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From Animal Odd Couples to Oddkin: Probing Visual Representations of Interspecies Friendship through Critical Cuteness

Justyna Włodarczyk


The article explores the link between cuteness and animality, focusing on depictions of so-called animal odd couples, with emphasis on the effects cuteness may have for manipulating and flattening the life stories of real animals and obscuring the trauma that leads to the creation of cute imagery. After analyzing the vision of interspecies harmony in Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, the article locates a shift away from the dominance of the sublime and toward the cute in visual depictions of peaceful interspecies encounters in American culture. Through a reading of three different versions of one narrative, James Oliver Curwood’s Nomads of the North and the novel’s two film adaptations, the article traces a genealogy of cuteness in representations of interspecies friendships and proposes a methodology called critical cuteness that makes it possible to alleviate the flattening of animals’ stories effected by the aesthetics of cuteness. The methodology is based on exposing the incongruity between the affective functions of animal imagery and their ethological interpretation and on recovering the individual animals’ life stories. Finally, the article suggests that the “cutification” of interspecies relations may be a strategy for diffusing the systematic violence meted out against wildlife during the colonization of the North American continent.

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1One of the most popular types of cute animal content available online are visuals— photos and short videos or reels—of peaceful and harmonious interspecies encounters: cats and dogs snuggling up together, birds and monkeys grooming one another, ducklings and puppies playing, etc. These can easily be found on personal social media accounts on platforms like Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram (#oddcouples, #unusualfriends), which are mined by websites such as Buzzfeed, The Dodo, and Bored Panda that turn these visuals into heartwarming stories and playlists of interspecies love and devotion. Typical headlines for stories of this type can read: “The Time A Cat Adopted Four Baby Hedgehogs,” “A Crow Feeds a Kitten and They Become Best Friends,” or “15 Unusual Animal Friendships that Will Melt Your Heart.” While such stories and visuals flourish in cyberspace, they can also be found in printed form: glossy coffee table books (e.g., Jennifer S. Holland’s Unlikely Friendships) and children’s books (e.g., primatologist Francine Patterson’s book Koko’s Kitten about a gorilla who wants a kitten as a pet). Bearing in mind the longstanding use of animal characters in texts intended for a juvenile audience, it is not surprising that cuteness is also an aesthetic that predominates in animated children’s movies—and that Disney films feature prominently in most of the influential accounts at theorizing cuteness—but it is the proliferation of these short videos and photos of real as opposed to animated animals that is characteristic of the digital age.

2The 2013 BBC documentary Animal Odd Couples, devoted to pursuing real-life examples of interspecies friendships, explicitly frames the search as inspired by online cute content: “Millions of us watch clips of different species that normally wouldn’t come together sharing what looks like friendship, affection, and even love” (Animal Odd Couples). In the documentary, wildlife biologist Liz Bonnin sets off to investigate whether animal odd couples really do exist; her quest is framed as a pursuit of the biological mechanisms behind such friendships. In this article, my goal is somewhat different. While not denying that interspecies bonds of affection can most certainly form among animals, my interest is in the representational strategies used to portray them and in the viewing strategies used to consume cute animal imagery. I would like to historicize and contextualize the emergence of cuteness in depictions of interspecies relations, that is, the turn “from awe to aww” with the goal of developing a methodology that makes it possible to interact with cute animal content while resisting its pull toward superficiality and simplification. In order to do this, I move between contemporary online content and much older visual and literary representations of peaceful interspecies relations, trying to both create a timeline of when cuteness becomes the dominant aesthetic for depicting interspecies interactions and to correlate its emergence with shifts in major cultural discourses. I suggest that engaging in critical cuteness by probing and contextualizing cute imagery, especially through recovering the actual stories of the “cutified” animals, is a strategy for turning the superficiality of animal odd couples into the more intellectually generative category of Harawayan oddkin.

3The connection between cuteness and animality is implicit in most of the theoretizations of cuteness that have been published to date. It was ethologist Konrad Lorenz who first suggested that infantile features trigger caregiving responses in adults and, as such, may be an element of a mechanism that secures the survival of human babies (Burkhardt 272-73). Biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s famous 1979 essay on the gradual “cutification” of Mickey Mouse uses a cartoon rodent as the primary example of the process. The cuteness of baby animals is assumed to be a given in Sianne Ngai’s groundbreaking analysis of contemporary aesthetic categories and is explored in greater detail by scholars who straddle animal studies and studies of digital culture (see Dale et al; Maddox). Cuteness is usually defined as both an aesthetic category and an affective response: the “aww” reaction tied to the physical desire to touch and cuddle. The current consensus in research on animals and cuteness suggests that there exist certain features in nonhuman animals that make some appear cuter than others, that features associated with neoteny almost automatically evoke the cute response (kittens are cuter than adult cats), that body shape is significant (pandas are cuter than sharks) and that the potential of tactile contact plays into the cute response (fluffy and furry animals and cuter than scaly and hairless ones).

4There is no consensus, however, on the political potential of cuteness for nonhuman animals. On the one hand, cute animals are objectified; their powerlessness is aestheticized, and the desire to touch and cuddle evoked by cuteness may lead to disregard for the cute animal’s agency and even to abuse. For example, pioneer of animal studies James Serpell has convincingly argued that the trend of breeding brachycephalic dogs, whose welfare is by default compromised because of their physical features, is linked to the growing obsession with cuteness. On the other hand, as suggested by Gary Sherman and Jonathan Haidt, cute entities are drawn into our circle of moral concern; therefore, cuteness can serve as a form of protection against abuse and, for example, in the case of cutified cartoon representations of animals, a form of consciousness-raising related to the needs of real animals. By the same logic, cuteness has been employed politically to argue for animal welfare and conservation: Disney’s Bambi has been read as changing American public opinion on the ethics of hunting (Lutts; Hastings). However, cuteness as a tool of political activism, can be a double-edged sword. While the strategy of expanding the circle of moral concern may have broad public appeal, it has also been criticized by animal studies and posthumanist thinkers as reproducing outdated humanist paradigms, i.e., making us care only about those animals we deem to be the most like us (Wolfe). Secondly, cuteness is associated with artifice and fakery, and, as such, it can evoke suspicion (Ngai 24; Genosko 3). As an aside, such arguments echo evaluations of nineteenth-century sentimentality, as expressed in the debates about, for example, the power of sentimental literature to change the political status quo (Berlant), reminding us that cuteness and sentimentality share certain features, among them the capability of producing an affective bodily reaction in the viewer or reader: the shedding of a tear or the desire to hug and cuddle, the aww response.

