Animals in Our Stories

Writers who pen westerns must have a deep-seated respect for animals. All those horses and cattle. The loyal dogs. The villainous rattlesnakes. Shoot, even the chickens have a role to play. Out on the lonely prairie, a fella was more apt to talk to his horse than another person for days on end.

I love animals. But I have a confession to make . . . I don’t own any. Part of the reason is that my husband has allergies, especially where cats and other long-haired critters are concerned. Another contributing factor is the three children living with us who already demand a lot of attention and cleaning up after. Also, with all the traveling I do for my writing career, the hassle of finding and paying for dog sitters is not terribly attractive at this point. Maybe once our nest is empty and all the kids have left, we’ll consider some four-legged children, but for now we only support the two-legged variety.

I had dogs and cats as a child – all outdoor animals. We had seven acres with lots of room to roam. But even then, the animals always loved my brother more than me. It seemed dreadfully unfair until I realized that he was the one who lived outside with them. Playing. Going on adventures. More often than not I was in my room reading about animals. All those great Black Stallion books. Old Yeller. Sounder. Where the Red Fern Grows. (Why are the dog books always so sad???) I would imagine myself racing across the plains on my trusty steed, but in truth I’ve only ever ridden about a dozen times in my life and mostly those were at a walking pace. Sigh.

But the imagination is a wonderful thing. I can create heroines who ride, shoot, and spit better than any man if I so desire. Or give a boy a dog that becomes his most trusted confidant. So that’s what I do. I add animals to my books, name them, and give them special connections with their owners. Then I live vicariously through my characters to enjoy all the benefits of animal love without any of the unromantic poop scooping or hair vacuuming.

Hermes – Note the small patch of white on his belly.

Helios – Black belly

In my latest release, my animal-loving heart had free reign. My hero, Benjamin Porter, is a freighter who is a gifted horse trainer. He has a pair of beautifully matched black Shires who pull his heavy freight wagon. They both have white socks and blazes, but only one has a white belly. It’s the only way others can tell the two draft horses apart. Thanks to a childhood fascination with Greek mythology, he named them Helios and Hermes. Hermes for the Greek god of trade and the guardian of travelers; and Helios for the Greek god of the sun who relied on mighty steeds to pull his golden chariot through the sky.

In my story, Ben is attempting to court his business partner, shopkeeper Victoria Adams. Tori has a young son named Lewis, and on one of their business trips, she barters goods in exchange for a puppy for Lewis. I, of course decided to keep with the black and white color scheme and adorableness, so I chose an Australian shepherd pup.

Here’s the scene where the puppy comes into play:

Too cute for words, right?

“Sarah said I could name him.” Lewis grinned, all trepidation vanishing as excitement took over. “He’s the biggest pup of the litter, so I thought I’d call him Hercules. What do you think? Just like the strong man in the stories you tell me.”

Satisfied that the horses were calm, Ben put a hand to Lewis’s shoulder and steered him a couple paces away. He hunkered down and offered his fingers for the pup to smell, enduring the friendly licks and shameless begging for attention before giving in and ruffling the dog’s ears.

When he and his brother had been kids, they’d run across a book on Greek mythology in their teacher’s collection and had enjoyed the adventure stories so well, they’d started naming all their animals after the ancient characters. They still did as adults, though Bartholomew had more of an opportunity, running a livery in Seymour. Ben had saved the names he’d chosen until he’d found the draft horses that lived up to them. Hermes for the Greek god of trade and the guardian of travelers; and Helios for the Greek god of the sun who relied on mighty steeds to pull his golden chariot through the sky.

“Hercules is a big name for such a little pup.” Ben raised a brow in feigned concern. “You sure he deserves such a tag?”

Lewis looked down at the fuzzy fur ball, scrunched his forehead in thought, then lifted his chin in the same stubborn way his ma did. “Well, even Hercules started as a baby.” He lifted the puppy into Ben’s face until they practically touched noses. “He’ll grow, just like the other Hercules did. He’ll get strong and brave and be the best dog ever!”

