For the past twenty years, I’ve been immersed in crime—reading, writing, and learning. I fell into that genre and made a quick splash. But it was not the complete me—a life-long interest in animals begged to come alive. My crime novels and stories have always been peopled with iguanas, cats, dogs, apes, dolphins, horses, snakes—probably many I’m forgetting—but now, finally, I’m writing specifically about my dearest subject, and I have recognized a dark truth about myself in the process.
In Fur People a young woman, Sunny, whose sensibilities are not far from my own, gathers her fur family, a busload of dogs, cats, a couple of ferrets, and rabbits, to travel back to her hometown in central Florida. Forced by lack of money to live in the woods, she struggles against nature and the authorities.
Thirty years ago, I came close to choosing that sort of life. I lived in a house, but had nine adopted cats and sixteen rabbits. I thought they were well taken care of, but now I realize they were my captives, living on the edge. Like Sunny, I couldn’t afford to keep them in the comfort and safety they deserved. The rabbits were confined to hutches most of the time and got little exercise. The cats ate cheap food, ran free outside, and didn’t get their shots on a regular basis. They probably suffered from fleas, as well, since flea protection was unavailable at that time, except for dipping. I did try that once—I have the scars to prove it. Yes, I loved my animals to death, a phrase that gives me chills. Over the years, I was lucky, and most of them lived out their natural life span. But not all.
Even now, I still want every dog and cat I see—and ferrets, skunks, a mini-horse. (They can be house-trained!) Chickens, of course, and I would love a pig. YouTube videos and animal photos fill me with the desire to intermingle species. I can’t go to the humane society because of my lack of will power. I suffer, seeing the trapped, neutered, and released cats in the woods near the beach close to where I live. They rub their faces on my ankles, and their need for love is overwhelming. I am always on the verge of adopting, and it’s like alcohol or heroin—the more I get the more I need. I’m angry with people who allow these animals to breed unchecked, yet I bred those rabbits, and I still have a compelling desire to raise baby animals. It’s inborn, the same as for my character Sunny.
These conflicting emotions have gone into the writing of Fur People. It’s not a tragedy, and there are many light moments and humorous animal anecdotes. But the ironies of natural struggle and nagging questions of how we should relate to the nonhumans with whom we share our homes and the earth hover in the background. There’s a heavy motif of bacon in the novel. Bacon, yum,—how can we keep eating it? How can we stop?
They say when you get older all of your tendencies become more condensed, more obvious, less flexible. Hoarders we see on reality shows are mostly old, probably because young hoarders have the capacity to hide their obsession, like I did. I was a hoarder on a small scale. I might have come to a horrible end. I might still. But describing the sting of flea bites and a puppy’s hunger pangs have made me acknowledge the sad results of love taken to the extreme. Fur People has helped me to dig into my psyche and accept what I didn’t want to know. I hope it helps some animals.
Vicki Hendricks is the author of five noir novels, including Cruel Poetry, a finalist for the 2008 Edgar Award, and several short story collections. She teaches writing at Broward College. Her plots and settings reflect participation in adventure sports and knowledge of the Florida environment. Her love of animals, apparent in her earlier novels, comes to the forefront in her new novel, Fur People.