5Figure 1. In 1942 Walt Disney allowed the USDA/National Forest Service rights to use the images of Bambi characters in the informational campaign to prevent forest fires. Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY

1. Animal Odd Couples

6A possible reason why animal odd couples are such a pervasive component of the aesthetic of cuteness is that they bring out the potential uncanniness of the cute object. This uncanniness is explored in great detail by Simon May, a scholar who, in The Power of Cute (2019), provides a reading of cuteness that diagnoses it as an aesthetic that goes beyond infantilization and objectification of its subjects, arguing that cute objects can use their status as cute in powerful ways. May conceptualizes cuteness as existing on a spectrum: from “the charming world of the helpless and harmless,” (22) akin to sweet, and exemplified for May by “kittens playing with balls of yarn” (23) to the “uncanny cute,” which enters into a dialogue between “the unthreatening and the menacing, the present and the withdrawn, the visible and the invisible” (25). The uncanny cute contains within itself both vulnerability and violence, suggesting the possible reversal of the power dynamic between the powerless object and the powerful viewer; this is why the animal odd couple is much closer on the cuteness spectrum to the uncanny cute than to the innocent sweet. In representations of odd couples, the potential reversal of the power dynamic between the cute object and the viewer is transposed onto the relations between the cute animals. What makes viewers particularly mesmerized with images of interspecies friendships is the difference in strength between the two animals: one is usually a gentle giant who could easily crush the other. Koko could easily squeeze the kitten to death; yet, she does not. The feline surrogate mother could kill her foster hedgehog offspring, and yet, she does not. Even if there is no great size difference, the two animals can belong to species that are usually engaged in predator-prey relations or at least in an age-old antagonism, like cats and dogs. What makes their harmonious coexistence so enthralling is the reversal of that dynamic, but also the possibility that the reversal could be temporary, that it could be reversed yet again.

7One could argue that the animal odd couple resembles Donna Haraway’s figure of “generative oddkin” from Staying with the Trouble, where Haraway argues for entangled alliances across species lines that redefine kinship in ways that are not based on blood relations (4). Koko and her kitten (named All Ball by Koko herself) could be Harawayan oddkin: joined in a nonreproductive but affective relationship that challenges dominant notions of what love is. However, while the potential is there, this is not the level on which such imagery operates in popular culture: it does not undermine the frameworks underlying the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene. On the contrary, as Allison Page has argued in the essay “This Baby Sloth Will Inspire You to Keep Going,” the consumption of cute animal imagery is engaged in strengthening a neoliberal order that blurs the line between work and pleasure. The most radical (and popular) application of cute images of interspecies harmony is to further a basic anti-racist and anti-war message: if predator and prey can get along, so can we (humans). Beatrice Marovich, a scholar of religious studies, notes the connection between contemporary animal videos and the biblical image of the peaceable kingdom, a connection I explore further on in this article, suggesting that animal videos function as “utopian figures” of interspecies harmony. However, conscious of the uses of such videos, Marovich also notes that they are “underwritten with dystopian possibilities” (95). Cute animal visuals are usually read in the tradition of animal allegories, understood as stories that use animal characters to teach readers a message about human nature. However, this message is predicated upon a flattening of the stories of the individual animals, upon decontextualization and dehistoricization of the mise-en-scène, upon the denial of human involvement in its staging and, quite often, upon a misreading of animal behavior. All in all, despite being delivered by animals, the pedagogical message of such visuals is usually a very anthropocentric one.

8Simon May somewhat jokingly comments on the proliferation of cute images by speaking of the “survival of the cutest” (151-57). Odd couples hold the potential for bringing together cuteness and survival in a way that is not tongue-in-cheek, for the reason that brings together the two cute animal subjects is usually the experience of trauma, most often human-inflicted trauma. Such trauma has been obliterated from the visuals but remains in the form of a trace that can be uncovered through careful readings rooted in a cultural materialist framework. In a sense, it haunts the visuals. Yet, noticing that requires forging a new strategy of consuming cuteness, one which—while not obliterating the affective aww and the pleasure associated with it—assumes the possibility of a more generative and reflective response. It is a strategy that follows the impulse of suspicion and probes the reasons for why the aww is often accompanied with disbelief. This is also a strategy that has to take into account the material existence of the actual animals used to create the cute visual and one that entails a basic understanding of animal behavior as a tool of critical cuteness.

  • 1 For a more general discussion of Disneyfication in the context of animals, see Rebecca Rose Stanton (...)

9To achieve this goal, one needs to begin by historicizing the development of the animal odd couple convention. Cuteness is not the only aesthetic that has been used to represent harmonious interspecies relations among non-human animals. It is possible to trace when and how cuteness becomes the dominant paradigm for representing odd couples and to identify patterns of changes as cuteness takes over. To achieve this goal, I would like to begin with an analysis of visual depictions of interspecies relations that do not rely on cuteness, and then to juxtapose three reiterations of the same narrative: James Oliver Curwood’s popular adventure novel Nomads of the North (1919) and its two film adaptations, the silent movie from 1920 produced by the author of the novel and the 1961 Disney version, titled Nikki: Wild Dog of the North. These three narratives can be read as subsequent rungs on the ladder of cuteness: with the novel just hinting at cute potential; the first film adaptation inserting elements of cuteness in a way that creates generic and aesthetic confusion; and the second movie consistently utilizing cuteness as an aesthetic strategy. It is, of course, not coincidental that Walt Disney’s studio is responsible for the cutified version of the movie, and the very term “the Disney version” has become synonymous with an aesthetics of cuteness.1

2. Before Cuteness: Peaceable Kingdom

10As the argument unfolds, it will become clear that as the aesthetic of cuteness takes over in the mid-twentieth century, humans become relegated outside of the frame of the image and their complicity in forcefully staging interspecies relationships is obscured, as is potential human-inflicted violence—what remains is dehistoricized and decontextualized cuteness. In the pre-cuteness era, stories of interspecies harmony set in North America were often meant to be read allegorically as praise for the American colonial project, eliciting awe of God, the power of humankind as God’s representatives on Earth and, as a corollary, of Americans’ power to tame the wild. Domestication and colonization have, in fact, long served as one another’s allegories, as argued by both animal studies scholars (Shukin) and feminist scholars, whose definition of domestication is tied to the spreading of domesticity (Kaplan). The assumed naturalness of interspecies friendships and the disappearance of the human from these visuals in the era of aww are an attempt at dehistoricizing and purifying visual representations of interspecies relations from the legacy of violence, quite often, though not exclusively, the violence of settler colonialism.