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“I reckon you’re right.” Ben eased the pup away from his face then pushed to his feet, rubbing Lewis’s hair as he stood. “It was Hercules’s actions that made him a legend, not his name. A man should always remember that. It isn’t his name or his clothes or how much money he has that matters. It’s the way he conducts himself—with honor, kindness, and courage—that makes a lasting difference in the world.”

“So you like the name?” The boy blinked up at him, giving Ben no idea if his attempt at conveying a life lesson had penetrated.

Oh, well. He winked at the boy. “I think it’s an outstanding name.” He tilted his head and scrutinized the pup a second time. “This one’s definitely hero material. You picked well, Lewis.”

The boy beamed and ran back to the little girl waiting for him by the trough. Ben’s heart gave a tug as he watched the two put their heads together and giggle over the puppies’ antics. Lewis had wormed his way into Ben’s heart months ago. It hadn’t taken long. The kid was so eager to please and so hungry for male attention, a rare commodity in a town full of womenfolk. Now, Ben couldn’t imagine his life without the little guy.

Although . . . a secret smile slid across Ben’s face as he watched the two young’uns crawl around in the dirt like pups themselves . . . he could imagine giving Lewis a little brother or sister to play with. That would be a pleasure indeed.

  • So what are your favorite animals to share real or imagined adventures with?

Karen Witemeyer
Winner of the ACFW Carol Award, the HOLT Medallion, and two-time RITA finalist, CBA bestselling author, Karen Witemeyer, writes historical romance for Bethany House believing the world needs more happily ever afters ... and hunky cowboy heroes. She's an avid cross-stitcher, shower singer, and bakes a mean apple cobbler. She makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children.

26 Comments

  1. I have to say the animals I have always loved sharing adventures and life with are dogs. They are so much fun and can be a great comfort as well.

    I love the cover of your new book and the puppy picture….awwwwwh. So cute!

    Blessings,
    Cindy W.

    1. Thanks, Cindy. I admit to being more a dog person than a cat person myself. Though anything warm and fuzzy that will let me snuggle is a plus. 🙂

  2. I have three cats. I have always had cats as far as my memories take me. I can’t live without having at least one.

    1. One of my good friends growing up had a cat – Peanut. I still remember that one. I spent the night at her house once and woke up with the cat on my face. Ha! I liked having him close, just not that close. So I moved him down to my chest and we both dozed happily back to sleep. 🙂

  3. I can’t remember when I have been without a cat.

    1. Cats and reading do seem to go hand in hand. Curling up with a good book and a purring cat cuddled in your lap sounds like a lovely way to spend a cold afternoon.

  4. For some reason, my daughter is allergic to dogs but not cats, so we have cats. I do love horses but I am allergic to hay and have problems. But I can still admire.

    1. I’m with you, Debra. Admiring and imagining. It’s almost as good as the real thing.

  5. My grandfather gave me a fox terrier puppy before I was a year old so I don’t remember being alive without pets. My mom says she raised the two of us together! One aunt later on gave me a border collie pup for my birthday, and another aunt on the same day gave me a parakeet. We had a cat too that I don’t recall as well, but later a high school crush gave me a kitten. We’ve had a dog, cats and birds ever since in various combinations.

    Also growing up I had a couple of friends who had horses, so I got to ride, AND get a girl scout merit badge for riding! Ha. These days it’s my neighbors who have the horses while we have the house pets, uh, I mean four legged family members! A cairn terrier and two cats, one which was my mom’s when she passed away. I think he still really misses her but has settled in. We also just recently lost out lovebird–the smallest of the parrot species–when she was 17 years old. She could talk and really make us laugh so of course we really do miss her terribly. She was the house comedian. That’s the really hard part–their shorter life spans.

    Two more quick stories. (1) My Old English Sheepdog pup and I drove across the country together to Oklahoma to see family. Boy, do you meet a lot of nice people when you have such a cute pup in tow! (2) When fairly newly married, my cat passed away so we adopted a stray—WHO as it turns out was preggers. When did she have her kittens? The day we moved into our new house after all the hubbub of moving settled down. Actually, the vet predicted that was what would happen because he’d seen it so many times before with moving and animals sensing it. I got to keep one kitten and the neighbors took the others. So newly married, I had a sheepdog, two parakeets, and a mother and son cat combo, as well as an indulgent husband of course.

