Gentle and Fierce is a new book of illustrated memoir essays by Vanessa Berry. 

The Ceramic Zoo/ Otter Figurine

Again I take the ceramic otter from the shelf of the bookcase where I keep it with my other figurines. I place on my desk, on the plastic coaster next to the computer, as I did when I wrote 'The Ceramic Zoo'. Now, as I did then, I sit and stare at it, working through the thoughts it provokes. There's something about the otter's look that makes me pause, that makes for a more complicated response than I would expect to have to a figurine. It is a figure of an animal, but in most ways human: human-made, reflecting human emotions.

Throughout my life I've had various collections of animal figurines, often given to me as presents, or later bought by me from op shops. The ones I had as a child were miniatures - tiny figures a few centimetres tall at most - made by a company called Hagen-Renaker. I coveted these figurines, which were displayed in the window of a local gift shop, and would stop to stare covetously at them through the glass. Owning one would be to be able to look at it whenever I wanted to: they were delicate, and weren't for handling, just a little object to keep with you and look at.

Another object I kept on my desk during the writing of Gentle and Fierce was a printout of John Berger's 1980 essay 'Why Look at Animals'. Reading it was the mental equivalent of sharpening a pencil, reminding myself of the human-animal relationship, what it is and can be. At the end of the essay Berger writes how the disappearance of independent animals from daily life coincided with 'zoos, realistic animal toys, and the widespread diffusion of animal imagery'. It is this distance, this accountability, that I feel when I look at the otter.  

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