11Even though the word cute begins to be used in its current meaning already in the nineteenth century (Ngai 59), the dominant convention for representing interspecies harmony at the time was linked to the biblical concept of humankind’s stewardship over nature, derived in particular from the Book of Isaiah’s rendering of the vision of Eden after the second coming of Christ, where “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion, and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them” (King James Version, Isa. 11.6). This verse, along with the vision of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden from The Book of Genesis, inspired scores of painters over many centuries to create artworks that depict predator and prey species in peaceful coexistence. While there is nothing specifically American about the notion of interspecies harmony as presented in the Book of Isaiah, the most famous series of nineteenth-century paintings explicitly invoking the above passage was created by Quaker preacher and painter Edward Hicks as commentary on American history. Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom series consists of sixty-two paintings, created between 1820 and 1849, which all present variations on the same theme: various species of animals are depicted as coexisting peacefully and are usually accompanied by a small child. All of these visual representations are rooted in an explicitly Christian and anthropocentric framework: God is the guarantor of harmony between the animals, and it is his will and his decree that make it possible for the small child to lead the animals in a display of submission to God’s omnipotence: yielding one’s will and submitting to the power of Christ is the only strategy for achieving salvation. The human figure is thus God’s anointed and God’s representative, capable of achieving what seems akin to a miracle through yielding to God’s will.

12Figure 2. Edward Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, ca. 1834. Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY

  • 2 For a close analysis of the differences between the paintings in the series and the way in which th (...)
  • 3 For a chronologically organized exegesis of the theological interpretations of the “wolf and the la (...)

13Hicks’s most famous reiterations of the theme include a juxtaposition of two scenes: in the foreground, a small child is surrounded by various animals; most strikingly, the child has his arm around a full-grown male lion. In the background, a group of men in European clothing are gathered under an elm tree together with a group of Native Americans.2 Hicks is consciously creating an analogy between the biblical peaceable kingdom with its harmonious interspecies relations and the supposedly harmonious resolution of conflicts between settlers and Indigenous Peoples in the New World. In case the meaning is not clear enough, some versions of the painting—for example, the one held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art—include the following words: “The lion with the fatling on did move/A little child was leading them on in love;/When the great PENN his famous treaty made/With Indian chiefs beneath the Elm tree’s shade” (Tatham 44); this is an allusion to William Penn’s treaty with the Lenni Lenape (also known as the Delaware Indians) in 1682. The scenes not only feature human figures but also follow from the assumption that the animals are not acting aggressively because they are submitting to human dominion, in an act that recognizes and naturalizes human stewardship over all creation. Of course, within the framework of the series, America is the Garden of Eden, where such perfect harmony can be realized. Scenes like Hicks’s Peaceable Kingdom, even when human figures are absent from the frame, are allegories of humans’ relation to the natural world, while, as I have suggested before, cute animal pairings are usually read as allegories of human nature.3

14While criticism of Hicks’s sanitizing of the history of American settlement and of its misrepresentation as the fortunate and peaceful spreading of Christian values to the so-called savages is absolutely valid and rather obvious, one value statement that cannot be made about the paintings is that they are cute, despite containing two staple figures of cute imagery: babies and animals. Hicks’s paintings aim at eliciting awe and astonishment in the power of almighty God and of the human as God’s representative on earth; thus, the aesthetic is rooted in a Burkean vision of the sublime—not in cuteness. While Hicks’s theoretical naivety and technical simplicity may preclude the contemporary viewer’s experience of the sublime, the paintings—in their almost obsessive-compulsive similarity—were meant to convey the truth about God’s power and the new nation. As a devout Quaker, Hicks experienced guilt about engaging in painting, which could be seen as an ungodly activity, but he assuaged those feelings through the explanation that his artwork was not providing entertainment but spreading the truth about God’s power (Tatham 39, 46-48). In other words, he did not intend for these paintings to be cute: they were meant to elicit awe.

15It is also worth adding that the nineteenth century was a period of the emergence of the circus in the United States and a time of the merging of the traveling menagerie with the circus (Davis 15-35). Because circus performances from the very beginning evoked significant ambivalence as to their propriety and educational value (Mizelle 219-35), some circus owners and performers used scripture to ground and validate performances featuring wild animals. A particular type of sub-show that was justified in precisely this way was an exhibition in which different species of wild animals were displayed in a cage. During the act, a trainer would enter the cage, often with a small child. Circus historian John Culhane thus writes about how one such performer, Isaac Van Amburgh, popular between the 1830s and the 1850s, justified his shows:

Didn’t God say in Genesis 26 that He had made man in his own image and given him dominion over all the animals? Why then, it was a religious act for trained animals to kneel at his feet. And when Van Amburgh made a lion lie down with a lamb and then brought a child into the den, he was ‘completing the picture of the triumph of faith over the savage beast.’ (Culhane 20)

16Even well-known intellectuals, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, were in awe of these displays of harmonious predator-prey relations. Culhane quotes Hawthorne’s reaction to a show by Van Amburgh: “It is strange, though, to see how these wild beasts acknowledge and practice a degree of mutual forbearance, and of obedience to man, with their wild nature yet in them” (21). Even exhibits that did not include humans—like P.T. Barnum’s “Happy Family,” a “scene of domestic bliss [that] inverted ordinary relationships between predator and prey” (Davis 98)—were viewed as proof of the skill of the trainer who “commanded predator and prey animals to perform together in the biblically evocative... act” (Davis 161). In Civilized Creatures, Jennifer Mason sums up such exhibits by saying that “they celebrated humans’ growing mastery over creation by presenting an ostensible restoration of the natural world to its prelapsarian state through human, as opposed to divine, agency” (10).

