Monday, August 15, 2011

Good reading: 'Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals'

When I read books about the relationship between humans and other animals, I'm looking for several things: Insights that help me understand my thoughts, emotions and actions; ammunition for my rhetorical battles with anti-hunters; and, believe it or not, facts or ideas that challenge my thinking and assumptions.

I got all three with the new book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals by anthrozoologist Hal Herzog.

When someone from TLC Book Tours asked me last month if I'd like a copy of the book for review, it took me about two seconds to say, "Yes, please!" From the title alone, I could see it'd be right up my alley.

Once it arrived, I tore through it, and I loved it. Mostly.

The big take-away from this book is that we humans are wildly inconsistent and hypocritical in our attitudes toward, and treatment of, animals. Moreover, the more we try to be moral purists in our regard for animals, the harder it is for us to behave consistently toward them.

I suspect many vegans can relate to that, because it's just hard to live in a way that doesn't use animals at all. I found I could relate to it as well: Hunting has taken me on a journey that has soured my view of agriculture because of how it manipulates nature - both animals and plants - but I find it pretty much impossible to escape ag and live up to my own ideal.

This book has lots of other intriguing ideas and facts that, combined with Herzog's conversational writing style, make this a good read. Here's one of my favorites:

We have some really wacky inconsistencies arising from our use of animals in research, which Herzog illustrates with the distinction between "good mice" and "bad mice" in a lab at the University of Tennessee.

The use of mice in a research projects at the lab is allowed only after a committee weighs the potential benefits of the research against the harm that will be inflicted on the mice. Once a project is approved, there are strict guidelines for the treatment of mice. Those are the good mice.

Then there the bad mice: the vermin running loose, threatening the hyper-clean conditions of the lab. The people running the lab can do anything they want to eradicate these mice, and the method they use is sticky traps. Here's what Herzog says about them:

Sticky traps are rodent flypaper. Each trap consists of a sheet of cardboard about a foot square, covered with a tenacious adhesive and embedded with a chemical mouse attractant - hence their other name, glue boards. In the evening, animal care technicians would place glue boards in areas where pest mice traveled, and check them the next morning. When a mouse stepped on a sticky trap, it would become profoundly stuck. As it struggled, the animal's fur would become increasingly mired in glue. Though the traps did not contain toxins, about half of the animals were dead when the were found the next day...

Animals caught in sticky traps suffer a horrible death. I doubt that any animal care committee would approve an experiment in which a researcher requested permission to glue mice to cardboard and leave them overnight. Thus a procedure that was clearly unacceptable for a mouse labeled "subject" was permitted for a mouse labeled "pest."

Here's the kicker: The "bad" mice were not wild animals; they were escaped "good" mice.

Bonus points to Herzog for admitting to the same hypocrisy in his own home. When his son's pet mouse died, the family held a respectful funeral for the little rodent and buried him in the garden with a slate headstone. A couple days later when Herzog's wife discovered mouse poop in the kitchen, "She looked at me and said, 'Kill it,'" he wrote. He did, with a snap trap, and he tossed its corpse under a bush not far from the pet mouse's grave site.

One recurring theme in the book - what struck me as the biggest consistency in how we treat animals - is that we give the most respect and courtesy to the animals that are considered family (i.e., pets), and the least to animals that are generally out of our sight (i.e., farm animals).

Personally, I think we treat humans the same way. I'm not gonna lie: The plight of a human in my family or my community means way more to me than the plight of a human halfway across the country, or on the other side of the world.

This certainly explains how I can be a devoted slave to my cat Giblet at one moment, then head out to slaughter wild animals that are pretty close to her in size, and even charm, the next. Giblet is family; ducks are not.

It also explains why I might never raise animals for meat, despite the fact that I grew up in a household that did so: I'm not sure I could keep an animal in my care (making it like family), then slit its throat.

It's totally irrational, and totally human, that I feel that way.

Or wait, maybe it's not just human. Check this out:

Herzog wrote about some research aimed at determining whether mice would react to pain being inflicted on other mice. What kind of pain? Oh, injecting mild acid in their stomachs, injecting irritants into their paws and heating the surface mice were standing on until they lifted their paws to get away from it.

The results? Yes, mice who were subjected to these little tortures writhed more when they were in the presence of other mice being tortured than they did when they were being tortured in isolation ... but only if the fellow torture victims were relatives or cage-mates.

But wait, there's more! Pain was contagious only to mice who could see their relatives or cage-mates suffering. Merely smelling or hearing those fellow suffering mice did not affect them. Out of sight, out of mind.

