TORONTO - Writer and broadcaster Erika Ritter has long been haunted by an age-old tale of a dog, his master and the snake that broke their bond.
The master, as the story goes, came home one night to find his dog spattered in blood, his baby's cradle overturned, and the infant nowhere in sight.
The master immediately killed the dog, only to realize later that the baby was sound asleep under the crib next to a dead snake.
His dog, he realized to his horror, was actually protecting the child against the scaly enemy.
"When I discovered that there really was an instance in history where such a dog had existed and such a thing had happened ... it gave me a kind of literal journey," Ritter - a playwright, journalist, author and CBC Radio broadcaster - said in a recent interview.
That journey resulted in "The Dog by the Cradle, The Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships," which is up for a Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize on Tuesday.
It's also a semifinalist for British Columbia's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.
Ritter writes that her goal was to investigate the contradictions "at the heart of humanity's relationship with all animals. The fact that we claim to love what we so often end up killing."
The dog-serpent tale, she said, served as an "organizing myth" from which all the other paradoxes and contradictions could be spun off.
"The book is not a book that is a book of advocacy," the Regina native said over the phone from her Toronto home. "It's meant to make us all feel guilty as a species I guess, but I think we already do."
"In terms of the individual readers, I worried with some friends of mine who care for animals, that they were afraid to read the book because it would depress them," added Ritter, who usually writes in a more humorous style in such books as "The Great Big Book Of Guys: Alphabetical Encounters with Men."
"It's hard to tell a roseate story about us and animals."
Ritter started her extensive research for the book two years ago after doing a four-part series on animals for CBC Radio. She had also written the novel "The Hidden Life of Humans," in which a dog is one of the narrators.
Ritter journeyed to the U.S., England and France to conduct interviews. She met with a slew of subjects, from a woman who runs a Humane Slaughter class at Colorado State University, to researchers who conduct tests on animals and the owner of a farm for "retired" research chimpanzees in Quebec.
Such encounters are recounted with extensive detail in the book, along with in-depth analysis of human-animal themes in mythology, film, TV and literature. We also learn about novel research into the intelligence, consciousness and behaviour of animals and our relationship with them through the ages.
An animal lover herself (she has a cat and is a vegetarian), Ritter tried to remain impartial.
And while her research revealed some scenarios that were difficult for her to witness, she "didn't pass judgments on any of the positions that people took," she said.
"I tried to present them to the reader. I wanted it to be like a documentary film where you got to see and hear the person talking in an unprompted way about themselves ...
"I wanted it to be a view of those people, not a view of me interviewing them and expressing my own point of view vis-a-vis theirs."
Now that the book is out there, Ritter said she continues to remain interested in writing about animal issues, particularly as they relate to the law.
Animals, she added, "just have been very, very central" to her life. "I couldn't do without them and I have a certain amount of conflict as I become more and more critical of the culture of pet keeping, and realizing more and more how much they are under our control and how much it's the world we've made for them.