Several years ago, I heard about a Republican, a former speech writer for George W. Bush, who had written a book in favor of protecting animals. I also heard that he was vegetarian (now vegan).
I initially wondered if hell had frozen over.
I’m joking, but only slightly. Because it was just a few months ago, at the Republican CPAC conference, that a former aid for Donald Trump warned that democrats wanted to take your hamburgers away. And Rep. Mark Meadows (North Carolina) warned that Democrats were coming for your cows.
All this despite that fact that most Democrats eat cows too.
That this issue over beef and hamburgers is becoming an issue (driven more by climate change than animal rights) led me to finally get around to reading this book: Dominion, by Matthew Scully.
And while I disagree with a few aspects of the book (Scully’s off-putting obsession with abortion and Peter Singer), I would dare anyone to read this book — Democrat or Republican, Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist, and not come away a vegetarian.
As a devout Christian, Scully goes back to the Bible and calls into question this idea that the Bible says it’s okay for humans to eat animals. He points out that after that much-cited line in Genesis about man having dominion over animals, comes this line:
And God said, Behold. I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding fruit; to you it shall be for meat.
If you read this line as advocating a plant-based lifestyle, you read it correctly.
Scully writes: “Indeed there was a time when Christians fasted from animal products throughout all forty days of Lent, a form of self-denial still found among the orthodox and matched in Islam by the prohibition on killing game while on pilgrimage.” Scully continues:
The next step seems obvious to me. If sanctity is the goal, and flesh-eating a mark of the Fall, the one is to be sought and the other to be avoided. Why just say grace when you can show it? Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, the life of a pig or a cow or fowl of the air isn’t worth much. But if it’s the Grand Scheme we are going by, just what is a plate of bacon or veal worth? The skeptical reader can write me off as misguided, if not mad. I am betting that in the Book of Life “He had mercy on the creatures” is going to count more than “He ate well.”
Scully is a powerful writer. I admire the courage it took him to write a book that flies counter to the worldview of so many of his colleagues.
As the subtitle of this book states, this is a book about mercy. And chapter after chapter we are confronted with scenes of great violence to animals, scenes utterly devoid of mercy.
Scully takes us with him to a conference for Safari Club, a grotesque affair, in which people win awards based on how many exotic animals they kill. Scully writes of ranches in the US, where animals are fenced in so that hunters on busy schedules can have guaranteed kills. If there is karma in the afterlife, well, you can imagine what I wish on hunters.
As a prominent Republican, Scully was welcomed to this event and it was fascinating to see how people interacted with him. He destroys the myth of hunting as conservation, something I hear often in this part of Oregon, where hunters talk about their duck stamps and license fees as a form of love for animals and the environment. He quotes one such “conservationist” who tells this story about elephants in Namibia:
…we have a road that divides the hunting area from the protected area. The water is in the hunting area. And I see the elephants come into the area, rushing, to get a drink. And then they rush back. And when they’re across the road you can see them relax. You can see the relief. They know.
Yes, elephants know all too well what monsters we can be.
Scully moves on to factory farms and spends a great deal of time touring pig enclosures, or prisons, as they really should be called. I won’t recount the horrors he witnesses on his tours — led by docents who are too numbed by it to apparently care — but I will say that this is some of the most powerful writing about pigs in captivity I have read. And, like the Safari Club, I suspect it is because the author is welcomed into these private areas by the executives who view him as one of their own. He is not one of those crazy vegan protestors, so he gets the personal tour. And when you see the disconnect between the executives who have convinced themselves they are treating the animals well and the author who sees the truth, you get a feeling for just what a massively awful system we have constructed, one that few people ever see, protected by laws and money as well as our allegiance to traditions and habits. A system that abuses and murders billions of animals every year. Not millions. Billions.
And we are all complicit. As Scully writes, “Everyone is wrong.”
It may be adamantly objected that I am equating injustice to animals with injustice to human beings, a sign of my own misplaced priorities and moral confusion. This rejoinder only cuts the other way. It is only further evidence of our own boundless capacity for self-delusion, especially when there is money involved. For if so many wrongs once thought right can fill our human story, such unbounded violence and disregard of human life, how much easier for the human heart to overlook the wrongs done to lowly animals, to tolerate intolerable things. Tradition with all its happy assumptions and necessary evils, all of its content majorities and stout killers, is not always a reliable guide. “We had stopped short at Comfort, and mistaken it for Civilization,” as Disraeli remarked in another context. Sometimes tradition and habit are just that, comfortable excuses to leave things be, even when they are unjust and unworthy. Sometimes — not often, but sometimes — the cranks and radicals turn out to be right. Sometimes Everyone is wrong.
Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy
Author of the novels The Tourist Trail and Where Oceans Hide Their Dead. Co-founder of Ashland Creek Press and editor of Writing for Animals (also now a writing program).