Animals have always had a special place in Richard Adams's life. He recalls walks with his father, a country doctor, through the meadows and woods in Hampshire, England, where he grew up. ``He never allowed us to say, `There's a bird.' You had to say what the bird was.'' In this way Mr. Adams, who later went on to write the critically acclaimed book ``Watership Down,'' learned to recognize the distinctive movements of different species, and their calls. ``I can still identify a bird by its song,'' he notes, a flicker of satisfaction in his light-blue eyes.
``My father believed that with the ability to name the creatures comes a clearer perception of the creatures. I think this is very important.''
Such closeness to animals, he believes, helps children grow up with a greater sensitivity to all living creatures -- a sensitivity that may lead to active protests against the commercial exploitation of animals. Sitting in the lounge in Boston's Parker House hotel, during a recent visit, the author knits his snowy-white brow, fastens those clear blue eyes on his listener, and proclaims that ``something is terribly, terribly wrong'' with a society that allows the killing of animals to satisfy ``luxury and vanity.''
Adams nurtured a sensitivity to animals in his own children, sharing his closeness to nature with his daughters Juliet and Rosamond. He even spun long stories for them with animals as characters -- one of which evolved into his first book, ``Watership Down.''
That hugely successful novel, published in 1972, brought to life a world of thinking and talking rabbits threatened by the ravages of civilization. It made Richard Adams a prominent figure in the realm of popular fiction, a man whose pen drew both young readers and old. Relatively few of his subsequent books -- over a dozen, including more novels, a collection of folk tales, an Antarctica travel epic, and a number of nature guides -- have had animals as central characters.
His next book, however, will again see life through an animal's eyes. Those eyes will belong to Traveler, the stallion that carried Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee through the American Civil War.
The work, now in the research stage, will be about ``Traveler's war reminiscences,'' says Adams. It will include such ironic twists as ``the horse's incomprehension at what's going on around him.'' As a man, Lee was ``known to have an extraordinary rapport with animals,'' notes the writer, so close that the general and his horse were ``virtually one entity.''
Adams has been poring over the books of Bruce Catton and other scholars of the Civil War. He's planning to meet up with two American friends later this year -- ``one a federal and the other a confederate'' -- for some extensive foraging around Lee's most famous battlefields.
In addition to these ongoing writing chores, Adams puts in countless hours as a spokesman for various animal-rights causes. He's a past president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
His fervor for the protection of animals, like his affection for nature generally, has been transferred to his own offspring. Both daughters, he notes with a touch of pride, have been arrested during animal-rights protests in Britain.
On that side of the Atlantic, by the way, the movement against exploitation of animals is definitely ``on the up and up,'' says Adams. It's been helped along by some people in high places, especially the ``noble example of our Princess Diana,'' who has publicly announced that she will not wear furs.
He doesn't remember anything specific his own parents did to instill sensitivity towards animals. It was ``a general atmosphere,'' he says -- the occasional admonition, ``Don't kill that wasp, dear, let him out.'' That's what he tried to convey to his own girls.
Rapport with pets, as well as acquaintance with the wildlife in woods and forests, can help children gain something too often lacking in today's world, according to Adams. That something, he explains, is pity. He envisions millions ``sitting, looking at their TV screens,'' seeing horrible things happening to other people -- but just looking, without pity. Too often, says Adams, the conditioned response becomes an offhand ``Oh yeah, too bad.''
In his view, pity can begin with a child's sensitivity to animals, which are so dependent on the people that care for them. ``If we don't speak for them, no one will,'' he observes.
``It's very important that children should apprehend animals,'' he says, summing up. ``And in a funny way, I don't think it matters whether this is done through Beatrix Potter [author of ``Peter Rabbit'' et al.] or in a scientific way.''
Adams seizes every opportunity -- broadcast talk shows, campus lectures -- to tweak consciences about buying and selling mink, fox, and all the other goods purveyed by furriers. He makes no effort to hide his revulsion over ``the world of misery and horror underneath the glossy ads.''
Trapping of fur-bearing animals, or even raising them commercially in tightly packed conditions that contradict all their natural instincts, is nothing less than ``torture,'' asserts Adams.
Some question whether the animals suffer, he observes. ``When you meditate on what they suffer,'' he continues, lowering his voice, ``it won't bear thinking about.''