The subtitle is “The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy,” and I’m considering using it for a spring semester course. It’s a devastating critique of our willful disregard of animal suffering. At worst, it’s about greed and arrogance so self-serving as to leave your mouth hanging open. It’s also about our lazy ignoring of what hear about the treatment of animals in factory farm, and the greed and hypocrisy of the people who argue that the animals like it. It’s also a defense of animal rights over time and of those who’ve fought corporate interests to ask for some human compassion for the needless suffering of animals at our service.
It’s not a likely book choice for me, written by Matthew Scully, a former speech writer for George Bush, a political conservative, a Christian, a right-to-lifer (I assume), with the nickname of the “most compassionate conservative.” But Scully is no sycophant to the republican agenda or easy quoter of Biblical passages to argue for another indefensible social policy. In fact, he is as hard on them as he is governmental and corporate suck-ups. On the other hand, it is a likely book for me because I am increasingly disgusted and horrified by the way animals are abused and tortured for our pleasure, with some weak rationale about our human superiority and “right” to their unequivocal surrender to whatever we demand of them.
Hence, the “dominion,” which we are Biblically admonished to hold over the creatures of the Earth. In his introduction wherein he talks about the Biblical roots of this dominion argument, he quotes a prayer from a 375AD bishop, who said, “We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail” (13). Hmm, why does that sound so present-time, this “groan of travail”?
His response to the criticism that animals don’t deserve so much attention, that humans deserve our greater effort in eradicating the realities of oppression, is developed throughout the book, but this comment is characteristic: “One may view the creatures as morally incidental, as soulless beings for whom no bell ever tolls . . . . What one may not do under the guise of religious principle is deny that we have at least certain basic obligations of kindness, and that these obligations impose limits on our own conduct that today are simply not being observed” (18).
Here are some of the topics–
Safari Hunting. One can go to Africa, where one can bag big game, and at the Safari Club Int’l be recognized under a range of categories of achievement, such as the “African Big Five Grand Slam,” which means you’ve killed an elephant, a rhinoceros, a Cape buffalo, a lion, and a leopard, while the Bears of the World Grand Slam requires your killing an Alaska brown bear, a grizzly, a Eurasian Brown bear, and a polar bear. But one doesn’t have to travel that far. In the US and other countries, “farms” allow “hunters” to pay big sums to come in and shoot illegally gotten elephants, giraffe, zebras, lions, and tigers–or great animals bought when they had served their function from zoos and other “protectors” of animals, now too old to be worth gawking at behind bars. Scully sums it up, “Your typical trophy hunter today is hunting captive animals, and for all the skill and manhood it requires might as well do his stalking in a zoo” (63).
Whaling. Here we get into more international politics, with countries and native communities (with the urging and support of Japanese corporate interests, in one case) arguing everything from consumer demand to the protection of cultural uniqueness. Scully’s take: “Grasping their stricken prey by the flukes with a giant iron claw, swallowing them whole through a gaping mouth in the stern, stripping, boiling, and disassembling an entire whale in under an hour, these floating factories are among the ugliest creations of the human mind” (159).
Lest anyone feel to smug about what those people over there are doing to these beautiful creatures, Scully is quick to point out the hypocrisy of anyone on US soil suggesting that those other countries are morally corrupt in their desimating of vast populations of whale, while we retain our pristine purity. Buffalo, anyone? Passenger pigeons? Native Americans?
Do animals suffer? No? Okay, then no need to worry about any pain they might feel. Without the capacity to think about what suffering means, it’s not real pain. This is an example of the kind of contortions apologists for animal cruelty have gone to in order to show that it really doesn’t matter. One scientist (French) wrote that animals “‘eat without pleasure, they cry without sorry, they desire nothing, they fear nothing, they know nothing” (196). I like Scully’s use of irony throughout to point out hypocrisy, like this: “An animal to rate decent consideration in our hands doesn’t need to philosophize or orate or compose an Ode to Joy. If the creatures experience some humbler degree of thought or emotion, then that’s enough and the burden is thrown back upon us” (197).
Industrial Factory Farms. This is probably the most horrifying of all the atrocities detailed in this book, and worst of all is the pig farms. Read this and you’ll never buy Smithfield brand again–or any animal raised in such tortured chambers. We have heard about the horrors of the killing rooms, where the work is so soul-killing we have to go south of the border to find anyone to do the work. But we learn in “Deliver Me from My Necessities” that the torture begins with birth. In a tour through one factory barn, Scully is accompanied by an ironically named “Gay,” they pause in front of a cage labeled NPD 88-308. “‘Baby’ is lying there covered in feces and dried blood, yanking maniacally on chains that have torn her mouth raw, as foraging animals will do when caged and denied straw or other roughage to chew. She’s hurting herself with the chains, I remark. ‘Oh, that’s normal’” (266). And later: “Frenzied chewing on bars and chains, stereotypical ‘vacuum’ chewing on nothing at all, stereotypical rooting and nest building with imaginary straw. And ‘social defeat,’ lots of it, in every third or fourth stall some completely broken being you know is alive only because she blinks and stares up at you, . . . creatures beyond the power of pity to help or indifference to make more miserable” (268).
And what is this practice of “docking”? “Termed in the field a ‘short-term stressor,’ docking doesn’t remove the target [why target? because the animals are lined up so close to each other that the pig behind will inevitably chew on the tail in front]: The idea is to leave each tail more sensitive, so that the pain of a bite is sharper and the pigs will therefore try harder to avoid attack. Otherwise the pigs display what is known in both animal and human psychology as learned helplessness. They just give up, their tails get chewed and infected, the infection spreads, and they die an unauthorized death” (276).
Animals tested for science: everything from what we’ve learned already–that rabbits are held down so that toxic chemicals can be poured into their eyes so we can see what happens–to new developments in cloning that are crossing species in entirely creepy ways. Fortunately there’s some reprieve in this chapter, since Scully acknowledges the growing awareness that there are more effective ways to test the effects of this or that than on animals. Thanks to the efforts of some doctors and the animal rights activists who are so lambasted for being extremists, scientific experimenting has changed its emphasis on live animals to cells or computer diagnostics or even cadavers. Still, there’s the March of Dimes, which “each year devotes millions of dollars to experiments of the kind carried out by a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. . . . [which means] taking a group of kittens, sewing shut the eyelids of half of them while rearing the others for one year in total darkness, and then killing them all to examine the effects of this experience on their brains” (379). And March of Dimes has also “funded experiments administering massive doses of cocaine, nicotine and alcohol to animals, as if mankind has not himself [sic] provided sufficient data on the harmful effects of these substances” (379).
The last chapter is “Justice and Mercy” and is a collection of recommendations–largely legal and policy ones that often have no teeth. In addition we need to stop taking on faith “that if Science says research and testing are necessary, then it is not for us to question, and those who presume to do so must be radicals, misfits, and sure enough, as he [Cal Thomas] notes in the same column, ‘vegetarians,’ too” (378). Near the end, he provides a bulleted list of things the Humane Farming Act should do, and concludes with an homage to the people who make good what other people have attempted to ruin, “leaving behind them a trail of trouble and hurt” (393). There are sanctuaries increasingly given over to rescuing the “‘downed’ animals, the injured or sick who would just be tossed aside anyway” (396). What are they doing? “Lambs and calves forage, play, or lie together on straw in scenes recalling the lines from Oliver Goldsmith: ‘No flocks that range the valley free / To slaughter we condemn / Taught by power that pities us / We learn to pity them.’”