    1. What great stories, Eliza! You really have the menagerie, don’t you? Love it!

      Another one of those animal books I loved reading was The Incredible Journey with the two dogs and one cat that bonded and found their way home though insurmountable odds. Your stories of dogs, cats, birds, and moving made me think of that. Oh, and Bolt! The Disney movie with the dog, cat, hamster, and pigeons that took on the world in order to get Bolt back to his owner.

      I love stories about animals who are natural enemies that come together to overcome difficulties. Such a powerful statement to our human world where if we would just set aside the prejudices and hatred and work together, how much more could we accomplish?

      1. As to your last statement, the reverse can be true: animals can be human like too.

        For instance, while my son’s cat and my dog get along, my mom’s cat was an “only child” so he and my dog sometimes get into flat-out competitions for attention and other ruckuses. My son’s cat? The queen who is above it all.

        I’ve also had a collie who was an alpha dog and the very dickens to train, while the collie before her was so very Lassie-like in every way you could possibly imagine.

        1. Their personalities are all so unique. Much like people – you’re so right about that. 🙂

  6. Animals…I grew up in what was often nearly a zoo. We had so many critters because my father seldom said no to anyone giving away an animal. Goats, sheep, horses, dogs, cats…we even had a skunk for a short time. LOL At one point we had 14 horses just because we had enough land. We kept a couple of milk cows (very pampered) and for a number of years my mother raised and sold German Shepherds. My father was like Dr. Doolittle and my mother tolerated it. It was a book worthy childhood!!

    Looking forward to reading “Worth the Wait.”

    1. What a lively household you must have had, Rosie. My imagination is going crazy just thinking about all the possibilities. So fun! Definitely a book-worthy childhood!

  7. I love all animals. For over 25 years I’ve been helping ferals strays. We’ve had 2 wonderful dogs and had/have many, many cats!

    1. Somehow I figured you for an animal lover “cats”lady. Ha! I think it’s wonderful that you give so many animals a good home. Blessings on you.

  8. Love all animals,but especially cats. As a little girl I had a cat with two extra claws on each paw,he was quite the adventurer. Now I have two cats,Mew-Mew and Batly. Batly is an adventurous male cat who has a crush on our lady Mew-Mew who is quite the princess and very lady like. Thank you for including animals in your stories,they always add something special. Absolutely love the puppy,Hercules (the above picture is so cute!) and the above scene in Worth The Wait is adorable!! Can’t wait to read the whole story!! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Lynne! I fell in love with that puppy picture at first sight. 🙂 Your cats sound lovely, such distinct personalities. Too fun!

  9. I didn’t have many when I was growing up. We had a cat show up on our doorstep and he stayed for 20 years. Other than a fish tank of guppies and chickens meant for the freezer, that was it. My family now has had dozens of animals. We have rehabilitated multiple rabbits, birds, snakes, and lizards. We have had 10 or 12 rescue dogs and currently have three. A 15 year old terrier mix who is deaf, has cataracts, and is a bit of a nut. The other two are pit bulls. One with a broken back, she is about 8. The other is about 4 and was found in a ditch, badly beaten when she was a puppy. She is a sweet dog but has abandonment issues and is very protective of food. We currently have a ball python thatI have had for over 15 years. I used her for story time when I was a children’s librarian. Our only other pet currently is a peacock. We had a dozen at one time. We have had 3 cats, about a dozen rabbits, ferrets, mice, rats, guinea pig, gerbils, hamsters, frogs, and fish. Actually the three dogs are our son’s, but my husband is a dog magnet and has purloined all their affections. Our second daughter has carried on. She has or has had 20+ cats (10 currently), 9 dogs (2 dogs currently), 4 horses, 1 cow, 3 pigs, 10 llamas (4 currently), 8 goats, 8 sheep currently, chickens (too many to count), 1 turkey, guinea pig, frogs, fish, hamster, and a rabbit. We do like and enjoy them. But they can be expensive to care for and must be taken into consideration no matter what you do. We keep saying we won’t get any more when our current ones are gone, but we go to the pound every so often and find it hard not to bring another one home.

    I really enjoy your books, Karen. Once again your cover is perfect.