17This theological dimension is specifically linked to sublime awe and is absent in displays of interspecies harmony staged through the aesthetics of cuteness. Sianne Ngai has described cuteness as antithetical to the theological dimension of the sublime, “unable to foster religious awe” (22). Ngai argues that in contrast “to the moral and theological resonances of the beautiful and the sublime,” the cute “revolves around a kind of inconsequentiality” (18). It is trivial, minor. When Elizabeth Legge describes the cuteness of Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog—a stainless steel sculpture of a pudgy dog with a button-like nose, imitating a child’s toy made out of a twisted balloon—she argues that, “through the mechanisms of the cute,” the awe of the sublime turns into the affective avocation “aww” (147). With traveling menageries and with Hicks’s paintings, we are still firmly within the realm of awe. With Curwood, we gradually move towards aww.

3. Nomads of the North

18The following analysis of James Oliver Curwood’s Nomads of the North and the novel’s two film adaptations serves not only as an illustration of how awe turns to aww as the same story is gradually transposed through the aesthetics of cuteness; it also makes it possible to trace how other elements of the visual rendering of the plot, supposedly coincidental and unrelated to cuteness, are in fact part and parcel of the aesthetic. Most importantly, it shows how cuteness obscures the very violence that leads to its creation. In the case of odd couples, this is often the violence of forced captivity and the events that lead up to it: the killing and capture of animals. Tracing how the same narrative gradually becomes cutified also makes it possible to reflect upon the visuality of cuteness. Curwood both authored the book and co-authored the script of the first film adaptation—yet, the film elicits the aww reaction to a greater extent than the book, though still to a lesser degree than the later Disney adaptation.

19James Oliver Curwood was an extremely popular writer in his heyday in the first decades of the twentieth century. Sometimes disparagingly referred to as a Jack London imitator (Brown 220), he built his literary career on combining two popular conventions: adventure stories involving animals set in the far north (Alaska and northern Canada) and highly melodramatic romance plots. Nomads of the North is one of Curwood’s many books that combine melodrama and adventure in the setting of the Canadian wilderness (Brégent-Heald). The novel overlays two plot lines: the story of the friendship between Neewa, the bear cub, and Miki, the homely-looking puppy, and the romance between the animals’ master, Challoner, and his love interest—Nanette. Challoner captures the bear cub, Neewa, after killing his mother and with the specific purpose of making a gift to his beloved Nanette, though he is also in need of bear meat and fat. Even before Challoner comes into possession of the cub, he plans on socializing the bear and the dog with hopes of entertaining his fiancée: “I’m going to pair you up with the cub, and tickle the girl to death” (32)—Challoner says to Miki upon seeing the tracks of a bear cub. The description of the killing of the female bear is emotionally evocative, without a doubt, but it is steeped in the heavy emotionality of sentimentality, not in the light-heartedness of cuteness. The separation of mother and child has been, after all, the key event in sentimental literature: evoking the female reader’s empathetic identification with the heroine’s plight, as described by scholars of nineteenth-century women’s fiction such as Jane Tompkins and Lauren Berlant. It is clear, however, that the separation of bear mother and bear cub is not analogous in its emotional aspects to the separation of mother and child in sentimental fiction, as the female bear’s killer, Challoner, becomes the main protagonist of the story, one for whom the reader cheers in his later adventures—a change in allegiances that would have been inconceivable in nineteenth-century sentimental fiction. Furthermore, Challoner retains the female bear’s pelt and takes it with him on his journey towards Nanette—an eerie reminder to Neewa of his mother’s fate. The bear cub is presented not as comprehending the finality of death and the full implications of Challoner’s actions but as sensing the uncanny quality of the pelt that the human has with him: “There was nothing of her but the patch of black skin—and the smell” (53). It is as if the dead mother’s presence haunts the story.

20There is, one may conclude, a surprising honesty in the novel about the human’s role in creating the preconditions of the interspecies friendship: not only does Challoner kill Neewa’s mother, he does so with the goal of staging entertainment for his girlfriend—women are apparently more prone to respond affectively to cute animals than men are. The scenes of cuteness that follow, when the animals find themselves alone in the wild after Challoner’s boat capsizes, are predicated upon human violence, though possible only after the animals are on their own, without human presence in the narrative framework; the participation of a grown human male in scenes of cuteness would have been inconceivable. These scenes are archetypal in providing a template of the types of interactions that we now define as cute and that flood our social media feeds: interspecies bonding through play, presented as a mix of clumsiness and gentleness, interspecies cuddling and snuggling up together, sleeping together, mutual grooming and food-sharing. A scene of Neewa and Miki playing together appears about a third into the book, and, quite undeniably, utilizes cuteness:

Miki rubbed up to him, and Neewa gave a chummy grunt. Then he rolled over onto his fat back and invited Miki to play. It was the first time; and with a joyous yelp Miki jumped into him. Scratching and biting and kicking, and interjecting their friendly scrimmage with ferocious growling on Miki’s part and pig-like grunts and squeals on Neewa’s, they rolled to the edge of the dip. (Curwood 110)

21After Neewa and Miki become separated for the first time, which happens when Miki, desirous of human contact, approaches humans who prove hostile and try to club him, the pup longs for being reunited with his bear friend, and this desire is expressed as a desire for physical contact: “He wanted Neewa again. He wanted to muzzle him with his nose and lick his face even though he did smell to heaven. He wanted to hear him grunt and squeal in his funny, companionable way; he wanted to hunt with him again, and play with him again, and lie down beside him in a sunny spot and sleep” (134). When the two are finally together again, the world seems right and complete: “And then Neewa lay down in the sun and Miki sprawled himself out beside him. After all, it was a funny world. It went to pieces now and then, but it always came together again. And to-day their world had thoroughly adjusted itself. Once more—they were chums and they were happy” (135).

  • 4 For an interesting variation on this theme, see the cover art of Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Book of (...)

