Alissa York’s Fauna is a deceptive novel. Reading the summary on the back does not do the complexities contained within the pages justice; the narratives span many years, characters, and even species as York weaves intricate tapestries depicting life as messy, strange, and wonderful all at once. This study will focus on characters Stephen and Darius, not as their conflicting online personas of soldier-boy and Coyote Cop, but as two men whose pasts have shaped them into people with sharply contrasting views on what humanity’s relationship with the natural world should and should not be. On one side of this coin is Stephen, whose experiences in school and the military taught him about the importance of protecting those who cannot do so for themselves, thus accepting and appreciating the familiar unfamiliarity of the physiologies and behaviours of animals. On the other side is Darius, who was forced to adapt to his abusive surroundings from a young age and coped with this by turning weakness into something shameful and the unfamiliar into something to be shunned and feared, leading him to see animals as purposefully malevolent monsters who actively seek the demise of humans. These two men had drastically different upbringings, leading them to come to drastically different conclusions about the perceived morality of animals: one who sees the inherent value of nature, and one who sees it as nothing short of vile.


The discussion begins with Stephen. His parents were detached from him, with their caring-yet-impersonal approach to parenting even going so far as to ask him to call them by their first names as opposed to ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ just to hear their chosen names more often. They attempted to instill passivity and serene acceptance in Stephen, but they only succeeded in fostering a protective nature within him. Since he was larger than most other kids in his elementary and high schools, that nature manifested in him standing up for a classmate in a more violent way than his parents knew how to handle. This classmate, Ruby, was a precursor to the animals that Stephen would come to protect; she acted and dressed differently from their peers in ways that made her a target for bullying, similar to the animals he encounters throughout his life which range from the coyotes that Darius antagonizes throughout the novel, to the camel spider he spared while deployed, to the “four small lives” he feels obligated to keep alive 


under his bed. This obligation was made worse by his myocarditis, which forced him to abandon what he saw at the time as his purpose. Since he cannot, in the present, do more physically demanding acts of protection in the conventional manner through the military, he finds solace and fulfillment through himself and Guy doing their part to respect and take care of animals – within his ability, of course. This is where the difference between Darius and Stephen lies: where Stephen tries his best to serve as a guardian in spite of and alongside his disability, Darius is ashamed of the weakening bones within him and believes he must serve as an executioner.

Darius’ childhood was fraught with horrors that served to teach him many harmful lessons that would lead him to his downfall. First, he was physically and emotionally neglected by his mother who “liked sleeping alone,” and “kept her thoughts to herself”, then placed into such extreme isolation that the only light in the darkness was his abusive Grandfather, who taught him to see weakness and vulnerability as something to be punished and locked away, instead of understood and protected. This is why he was so shaken when Stephen first brought forward the image of the “live, helpless young” that both humans and coyotes bear; he was once like that, a helpless child reaching for a mother who would not reach for him first and abandoned by her carelessness both for her son and her own life. Seeing himself and an animal in the same light was, at this point, not an option, no matter how bold the connecting line was between the vulnerable coyote pup and the vulnerable young Darius. It was living with his tyrannical Grandfather that solidified the idea that if one is vulnerable, they will be punished. It does not matter what does the punishing: whether it be an animal, another person, or the circumstances they would, presumably, fail to endure due to this personal deficiency, Darius learned from his Grandfather that in order to stay alive, he must be strong in his body, his mind, and his beliefs.

Because of this, Darius is unable to align himself with nature until he sees himself reflected in the eyes of a coyote in his final moments, which forces upon him an epiphany that he cannot reconcile with without “turning [his shotgun] the right way round”. ‘Right’ implies that this was the way it was always meant to be, the only way that Darius could be satisfied with his own character development. Because he loses his nerve to shoot the coyote in front of him and finally sees the coyote for the simple animal “she,” not ‘it,’ is, he seeks self-flagellation in the form of suicide as his tragic solution, just like his Grandfather taught him.

Both of these men are heavily and deeply traumatized and it manifests quite differently in both cases: guilt rules Stephen, shown in how he obsesses over the raccoon kits as if raising and releasing them will prove that he is strong and capable of protecting something, while shame rules Darius and forces him to straighten his weakening back in dedication to his own violently anti-coyote cause that he has convinced himself is the righteous path to walk. An animal need not be graceful, soft, or loving to be worthy of protection and admiration, and where this knowledge had come easily to Stephen, it was simply incompatible with Darius, who interpreted his own change of heart as a new weakness to punish. Attempting to moralize the behaviours of animals and pushing human codes of ethics that they have spent millennia surviving and thriving without is something that is both unrealistic and unfair to the animals; it is impossible to understand their mental machinations, so the only thing to do is appreciate them for what they are without trying to explain their behaviours with human tools like logic, morals, or ethics. The grotesque and the beautiful can, do, and should intersect.