This book is full of lots of fascinating stuff like this, and it covers way more than animal research: Herzog delves into pets, agriculture, cockfighting and animal rights/animal advocacy.

But I was really disappointed with one aspect of the book: Herzog didn't address hunting in any substantial way, despite the fact that hunters often express the baffling sentiment that we love the animals we hunt - not just that we love to hunt them and eat them, but that we revere and respect them. While I've given this paradox a great deal of thought on my own, I was really hoping to learn more from a researcher.

Moreover, I got the strong sense that Herzog doesn't particularly understand hunters or hunting. For example, in his chapter on cockfighting - which he studied at great length - he says this:

If cockfighters were sadistic perverts, it would be easy to explain their involvement in a cruel bloodsport. But given that most are not, how can they participate in an activity that is illegal and that nearly everyone in America thinks is immoral? The answer is that they construct a moral framework based on a mix of wishful thinking and logic in which cockfighting becomes completely acceptable. In this regard they are no different from any other person who exploits animals - hunters, circus animal trainers, even scientists and meat-eaters.

I don't object to his conclusion about the moral framework we construct. I accept that we do that. For some people, killing animals is justified by God giving mankind dominion over animals. I don't personally buy that; I justify my hunting by the fact that hunting is a fact of life in nature. Other people don't buy that either. And I know a vegan who eats oysters, despite the fact that they are living beings, because someone gave her an article in which someone said it was OK for vegans to eat them.

I don't object to the term "exploit" either, because I take it at its literal definition (to use), not with its emotional connotation (to abuse).

What bugs me is that he lumped hunters in with circus animal trainers, while he put scientists and meat eaters in a higher class. Yes, I'm really parsing words here, but I don't think I'm wrong. Hunters are meat eaters who go out and get their own, but I'm not sure he groks that.

If Herzog has spent any time researching hunters personally, it's not apparent in this book. I think every mention of hunters references someone else's research.

And funny thing? Because he spent a lot of time with cockfighters and got to know how they pamper their birds, he acknowledges that cockfighting produces far less suffering than producing broiler chickens. Yet, while he doesn't advocate the end of broiler chicken production, he does advocate the end of cockfighting. "It is time for rooster fighters to close down the pits and swap their gaffs for golf clubs and bass boats," he writes.

Bass boats? Those instruments of contest-driven, high-speed torture-and-release fishing? Really?

I guess Herzog suffers from the same moral inconsistencies as the rest of us.

Now, I don't think any of this should dissuade you from buying this book. If you're interested in how humans relate to and interact with animals, you'll learn a lot. And you'll probably think more carefully about your own views. Just don't expect to learn much about hunters.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


trish said...

Wow! You have such an interesting insight in to this book given that you're a hunter. It sounds like the relationship hunters have with their prey would make for interesting research!

You said, "It also explains why I might never raise animals for meat, despite the fact that I grew up in a household that did so: I'm not sure I could keep an animal in my care (making it like family), then slit its throat." The only way I can figure people raise animals for food is to NOT make them family. I have a friend who bought a cow to raise for slaughter. This friend has two daughters. The cow's name? Hamburger. He wanted the kids to always be aware that the cow was not a pet, but had a purpose of ultimately being food.

Thanks for being on this tour!

Holly Heyser said...

Once you're in that situation of raising meat animals, you create the moral construct that allows it. I cried the first time I saw one of our animals being killed, but after eating chicken pot pie that night, I never cried again.

I really enjoyed reading a book that looked at our human foibles so honestly. I'm such a sucker for painful self-examination! :-)

Deus Ex Machina said...

I, too, am amazed that more people who won't raise their own animals for meat. I am, as you seem to be, of the belief that in Nature everything eats and gets eaten. People are squeamish and want someone else to do their dirty work ... this applies to many areas of our society not just food.

My girls know that the baby rabbits and broiler chickens will be food. We give them the best life we can before we harvest (forigve the euphamism) them. There is no reason to abuse them because they are food. We understand they are making a great sacrifice. We just try to honor that.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Great review, Holly. I love the details you picked out, in connection to hunting and otherwise.

Btw, reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. A new blog post really will someday soon. I'm just neck-deep in book edits, etc, hopefully including enough painful self-examination to please folks like you. ;-)

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

That's "a new blog post really will APPEAR someday soon."

Unknown said...

It might seem weird, but not when you think of humans as tribal creatures. We act the same way about humans. We agonize over putting a serial killer to death, but a missile that kills several warlords in Iraq doesn't even make the news. In the hunter-gatherer tribes I've read about, keeping animals as pets is common and they'd never eat animals they have raised, but they eat other members of those species all the time. While it seems unfair, the reality is that humans care more about individuals in their "tribe."

