her work. Her poem Dreams of the Animals is a particularly forceful plea for greater attention to the rights of living beings that don’t walk upright and drive automobiles. Dreams of the Animals “humanizes” animals by suggesting that they, like homo sapiens, dream, and that they would strongly prefer to not be captured and confined in man-made artifices like zoos. With regard to the suggestion that animals dream – a largely-accepted notion – she notes that the subject of those dreams may involve freedom from exploitation, as in the following stanzas from this poem:
Mostly the animals dream
of other animals each
according to its kind . . .
Sometimes the animals dream of evil
in the form of soap and metal
but mostly the animals dream
of other animals
There are exceptions:
the silver fox in the roadside zoo
dreams of digging out
and of the baby foxes, their necks bitten
the caged armadillo
near the train
station, which runs
all day in figure eights . . .
Only in our nightmares, Atwood would seem to suggest, would we, people, dream of confinement, or of being ensnared in a trap. Furthermore, while humans can choose to be the subject of experiments to test the efficacy of a new consumer product, animals do not enjoy such options, and almost certainly would prefer to opt out of such uses.
The main idea of Dreams of the Animals, then, is the quest to eliminate exploitation of animals by humans and to recognize that animals have as much right to inhabit the land as do the people who routinely deny them that freedom.