The Incidental Animal Welfarism of Calvin and Hobbes

Photograph Source: walknboston – CC BY 2.0

There’s no art I’ve loved more, in any medium, than Calvin and Hobbes. From elementary school through high school, I read through the comic’s entire run at least once a year. If you’d asked me whether I’d rather save the final copies of William Shakespeare’s plays, Steven Spielberg’s films, or Bill Watterson’s strip, it wouldn’t have been a hard choice.

I didn’t have much talent for drawing, but I dreamed of creating my own comic. I started many of them, stealing shamelessly from Watterson. One year, my friends and I dressed up as characters from the strip for Halloween. My mother made a wonderful Hobbes costume, featuring a cardboard mask, an orange sweatsuit with black-painted stripes, and a tail.

Returning to the comic now, it makes me a little sad to notice how foreign the act of reading a strip feels. My eyes don’t move naturally from the dialogue balloons, to the art, and then to the next panel. I find myself impatient. I don’t know whether it’s because I mostly read nonfiction these days or if my life is just busier. Whatever the reason, I’d like to enjoy Watterson’s work again.

In retrospect, the comic has a strong animal-welfare streak, which I appreciate as an animal activist. Watterson is famously reclusive, so it’s hard to know what inspired this. I imagine it was a byproduct of his environmentalism, which is clearly his political priority, and the result of writing from the perspective of Hobbes, a nonhuman character.

Take the strip from March 20, 1987. The titular duo are at a construction site. Calvin asks Hobbes where the animals are supposed to live now the woods have been cut down for new houses. He continues, asking how humans would like it if animals bulldozed a suburb and planted new trees. The pair think about this, before we see Hobbes in a bulldozer, saying he can’t find the keys.

Given conservation is such a frequent theme for Watterson, I suspect this is primarily an environmental message, and the concern for animals as individuals, rather than species categories, is secondary to that. Modern readers may interpret this as an example of not-in-my-backyard environmentalism in the context of current housing debates, but that’s another issue, which, frankly, I’m not very familiar with.

Consider the comic from February 26, 1995. Calvin’s parents are summoned to school after he presents a grisly short story to his class in which deer hunt humans as a means of population control. The species role reversal is illuminating and says a great deal about the casual way we think about nonhuman death and suffering. However, again, I believe environmental concern is the motivating issue for Watterson here.

Then there are strips like that from September 25, 1993. Calvin asks Hobbes whether he’d like to go to the zoo. Without missing a beat, the tiger asks whether they can tour a prison afterwards. I have no idea if Watterson was opposed to zoos. It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t have strong feelings on the matter, but writing from Hobbes’ perspective led him to anti-zoo sentiment.

On a side note, I had both the bulldozer and hunting strips pinned to my childhood wall, before I began my initial experimentation with vegetarianism and later veganism. It makes me wonder if I was always headed on my current trajectory; however, perhaps I’m reading too far into things.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at