After Rae’s ear is shot off by a jittery security guard at the health food store, the
insurance settlement allows her to take a year off from teaching. She spends it
volunteering at the Los Angeles Zoo. Except for her best friend Jennie, Rae has little
use for human beings. She loves cats–lots of cats. The refugee she cares for, airlifted
from Afghanistan to safety, is not a person but a mountain goat.
As the US goes to war and baboons fall deeply, tragically, in love, Rae’s
involvement with Gorilla Theater–street agitators raising awareness of animal rights–
leads inexorably to confrontations over human rights. Especially when Jennie is
Confessions of a Carnivore is an antic romp through a minefield, a novel about
animal behavior, endangered species, endangered democracy, and love.
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
When I first relocated to Los Angeles 20 years ago I began volunteering with the animal behavior research team at the zoo. We all got used to describing behavior at times in very graphic terms, taking it for granted, and then I'd see how people outside our little world reacted if I talked about our work. It made me realize there was potential for humor. I knew I would use that someday.
Spending so much time with zoo animals and with my beloved cat Desi I also wanted to write about nonhuman animals as individuals. The individual matters, not just the species. Also, I hate it when authors use animals as metaphors. They are as real and three-dimensional as we are and I wanted to share as much of their reality as I could.
Then the US went to war in Iraq. There was so much secrecy about prisoners, the detention center at Guantanamo was such an illegal maneuver, I knew people were being tortured long before the photos came our of Abu Ghraib. When I'm in despair over human behavior, I often find solace among the animals, and so the novel came to be as my characters concerned themselves with the well being of nonhuman animals while unable to escape the effects of people politics.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I knew there would be a lot of politics in the book and I didn't want to get preachy or boring. If there was rhetoric, I wanted it to be for comic effect. So I decided my narrator, Rae, would have to be apolitical, who would talk the talk only to be intentionally annoying. She's a foil for her best friend, Jennie Kim, who takes the political moment very seriously. LA is such a multiracial, multicultural place, I knew the human characters – especially the animal rights activists in Gorilla Theater – would reflect that diversity. The many cats in the novel are all composites of cats I've known while the zoo animals are drawn from real life. The drill baboons Michael and Melissa really were in love, challenging conservationists who are focused on species survival rather than on individual happiness.
When I still taught high school, 35-45 kids in a class, diversity was a teacher’s
best friend. If all your students are the same color and race, it can take weeks to tell
them apart. These days, watching chimps, I’ve learned you look for who’s biggest,
who’s got breasts, who’s got bald elbows and so forth, and you don’t stop watching just
because you find some behavior unattractive, and even if there’s too many individuals
running around doing too many different things and there’s no way you’re going to keep
them straight, working with primates still beats trying to distinguish one gray kangaroo
from another by their ear notches while their ears never stop flicking.
The people at Gorilla Theater were even easier to ID than chimps: a woman
seated in a wheelchair with a little black dog sprawled across her lap; a middleaged
Latino wearing his hair in a long white ponytail; two teenagers–one female (David’s
daughter), one male; a 40-something woman who looked familiar, or maybe it was just
her glasses I’d seen before–diamond-shaped lenses inside thin green metal frames.
Obvious differences, but still, as I’ve learned to do, I started with the most striking
characteristic, so it’s natural I learned Sara’s name–she was using the wheelchair–first.
And how fortuitous that less than an hour earlier I’d instructed Jennie as to
sensitive contemporary terminology. This was following our close call on the freeway
when she was all freaked out about how bad an accident it could have been.
“It’s not really that big a deal,” I’d reassured her, “as long as you don’t hit a
Even strangers mourn when someone dies young while we–I, at least; Jennie’s
much younger–had reached the age when your death can only be tragic to those who
still love you. Once upon a time, I’d worried who would take Molly if anything happened
to me, but Jennie had promised. Once upon a time, I’d been afraid of losing a limb or
having to use a wheelchair.
“Once upon a time?” Jennie said. “And now you want to be confined to a
I took the opportunity to explain a person uses a wheelchair. It’s the person who
counts. The wheelchair is just a tool. You don’t say the carpenter is confined to her
“I’m Bernice,” said the woman with the distinctive glasses. “Join us,” and we did.
We chanted, we cleansed the space with sage, we honored one another, we
went to grab folding chairs from where they leaned against the wall.
“The mission of Gorilla Theater is to change the way people view other species,”
said Bernice. “Once we start to regard non-human animals as persons, we’ll have to
change the way we treat them.”
“That might not be a change for the better,” said the male teen. His name was
Amory–where do they get these names?–and his T-shirt read Regime Change Begins
at Home. By winter his shirt would read No Blood for Oil. “Besides, this gorilla stuff is
just wrong. We should represent all species.”
“But primates are our brothers,” Devon said.
“Sisters,” said Sara.
“You’re privileging gender over species,” said Bernice.
Amory said “Siblings.”