22The state of interspecies harmony in the novel is presented as resulting from an act of human violence: interspecies friendship is a way of making the world right again after “it went to pieces”; it is both a form of bonding and a literal strategy of survival—the two young animals are on their own in the wilderness, and their ability to cooperate enables their survival: Miki lives off the fish that Neewa catches. Cuteness here is an episodic aesthetic that is interwoven with different strategies and one that does not predominate; for example, in the conceptualization of human-animal relations, there remains an assumption of sublime awe, of man’s natural superiority over the animal kingdom. The inclusion of the killing of Neewa’s mother by Challoner and the man’s role as the story’s human hero certainly conveys this belief but it is Miki’s reaction to Nanette and, later, her baby that provides the most striking example of the naturalness of animal deference to human power. Upon seeing Nanette for the first time, the dog experiences a deferential admiration that can only be equated with being lovestruck: “For the first time he was looking upon WOMAN... Nanette spoke to him. Never in his life had he heard a voice like hers—soft and gentle with a breaking sob in it; and then—miracle of miracles—she had dropped on her knees and her hands were on him” (210). Yet, the scenes of human-canine harmony that follow—Miki lovingly accompanying Nanette, fulfilling all her wishes and reveling in her touch—are not meant to be read as cute but rather as revealing the sublime power of the human, in this case the strength of the human female, who may be physically fragile but who possesses the power to mesmerize and enthrall through her sublime beauty. The power of a woman’s touch in subduing the most aggressive beast is a staple of Curwood’s repertoire of tropes—one that distinguishes him from London, who despised female presence in the wilds of Alaska, but not a trope unique to Curwood. The image of the fair maiden who can subdue the wild beast with her gentleness had been present in Western culture centuries before Curwood wrote his books, but it has largely been associated with the aesthetics of the sublime and not the cute.4

4. The Silent Film

23The first adaptation of the novel, produced and co-written by the author himself, tries very hard not to deviate from the plot of the original, though it does shuffle the presentation of the major events, beginning not with Miki and Neewa but with the story of Nannette. This creates the impression that the story is largely going to concern Nanette’s complicated love life—when her father dies, she is maneuvered into marrying a man she does not love, even though she is waiting for her fiancé Raoul Challoner—and when the animals appear for the first time, about a third into the film, the viewer experiences generic confusion, as the melodramatic love intrigue fades and becomes replaced with images of cuteness. For the 1920s’ audience, this confusion may have been further compounded by the choice of Ron Chaney, usually cast as a villain, as the male lead. However, the film largely maintains the ideological framing of the book: it is clear that Raoul killed Neewa’s mother and that his plan is to use the animals quite instrumentally to entertain Nanette. When Challoner addresses the animals, there is a sense of threat in his injunction: “And you’ll love this girl better than you do me, Boys. You’ve got to—or I’ll murder you!”

24Figure 3. Advertisement for Nomads of the North. 1920. Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY

  • 5 This is not the only film adaptation of an animal story in which the number of animals is increased (...)

25While the film maintains the major plot elements, the physical presence of the bodies of actual animals on the film set drives certain changes in both aesthetics and genre. It seems as if the antics of the bear cub and the puppy interacting with one another create a draw for the camera: the number of scenes in which little Brimstone (as Miki is called in this adaptation) and Neewa are in physical contact increases greatly from the few scenes in the book. The cute aesthetic really takes over once the pup and Neewa find themselves on their own—the caption to the first scene when the two are snuggling up together and sleeping reads “Baby dreams.” In addition, around the thirty-six-minute mark of the movie, viewers are surprised with scenes of many young representatives of other animal species—mountain lions, multiple bear cubs—whose presence is completely unexplainable in relation to the plot of the novel but clearly adds to the effect of cuteness. The stunning explosion of animals can most likely be explained through the filmmakers’ desire to take advantage of all the animal extras that were gathered on the sidelines of the film set. The effect is intensified cuteness.5

  • 6 These included, among others, the film Rescued by Rover, a 1905 British drama in which the heroic d (...)

26As the plot turns away from interspecies interactions and back towards human-centered adventures—Raoul interrupts the wedding, accidentally killing a man in the ensuing fight; the reunited couple escape into the Canadian wilds and are pursued by a brave and honest Mountie who also used to be in love with Nanette—the aesthetic changes once again and almost all traces of cuteness fade away. Not even the few remaining scenes that include the dog and the bear exhibit cuteness: the grown-up animal actors are clearly not as fond of one another as their younger versions were and we only see them chained up outside of Raoul and Nanette’s cabin—the bear a safe distance away from the dog. As the intrigue heightens and Nanette is assaulted inside the cabin while Raoul is away, Neewa and Brimstone attack the villain, in scenes reminiscent of classic Victorian narratives about heroic dogs and in line with the cinematic representations of canines created before 1920.6

27The one explicitly cute scene that remains in the last section of the movie, an image of Neewa and Brimstone sleeping together that appears at around sixty-two minutes, is steeped in the very problems that I have recognized as associated with cuteness: it simplifies, flattens and obscures the realities of interspecies relationships. In this case, the scene aims at the narrative continuation of the plot line of interspecies friendship, despite the very likely possibility that the actual relationship between the ursine and canine actors had, by that time, become antagonistic. In fact, an observant viewer can infer that, quite likely, the bear is not peacefully resting but is unresponsive and most probably sedated, while the dog has been ordered to lie down next to the sleeping bear, an act that makes the canine actor quite uncomfortable. Indeed, a basic knowledge of animal behavior is needed in order to reveal the artifice of this scene, which poses as “natural” and obscures its own constructedness. Such staging is commonplace in films involving canine actors, as argued by canine science expert Alexandra Horowitz in an article that postulates attentiveness to ethology as a strategy for identifying and disassembling the incongruity between the “self-evidently meaningful” interpretation of animal behavior and the ethological one (222). Such ethological attentiveness, I would like to argue, is a necessary component of critical cuteness as a methodology. Being able to read animal behavior and recognize the signs of an animal’s discomfort makes it possible to resist the power of the cute while bringing to the surface the artifice of the cute mise-en-scène.

  • 7 It is also possible that different animals were used to film the scenes with the grown up animals t (...)

28Another element of critical cuteness is attentiveness to the animals’ life stories. The few surviving source materials related to the production of the film and the lives of the animal actors reveal the previously mentioned artifice of interspecies cuteness, created through human-inflicted violence and deprivation. A story about the making of the movie, titled “A Movie Bear’s Biography” and published in the bulletin of the First National Exhibitor’s Circuit, lists the bear cub’s origins as the Siskiyou Mountains but does not mention the means of the animal’s procurement. In a dismissively anthropomorphizing fashion, the author wonders whether the cub’s great-grandmother in her “maternal heart” may have felt “coming pride,” sensing the future fame of her progeny. The article details the measures taken to secure the bear’s and the dog’s amicable coexistence. From a young age, Neewa and Brimstone “occupy twin beds, eat from clean napery, each enjoys a private bath and both a daily constitutional without restraint.” Both share a “little California bungalow.” Clearly, the two animals were forcibly separated from their parents and siblings and raised in each other’s company. As the ethological reading of the scenes of the grown animals’ interactions in the film suggests, even these methods were insufficient to ensure the extension of their friendship past the animals’ adolescence.7