Holly Heyser said...

Deus: I constantly marvel at the fact that most people, if left on their own, could not feed themselves. They don't know how to turn animals into meat, don't know what plants they can eat. With the supports of civilization, of course, this is no big deal, but it seems to me to be a serious flaw.

Tovar: Thanks, and I know exactly what you mean - I was ready to write this post a week ago, but have just been way too busy to write, mostly with photography, but also with a project: I'm building a dining room table for ten. Now that I've gotten this post done, I'm hoping I can actually work out today. And shoot skeet. And shop. And ...

Melissa: I think the true universal is that we draw a protective circle close to us, and our concern diminishes the farther you get from that circle. There was so much more I would've liked to have written about in this book, lots of insights about pets, but I'm pretty sure no one wants to read a 5,000-word blog post :-).

Al Cambronne said...

Great review. Sounds like an interesting book. I don't know if we're exactly hypocritical when it comes to how we think about different animals differently, but it sure is non-rational.

And you sure grabbed an interesting quote about hunting. If that was one of the few mentions, it seemed like he was essentially saying "cockfighters are almost as bad as hunters or circus trainers."

I agree that bass boats aren't much of a step up, but would add that golf clubs might not be, either. Golf courses displace huge amounts of habitat, and then are kept green and weed-free with lots of toxic chemicals. That damage is invisible, but just as real.

Anyway... Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the review!

Brian said...

Good review Holly,
As I have expresed and taught before "some are family, some are for frying".

I think the mouse example is astute and very useful as it highlights the constructed juxtapostion in animal ethics within the same space.

I am not anti-ag across the board, I try my best to buy from local 'ethical producers'. I am trying to avoid supporting large industrial ag, its all but impossible with a major lifestyle change.

Bass boats....I am torn on that one. I used be an ardent bass angler but not anymore. I couldn't keep up with the equipment race! I do agree that they are awfully ostentatious craft for chasing a fish that is considered to be huge at 7lbs.

Holly Heyser said...

Al: There were other quotes too, like this one: "(A)nimal research is certainly more defensible than eating creatures because they are tasty or shooting them for sport." Personally, I would argue that basic sustenance is more important than research. Shooting animals just for "sport" isn't high on my list either. He might have been referencing hunters who kill but don't eat their prey, but I just got the strong feeling that he thinks all hunting is that kind of hunting. (Which is why I DETEST the term "sport hunting.")

And I know golf can be deadly too - two of my colleagues have killed animals by smacking them with golf balls at a golf course. One killed a goose, the other a squirrel. I chastised both for neglecting to bring me the meat.

Brian: I have an uneasy relationship with ag. I know it's impractical to get rid of it, and obviously I consume a lot of agricultural products. I try to make ethical choices, but when I travel, I frequently eat the worst stuff: fast food. I'd happily pay more for better meat.

Re bass fishing and bass boats: I don't get the whole tournament thing. I do know that bass are hardy and that most can withstand torture and release, but I still don't like it. For me, it's still on par with tazing ducks for shits and giggles.

Nancy said...

Holly: Bring on the 5,000-word blog post! I'd be happy to read it.

Kate said...

I've found it surprisingly uncomplicated to raise an animal for meat and slit its throat myself. I have pets that I adore, but the livestock (only poultry thus far) are definitely in another category - not family. I think I'm pretty conscientious about caring for my livestock, both hens and meat birds. Yet somehow I don't have any problem killing them when it's time. I don't like euphemisms for killing or dying either. I don't cull or retire them; I slaughter them.

The moral construct I use is a quality of life vs. quantity of life. No living thing - either in nature or human society - receives a guarantee on the length of life. So I don't think taking an animal's life is wrong provided I do so responsibly. I couldn't hunt an endangered animal, and I could never kill an animal except to feed myself or protect myself or my pets/livestock. I'm only responsible for the quality of life my livestock has, and I take that responsibility seriously. They have a certain number of good weeks, months or years, and one very bad morning. That's my moral justification and I'm sticking to it.

Holly Heyser said...

Who knows - I might be able to do it. But hunting has completely changed my relationship with animals, so I'm not so certain anymore.

The test would be chicken. I love chicken, and I would love to have ready access to chickens that were raised in decent conditions. Only time will tell, I guess.

Gretchen Steele said...

My copy from inter - library loan finally arrived today! I can see now my weekend nose will be buried in this volume! Thanks again for bringing this book to our attention!