“I work with baboons,” I said.
“So does my father,” Devon said.
I started to explain that the drill baboon was even more endangered than the
Devon said, “He tortures them. In the name of Science, of course, but it’s
pseudoscience. He tortures them in the name of funding.”
Bernice got up and hugged her. “See how interrelated we all are? Devon doesn’t
want baboons to suffer, but she also doesn’t want her father to be a human who makes
them suffer. What happens in one species affects us all.”
I looked at Devon with her nose ring, silver charm jiggling in her navel, and her
A-inside-a-circle anarchist’s tattoo barely visible on an arm covered with bruises from,
she said, a wrestling lesson with Oleg the Russian Bear Taktarov, and I reached the
conventional conclusion that she was trying to torture her father.
“Can we hold a protest in front of the lab?” she said.
“Actually,” said Bernice, “I was thinking the LA Zoo.”
The LA Zoo was where I worked, if you can call it work when you don’t get paid.
“At least they don’t eat the animals at the zoo,” said Amory. “In Third World
At this point in time, I wasn’t political. I was merely a know-it-all and couldn’t stop
myself from interrupting: “We don’t say Third World anymore.”
“What do we say?” Amory asked.
Oh, God, I couldn’t remember. Developing nations? Emerging nations?
Everyone looked toward the Latino guy, Bobby. “Hey, I’m just here to paint your
sets,”–and then their eyes slid to Jennie. Everyone else in the room was white.
“I never understood it anyway,” Amory said. “We were the First World, right?
They were the Third World. Who was the Second World?”
“Must’ve been the Russians,” Bobby said. “Everything used to be about the
“Soviets, actually,” I said. “They were Soviets then.”
“But were they Second World?”
That’s the way it always is. People remember the winner and the loser. No one
ever remembers the runner-up.
“Should we call them cousins?” said Devon.
“No, the gorillas, chimps.”
“Our closest kin.” Bernice reached into the pocket of her work shirt. What I’d
taken to be cigarettes turned out to be a pack of Kleenex. She pushed up her glasses
and dabbed at her eyes and that’s when I remembered who she was. Just the other
day I’d been with the gorillas when she came up to the gate and stared at the silverback
in the way a primate living free would interpret as threat.
“I’m sorry, Kelly,” she whispered.
He knucklewalked toward Evie who fled.
“I’m sorry, Evie.” Bernice took out a Kleenex. “Allergies,” she said to me and
dabbed. “Every Yom Kippur I visit the apes. I spend the Day of Atonement asking their
forgiveness for what we’ve done.”
Then she hurried off, in the direction of the chimps.
“We have the same chromosomes,” she told her actors. “We share a history,
“That’s exactly why we shouldn’t privilege them.”
“What are you? A human-hater?”
“I just don’t think we’re the be-all and end-all.” (My memory is faulty. If I were to
attribute all this dialogue, I’d just be guessing.)
“If you read the Bible–”
“What do you expect?” Jennie said. “The Bible wasn’t written by a mountain
goat.” (I’m sure it was Jennie who said that. You can’t get away with Bible stuff in front
“Of course not. Mountain goats can’t write.”
“But if a mountain goat had written the Bible…” Bernice said. “Try for a moment,
think like a mountain goat.”
“Is this an acting exercise?”
“No. It’s re-earthing,” Bernice said. “It’s expanding your consciousness beyond
the ego to embrace other life forms. The great Aldo Leopold taught us we must learn to
think like a mountain. It’s–”
A tinny carillon played the theme from Star Wars. “Hello?” Devon answered her
cell phone. “Hello?”
“Gorilla Theater is just a pun. It’s not just about gorillas.”
“Then it’s exploitation. Appropriation. It’s the same old same old. If it’s not about
“Enough arguing,” said Bernice. “Let’s try something. Lie down on the earth. Feel
it breathe beneath you.”
“This isn’t earth. It’s industrial carpet.”
“A dirty carpet.”
“It’s called acting. Lie down.”
I did and Jennie followed suit. It’s not the sort of thing she’s into, but though I’d
never wanted to be a leader and Jennie was definitely not a follower, for some reason,
it pleased her to humor me. If you think you know Jennie, you probably don’t. All
Korean women in the US have one of three names, Jennifer Kim being one of them,
and so people are always confusing her with someone else.
So we’re re-earthing ourselves at rehearsal, all of us but Bernice stretched out
face down on the floor, when Devon’s phone played its tinny bells again. She tried to
stand and let out a bloodcurdling shriek when her bellybutton jewelry got caught in the
I didn’t feel her pain, though I wanted to, which is probably why I put this moment
right up front, to state right at the outset that I was trying to overcome what I’d become:
a person who managed to be both scrupulously ethical and thoroughly insensitive to
For example: Jennie won’t eat anything with a face. I do. I eat animals who have
eyes, ears, legs, hearts, lungs. My cat is a carnivore, and I refuse to be morally
superior to Molly.
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