29The images of interspecies cuteness that proliferate in contemporary social media are marked by a similar incongruence as the one revealed through the juxtaposition of the plot of Nomads of the North with the animal actors’ actual life story. Knowledge of the animals’ life histories and context that went into the making of the harmonious on-screen interactions suggests that they may be steeped in violence, or at least carefully staged in a way that obscures the animals’ actual experiences and human involvement. What appears to be a friendly interaction between a cat and a canary, meant to elicit an aww reaction, could potentially also be an element of a chain of hunting behaviors, with the shot conveniently cut short just before the cat makes his final pounce on the bird. While this uncanny duplicity of the cute is, at least for Simon May, an inherent element of the convention, it raises a series of ethical questions when the making of cute visuals, whether Instagram reels or feature movies, involves the use of live animals. In Animals in Film, Jonathan Burt famously argued that the presence of animals in film has always been tied to issues of animal welfare and that, because of this, film criticism has to be materialist; that is, it must take into account the experiences of animal actors (11-15, 85-163). While the potential for concealing the abuse of animal actors is by no means limited to scenes of interspecies cuteness, there is a particularly high risk of such situations in visuals that naturalize interspecies friendship. In light of this, the toolbox of critical cuteness must contain ethological knowledge of species-specific behavior, for only this tool makes it possible to achieve a reasonable degree of certainty about the techniques that went into eliciting the cute interaction.

5. The Disney Version

30The standout feature of the silent movie is the generic confusion instigated by the introduction of cuteness into a plot mixing melodrama and adventure: one cannot help but pose questions about the type of movie one is watching, the intended audience, etc. This confusion results largely from the relative novelty of cuteness as an aesthetic for visual representations of interspecies relationships in 1920. However, no such confusion is generated by the 1961 Disney-produced version, titled Nikki: Wild Dog of the North. With a few exceptions (the dog fight scene), the movie is firmly rooted in the aesthetics of cuteness, which, by mid-twentieth century, had become deeply associated with interspecies friendships due in no small part to Disney’s own achievements in the field of animated animal movies, such as the portrayal of the relationship of Bambi and Thumper (Lutts).

31Beginning with Seal Island, Disney also branched out into the territory of wildlife documentary, creating a total of thirteen films in the True-Life Adventures series, produced between 1948 and 1959. Forging a link between animated film and nature documentaries, Walt Disney himself admitted that the idea of creating nature documentaries came to him during his team’s work on Bambi (Bousé 63-64; Mitman 332-33). While the documentaries were very popular and many brought in a higher profit than the classic animated cartoons, reviewers accused them of excessive cuteness (Bousé 67). Echoing such early critiques, contemporary film scholars have also discussed how Disney’s wildlife documentaries relied both on strategies of anthropomorphism that heightened the viewer’s emotional engagement with the on-screen animals and on indisputable fakery, including the use of trained animals to stand in for wild ones (Bousé; Mitman; Chris). It is interesting that already in the 1940s the aesthetic of cuteness immediately evoked suspicions about how true-to-life the movies actually were (Bousé 68) and that these controversies, while to some degree also present in critical responses to Disney’s animated movies, were much more pronounced in the case of non-animated films. Read in the context of Ngai’s comments on how cuteness is predicated upon feelings of suspicion and deception (24), coupled with Burt’s observation about how, when interacting with animals in film, the viewer is always drawn beyond the image (12), the critiques point to the special status of cute, non-animated animal imagery. In brief, cute real animals make viewers more suspicious than animated ones do because they invite questions about the experiences of real-life animal actors.

32What makes Nikki particularly interesting is the film’s merging of two different generic formulas: that of the animated animal feature movie and of the animal documentary movie. While the film clearly has a structured plot, and its credits openly state that Nikki is an adaptation of Curwood’s novel, it uses the narrative and cinematic techniques associated with Disney’s documentary films. The most striking of these is the anonymous and omniscient voiceover commentary that introduces the animal heroes and comments on their adventures once they are on their own in the wild—which happens very quickly. In fact, the two animals are on-screen in the company of their original master for a total of only two minutes. Such removal of the human from the frame is a staple of both nature documentaries—with Walt Disney credited with initiating this “foremost structuring feature” (Chris 36)—and of contemporary online odd couple content. Not only are the animals by themselves throughout most of the movie, the plot is also changed in a way that absolves the human of the guilt induced by initiating the situation: Neewa’s mother is killed by another bear, not by Nikki’s owner (whose name in this version is André Dupas). The human becomes the animals’ savior, not the orchestrator and director of their friendship, which develops without his coaxing and cuing, as he is physically absent from the frame and the plot. A trace of the human’s former presence remains for some time in the form of a piece of rope with which the animals are tied together, but after the leash breaks apart, the two choose to remain together of their own volition. A review published in 1961 in Time points to the cuteness of the two animals’ interactions, while emphasizing gender-related differences in responses to this aesthetic: “Eventually, of course, familiarity breeds content—one night at bedtime the little darlings, like many well-trained Disney animals, exchange a nutter of ever-so-cute kisses that will probably make every little girl say ah and every little boy say ugh” (“A Dog’s Best Friend” 60). The interaction is interpreted by the reviewer as the result of excellent training techniques, not of the animals’ natural affinity. Even though the film is fashioned as a documentary, professional audiences condemn its fakery and find it suitable only for non-discriminating juvenile (and female) audiences.

33As the movie progresses, the director takes further liberties with the plot of the novel, cutting out the entire romantic subplot involving Nannette, and the film becomes a story of the adventures of the pup and the bear cub encountering a slew of other animals—bees, wolves, a wolverine, a lynx, beavers, foxes, elk, muskrats—and entering into interactions with them. These interactions are presented through the lens of cuteness, with a lot of tumbling and clumsily unsuccessful attempts at making friends or at hunting, which usually end in disappointment for the canine-ursine odd couple. In scenes that are nowhere to be found in the book, Nikki protects Neewa from an attack by another bear, the male that killed Neewa’s mother. Yet, this scene, like many others, does not fall into the pathos of animal heroism but remains firmly within the lightheartedness of cuteness: Nikki escapes from the adult bear by running through a hollowed out fallen tree; the bear follows him and becomes stuck inside the tree trunk. Nikki then rolls the tree stump with the bear down a hill. It does not require an ethologist’s eye to recognize that the one scene which is presented as Nikki’s attempt at hunting a muskrat is, in fact, play behavior, at least on the part of the dog. The pup gently jumps around the muskrat, exhibiting the classic elements of canine play behavior: the play bow, a wagging tail and subtle enticements for chasing. The movie also includes extended scenes of Nikki and Neewa frolicking together, with the two animals actually exhibiting multiple elements of play behavior: Nikki play bows, gently using his paws and erupts into what is scientifically referred to as a frenetic random activity period, more commonly known as “zoomies,” around the stationary bear cub.

