Grab the tissues: storytelling in pet rescue

Why these unscripted tales are so powerful

In Story Cauldron, I investigate different things that make a good story. Today I examine pet rescue stories—and don’t worry, none of the content here will depict injured animals or bad outcomes (though that’s the reality more often than we’d like to admit).

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What is it about animal-centric stories, and especially those centered on animal rescue sagas, that keep us coming back for more?

Animal stories in literature

People have been writing about animals for pretty much as long as people have been writing. Until modern times, animals were often stand-ins for actual people in stories intended to satirize or convey a lesson in human behavior.

As John Berger wrote in his 1980 book About Looking, “animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.”

But in the past century or so, tales about animals themselves, without a political or religious agenda, have become wildly popular. And more often than not, they tug on our heartstrings in a way similar stories about humans don’t always achieve.

Can you get through Charlotte’s Web, White Fang, or Black Beauty without crying? And then there’s Old Yeller. I was in grade school when I innocently watched the 1957 Disney film version of Old Yeller on TV. Decades later it still upsets me to think about it. Meanwhile, I’ve seen countless films and read tons of books where characters die, and although they’re sad, they never quite have that same gut punch.

A couple of animal rescue tales

This topic came to me after reading a story on Facebook about a dramatic week-long rescue operation down in Austin, TX.

This particular story was recounted by the rescue group TRAPRS - Trapping, Rescue, and Pet Recovery Service, a nonprofit group made up entirely of volunteers that go out and helps rescue and recover pets who have gotten loose or that have gotten themselves into dangerous predicaments. In this tale (publicly available on Facebook), Louie, a skittish Italian greyhound with medical issues, got away from his owners in the middle of a cross-country move. Having done that myself not too long ago, I can guarantee you it’s every pet owner’s nightmare.

In the story, TRAPRS recounts all of the crazy events, including running cameras through storm drains and having a small army of volunteers waiting to see if they could flush him out, before finally achieving a successful capture.

When I lived in Austin, I helped some of these folks (including my friend Melissa) with a couple of much simpler rescues, including helping flush a dog out of a bed of prickly pear cactus (without it running into a neighboring street), and rescuing kittens from a storm drain located in a parking lot.

With that experience under my belt, I can guarantee you that Louie’s tracking and rescue was nerve-wracking, difficult, and hotter than hell (it’s like a million degrees in Austin right now!).

Even though I’m not in Austin, and don’t know the dog owner or the dog, I read the story with anxious and eager anticipation. But why? Even though I had a friend involved, what was it that made this story so compelling?

As a writer, it’s something I’m curious to understand.

And of course, there are so many other rescue groups across the world, with thousands of their own stories. Another group whose activities I regularly follow is Stray Rescue of St. Louis, which both rescues strays and rehabilitates them in a shelter. As they note on one of their posts,

“Our shelter is an urban sanctuary for so many wonderful dogs. They come to us broken. We heal them, both emotionally and physically, and give them the time they need—no matter how long it takes.”

As the name suggests, most of Stray Rescue’s efforts focus on stray and abandoned pets, many of whom have been injured or abused. Their best-known employee is Donna, who regularly leads crazy rescues in condemned buildings and other places most people won’t go.

And their stories are consistently doozies. Case in point: one of Stray Rescue’s recent rescues was on a busy highway.

It’s an entire feature film in a couple of minutes. If you watch it, you’ll understand what I mean by these stories being incredibly compelling (and why so much of St. Louis considers Donna to be a badass and a hero!)

Why do rescue stories affect us?

So…. what is it about these stories? They’re just matter-of-fact episodes in people’s lives. Just another day of work or volunteering. Animals get captured, taken to the vet, no big deal. Right?

But of course, they’re so much more.

In the TRAPRS rescue, which story tugged on my heartstrings—Louie’s escape, the efforts of his rescuers, or the poor, frantic owners? With Dodge, the dog on the highway, what are the elements that make that video so powerful?

Why are these stories so compelling?

I’d argue that these accounts work because, even unscripted, they contain all of the elements of a good story. (Surprise!)

  • There’s a hero (or multiple heroes) who take on difficult challenges (finding pets, or caring for them), go to dangerous locations (e.g. abandoned properties, overgrown fields and woods, highways), confront animals of unknown temperaments, and so forth.

  • There is a quest of sorts—save the pet!—which, as the quest unravels, leads to a lot of drama and suspense—will the hero succeed?

  • Often there’s a time clock as well—maybe the pet needs medicine, or needs to be captured before a big storm. There’s nothing better than a deadline to ramp up the stakes in a story!

  • We empathize with the characters— both the human heroes as well as the animal ‘victims’.

  • And of course, there’s the happy ending (rescue groups rarely broadcast the bad outcomes with video or lengthy recaps).

Taking this further, I’d argue that these stories touch us for exactly the same reason a rom-com or horror film appeal to us: we recognize elements of ourselves and our own lives. Maybe we have a pet family of our own, possibly also a rescue, and perhaps we relate to the terror and worry that comes with an escapee.

And, just like exciting movies and novels, it’s a vicarious experience. We go through the anxiety, fear, and (hopefully) elation and relief as if were there. I mean, come on. I’ve seen Donna’s highway rescue video at least three times and know full-well how it ends, but it still had me on the edge of my seat (and in tears) watching it again as I worked on this.

In addition to all of the other reasons we might gravitate towards pet rescue tales, I think one of the biggest reasons they hit us so hard, and are so powerful, is that we crave love and kindness in our lives. By experiencing rescue stories and videos that depict this goodness, we get a dose of that “feel good” energy, healing our cynical, hardened hearts.

I mean, how can you not feel love and all the warm fuzzies after watching this sweet video on The Dodo of a momma cow and her baby?

Are you a fan of rescue stories?

The next time you engage with an animal rescue story, consider why you’re watching. How does it make you feel? Are you happy or sad? Do you share in the victorious sensation?

And then maybe take a moment to donate to a local rescue group. They do really challenging, and often heartbreaking, work on a shoestring. Even the bigger groups never have enough funds to help all the animals.

In the comments, feel free to give a shout-out to other rescue groups and let us know more about them!

Thanks for reading!


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