    1. Wow! You have the family zoo, Patricia! I love it. 🙂 And I love your heart for the broken down, homeless animals you find and tend. What a heart you have. And you’ve passed that ministry to your daughter. Beautiful!

      Growing up, a neighbor kept boa constrictors, and I used to take care of them when he would go out of town. One day, I had the 13-pounder wrapped around my neck and shoulders and traipsed back to the house to show my mom. She was NOT impressed. Demanded I never put that animal around my neck ever again. I thought she was paranoid and overreacting at the time, but now that I’m a mom myself, I imagine I would have the same reaction she did. 🙂

  10. I am definitely a dog person but cats love me, literally and I get along well with them but dogs are pack animals and part of the family. Cats are independent and they own you usually coming and going when and wherever a bowl of food and water is is good for them even if it’s a neighbor. Many cats stray and get pregnant way too often if not fixed, dogs too but not so much as cats. I love being around horses too, never had my own but my brother did including mini horses that were so cute. They played with their food bins and barrels like toys. I used to care for them all, pet sitting for my brother including many dogs, cats, horses and birds, with the friends or neighbors thrown in too if all were away. A menagerie to feed and play with and clean up too. The one though I would want is a wolf though, if you believe in past lives and reincarnation then I know I had a wolf companion or brother way back when in another time. Wolves to me are one of my spirit animals. Love Wolves, they resonate still with me because I believe that brother wolf is with me in spirit this go round. Your new book looks and sound great though Karen, but then all of yours usually are. I really enjoyed that excerpt though and using mythology for naming animals is still a good idea I bet many still rely on when naming their animals.

    1. Thanks, Elaine! it sounds like your brother had quite the animal farm. Ha!

      The wolf is such a symbol of the west. Independent, wild, clever, and a survivor. Many of our earliest settlers had to exhibit those same characteristics to make a home for themselves in this country. I can certainly understand your draw to them.

  11. Our kitty, Amiga was with us for 19 years and we miss her every day. We had to put her down a year ago because of health issues and we’re still so sad. She was like another child to us! Our adult children used to Skype us just to see her! They also urged us to get another cat after she died but we just couldn’t. She was one in a million.
    I love animals in books, Karen! So glad when writers put them in their books! It adds so much to the story!

    1. How touching, Valri! I love that your kids still wanted to see her, too. That’s precious.

  12. I have to admit that when house and pet sitting for my brother their again cat Olive, about 18-19 years old slept on their bed with the dogs too. But she was showing signs of her age, slower, weaker, not eating and drinking as much, losing weight and getting skinny. I know they were thinking of putting her down some time in the future but when I was there, she loved me, wanting to be around me, sitting on my lap or next to me and she perked up more everything I took care of them. She lasted longer I think because of me, animals just know something with me, no Dr. Doolittle but I may have a healing, comforting touch, with animals and people. It is why I want to still learn to heal, hands on, like Reiki, and massage therapy, certified or licensed. I have wanted that for years and still do, I wonder if they have that for animals too? Anyway my brother has put down many animals when needed or let all live until they just go, hopefully in their sleep. I think they are down to 3 or 4 dogs now in FL where they retired to a couple years ago, they are selling their house here. I still love animals but have none right now but once I get the place I am going for I can see if pets are allowed. My family has dogs, dogs and more dogs at whatever house you go so there is no shortage when visiting. I do like animals in books because in many historicals their pet, dog, horse, cow, sheep, cat or whatever is their only companion to talk to especially if no neighbors around and it helps keep the person still talking and conversing if anyone does come around. Thinking miner, Hunter and trapper here. If no animals then talking aloud to themselves, God or their animals kept them sane if there was NOBODY around for 20, 30 or 40 miles or more. Would you have gone crazy alone? Just an interesting concept but not farfetched Karen as you know. If they were literate maybe they read the Bible if they had one, or a book but that might be rare.

    1. You’re right, Elaine. It would be extremely difficult to battle the loneliness of some of those early frontier lifestyles without an animal to talk to. I remember the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks and how he took to talking to Wilson the volleyball because he needed companionship. We were not built to be solitary creatures. As God said in the beginning, it is not good for man to be alone.

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