34What appears to have happened in the case of the animal actors playing Nikki and Neewa is that the two were raised together and grew to be comfortable around one another and to genuinely enjoy the other’s presence. This conclusion is confirmed by source materials on the making of the film. The animals were trained by one of Disney’s most famous animal trainers, Lloyd Beebe, who also happened to be one of the cinematographers responsible for True-Life Adventures. As a story published in The Disney Channel Magazine recounts:

Since the story was about a friendship between a Malemute [sic] and a black bear cub—two creatures not ordinarily friends—Beebe raised them together in order to make the movie. Filming took about a year and a half, by which time the bear was too big to keep in captivity: ‘We took him way up in the nicest place we could find, and left him there with a big bag of candy bars.’ (“Lloyd Beebe: The Cameraman who Thinks Like an Animal”)

35Once information comes to light that makes it possible to see the relationship between the animals beyond the framing of the movie, ethical issues immediately arise. While no further information is available about the fate of the bear, it is likely that the actions described by Beebe did not contribute to the animal’s well-being: not only was his bond with his canine friend severed, but it is likely that a bear accustomed to humans and other animals did not fare well in the wild.

  • 8 Admittedly, Joshua Paul Dale et al. discuss the affective power of a photo in which a muscular Afri (...)

36At this point it may be worthwhile to return to Konrad Lorenz, one of the scientists who laid the groundwork for the biological explanation of cuteness, and to use a different concept of his to read the cuteness of Nikki and Neewa. Lorenz is also known for his theory of imprinting: he proved that newly hatched goslings will treat any being that they encounter immediately upon hatching as their mother (Coppinger and Coppinger 104-105). A corollary resulting from Lorenz’s discoveries with geese is the concept of critical periods for social development, first described by John Paul Scott in the 1950s (Coppinger and Coppinger 105-107). During these periods, analyzed in greatest detail with relation to dogs, it is possible to make young animals accept and feel comfortable with objects and phenomena that they would normally fear or avoid. Interspecies friendships are most easily formed by juveniles. In his work with geese, Lorenz thus discovered a “natural” biological principle that he was able to manipulate to achieve “unnatural” results—results that we could call cute. It must be added that cuteness is not an automatic result of such manipulation. In his memoir, Lorenz recalls how his crawling around on all fours and quacking to entice baby ducks to follow him in his backyard attracted the stares of neighborhood children who found his behavior not cute but weird (40-41). Cuteness is the most likely effect of an interspecies association if humans, especially adult male humans, are removed from the frame in the process of staging.8

6. Conclusion

37Inferring from Lorenz’s work on imprinting and socialization, one may say that the cuteness of interspecies affection is not pure artifice but a form of human-directed manipulation of nature. Even if cute visuals are staged as just natural, this imposition of naturalness is clearly resisted by the impulse of suspicion, which these images generate and which, as I am suggesting, should be followed by engaging cuteness critically. In this context, animal odd couples are paradigmatic examples of cuteness not only because of their staging of the powerful/powerless dynamic but also because of their blurring of the boundary between the natural and the artificial, the biological and the cultural. Sianne Ngai speaks of cuteness as one of the new, modern aesthetic categories and places it in opposition to beautiful/sublime nature (20). Yet, as the animal odd couple convention proves, cuteness is not pure artifice, while, as my analysis of Hicks’s paintings proved, that which evokes sublime awe is not as natural as one may initially assume. Consequently, an examination of animal odd couple imagery in relation to cuteness can prove useful for contemporary scholarship in animal studies and the environmental humanities, which are involved in the project of exploring the inseparability of the natural and the cultural, i.e., of naturecultures. While I am advocating for a more nuanced consumption of cute content, it does seem that the odd couple convention contains within itself an entry point for such readings. In the process of reading against the grain, animal odd couples can become oddkin—however, one needs to follow the initial disbelief that accompanies such visuals.

38In much of her work, from Primate Visions to Staying with the Trouble, Haraway has blurred the nature/culture dichotomy by revealing how that which purports to be natural has been constructed through the dominant paradigms related to human norms about sex, gender, and heterosexual coupledom. Images of animal odd couples have a tendency to reproduce these paradigms and to present the interspecies encounters as moral fables of our time. In order to transform animal odd couples into oddkin, we need to rethink the anthropomorphic perspective through which cute animal characters are perceived as allegorical representations of human nature and recover the animals’ own stories, however queer, in all senses of the word, they may be. A last look at Koko the gorilla and the kitten All Ball, the cute couple that opened this article, can exemplify these two approaches: that is, the odd couple reading versus the oddkin reading. The odd couple reading of Koko and the kitten emphasizes the similarity of Koko’s behavior to human petkeeping, positing Koko as almost human (though never fully human and always somewhat failing) because of her supposed desire to have a pet. An oddkin reading would ask questions about what events led to the forming of this bond, about the material conditions of the animals’ lives and, finally, about whether and how we can conceptualize the bond between the two animals in a way that does not transpose the paradigms of the human world onto their relationship.

39Of course, a critical approach to cuteness needs to remain aware that the inquiry into cuteness is not an enterprise of separating fact from fiction and that a purely non-anthropocentric perspective is not possible. In fact, those who have approached the task with the straightforward goal of uncovering the truth have largely failed. The problem is that cuteness is so seductive that many of the texts that undertake its deconstruction end up reproducing its technologies. The BBC documentary mentioned in the opening paragraphs of this article takes on just such a task: Liz Bonnin sets off on a quest to confirm whether interspecies friendships really exist. This is a mission of scientific recovery, of myth-busting and disentangling fact from fiction. Yet, the film uses the very techniques that caused Disney’s True-Life Adventures to be dubbed cute though unscientific. For example, a dog is described as an orangutan’s pet, with the ape—no doubt encouraged by a human caretaker—taking the dog on walks on a leash. Bonnin also reports on the relationship between a female giraffe named Camilla and a kudu male named Charles. The viewer is encouraged to perceive the relationship as a love affair despite all odds, a modern-day story of Romeo and Juliet, whose desire to be with each other trumps species differences. As the giraffe and the kudu stand close to one another, the soundtrack turns to a romantic tune and Camilla is shown winking to the audience. Here, cuteness strikes back against its own deconstruction. A different strategy is needed in order to avoid such pitfalls, and I hope this article has been successful at drafting a path that makes it possible to talk about cute animals in constructive ways, to turn odd couples into generative oddkin.

40Finally, cuteness is routinely associated with two specific cultures, that of the United States and of Japan. While the outburst of kawaii in Japan after World War II has been explained through the country’s self-fashioning as non-threatening on the political arena (May 59-91), the US’s link to cuteness is rarely explored beyond the obvious and seemingly incidental fact that Walt Disney, the mastermind of cuteness, was American and beyond the entanglement of cuteness with neoliberal capitalism, of which the US is the epitome. Yet, if we think of cuteness as an aesthetic that flattens and diffuses tensions by aestheticizing that which would otherwise be uncomfortable, it becomes possible to see cuteness as a strategy of hinting at uncomfortable truths—including those related to America’s history of colonialism—without making anyone uncomfortable. For example, from Pocahontas to Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Disney has perfected cuteness for talking about the Native American experience under settler colonialism without making the topic seem threatening or off-putting. Disney’s Nikki achieves a similar effect in talking about the experience of America’s wildlife under settler colonialism and of the violence inherent in the colonial enterprise. The film does so by obscuring, obliterating and erasing the effects of human-inflicted violence on animals and by playing up the aww response to visuals of interspecies friendships. Yet, once the history of the fictional bear’s mother is brought back through the trace of the story recovered from the novel, and once the life histories of the real ursine actors starring in the two movies are reconstructed—stories of animals abducted from their natural habitat and forced into a life of labor in the entertainment industry—viewers will, hopefully, become uncomfortable. And this is precisely what critical cuteness as an interpretive strategy should aim to achieve.

41Figure 4. A typical example of contemporary animal odd couple imagery circulating on the internet. These two oddkin, whose names are Mia and Tula and who have been friends since Tula’s kittenhood, served as the author’s inspiration for exploring the topic. Photo by author.

Work on this article was supported by the National Science Centre, Poland, under the grant “Figurations of Interspecies Harmony in Literature, Film and Other Cultural Texts of the English-Speaking Sphere, from the mid-19th to the 21st Centuries” [UMO-2020/38/E/HS2/00130]

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1 For a more general discussion of Disneyfication in the context of animals, see Rebecca Rose Stanton’s recent book The Disneyfication of Animals (2021). The term disnification (sic) was first used with reference to representations of nonhuman animals in Steve Baker’s 1993 Picturing the Beast to emphasize the belittlement and trivialization of animals in visual culture (174-75).

2 For a close analysis of the differences between the paintings in the series and the way in which the small changes in the arrangement of the figures reflect Hicks’s changing ideas about developments in Quakerism, see Carolyn Weekley’s The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks and Jennifer Andrews’s “The Missionary Position: The American Roots of Northrop Frye’s Peaceable Kingdom.” Andrews also argues that even though it is Canada that has adopted the nickname of “the peaceable kingdom,” the moniker was inspired by Hicks’s paintings about US history.

3 For a chronologically organized exegesis of the theological interpretations of the “wolf and the lamb” passage from Isaiah, see Beatrice Marovich’s article, pp. 100-105. Marovich notes that such visions of interspecies harmony proved quite puzzling for many biblical interpreters who chose to read them simply as allegories, for example, “metaphors for various types of human beings” (100). However, Marovich is analyzing interpretations of the biblical passage, not of Hicks’s paintings. In the context of the nineteenth-century US, and especially as coupled with animal exhibits such as P.T. Barnum’s “Happy Family,” it becomes clear that the animal figures are more than just allegories of human virtues and vices: they are recreating the hierarchy of God’s creation.

4 For an interesting variation on this theme, see the cover art of Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts (1900), included in Julia Wilde’s article in this volume. The illustration presents a beautiful young maiden leading a group of animals that includes a wolf and a lamb. The maiden holds what appears to be a prayer book in her outstretched hand.

5 This is not the only film adaptation of an animal story in which the number of animals is increased with this effect; elsewhere, Włodarczyk and Wilde have written about how the movie version of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling “plays up the aesthetics of cuteness” by increasing the number of animals present in the film.

6 These included, among others, the film Rescued by Rover, a 1905 British drama in which the heroic dog locates the kidnapper of a baby. In Animals in Film, Jonathan Burt lists this film as an example of a movie that uses the theme of the “all-knowing animal healing a loss within the family” (115). An interesting example of a silent movie that also employs the heroic dog trope is the 1919 Back to God’s Country, starring Nell Shipman, directed by David Hartford and produced by the Shipman-Curwood Producing Company. The movie was based on Curwood’s short story “Wapi, the Walrus.”

7 It is also possible that different animals were used to film the scenes with the grown up animals than the scenes with the young ones. The surviving source materials do not make it clear whether one set of animal actors was used throughout the making of the entire movie.

8 Admittedly, Joshua Paul Dale et al. discuss the affective power of a photo in which a muscular African-American male cradles a puppy as harnessing the power of cute in order to counter hegemonic discourses of masculinity (14-15). However, the context of the staging and the reception of that scene of interspecies bonding is dramatically different than that of Lorenz’s interactions with ducklings.

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Electronic reference

Justyna Włodarczyk, From Animal Odd Couples to Oddkin: Probing Visual Representations of Interspecies Friendship through Critical CutenessEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2024, Online since 07 February 2024, connection on 19 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Justyna Włodarczyk

Justyna Włodarczyk teaches American studies at the University of Warsaw, Institute of English Studies. Her interests revolve around animal studies and the environmental humanities, especially issues of power and freedom in human-canine relationships. She has published a cultural history of dog training in the US, titled Genealogy of Obedience: Reading North American Dog Training Literature, 1850s-2000s (Brill, 2018) and has authored many articles about animal representations in literature and film. She is currently heading the grant team Figuration of Interspecies Harmony, funded by the National Science Centre, Poland.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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