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Book Review: Beg: A Radical New Way of Regarding Animals by Rory Freedman

Rory Freedman’s new book, Beg: A Radical New Way of Regarding Animals, is a must-read for anyone who believes himself or herself to be an animal lover. The main idea behind this book is that many people who think they love animals in fact unknowingly participate in any number of things that do animals great harm — and this idea is indeed “radical” to people who love their dogs but eat pigs (who are just as intelligent) or love their cats but wear leather, and so on.


Yet this book is not at all preachy; Freedman uses the same warmth and humor that made the Skinny Bitch books so wildly popular. And she is also not the type of activist who feels superior to anyone who isn’t yet on the same page — she writes, “I wasn’t born a vegan…I was contributing to a lot of violence and suffering. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you, with love, that you too have been complicit in the confinement, torture, and slaughter of animals.”

This will surely sound harsh to some readers — yet this is precisely what Beg is about: opening pet lovers’ eyes to the realities of what other animals suffer and asking what it truly means to call oneself an animal lover. While the book begins with stories of Freedman’s own pets, she inserts a short letter about a third of the way through letting us know “the party’s over” — in other words, the tough stuff starts here. And it’s also the most important stuff — the many ways in which we all may be contributing to animal suffering (and, as she also points out, human suffering and environmental devastation) through choices that can very easily be changed or modified.

Freedman tackles such topics as why we need to adopt animals, not buy them; the horrors behind dog shows and the declawing of cats; animal studies, and why they’re bad for both animals and humans; bullfighting, dog racing, the circus, the Iditarod, sport fishing, hunting, and other forms of “entertainment”; and fashion, from leather to fur to wool.

Readers new to the facts behind these issues may not realize that, for example, while the American Humane Association (AHA) monitors animals on the set of films and assures viewers that “no animals were harmed during the making of this film,” most animal abuse and deaths occur during training or off set. (As just one example, check out the “humane” treatment of elephants used in the film Water for Elephants, in this article and video by Animal Defenders International.)

Many who choose faux fur over the real thing may not realize that some of the “faux” fur is not faux at all — and much fur, both real and fake, comes from cats and dogs, part of a gruesome and heartbreaking fur trade in China.

Readers who think of themselves as environmentalists may be interested to learn that giving up meat and leather are among the very most environmentally friendly things they can do (Freedman notes that “animal agriculture is the number one cause of climate change…It beats out all transportation in the world combined”). And readers who might say, “Aren’t people more important than animals?” will learn that the human-rights abuses in factory farms are rampant, and that the grain being used to feed animals could be far better used to feed the world’s hungry.

The only thing I wish were different about this book are the title and package, which are so specifically geared toward dogs that I worry cat people and others might feel it’s not for them (as more of a cat person, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I didn’t already admire Freedman and her work). It would be a shame if this ends up limiting the audience because this book shows the reality of how far we all need to go in how we treat animals and also offers amazing resources, tips, and ideas for positive change.

And Freedman is the first to admit that it’s a long journey: As someone who once had her own cat declawed (“Had I allowed simple common sense to pervade my teenage brain, I would’ve known that declawing a cat is cruel and barbaric…How selfish and stupid”) and who used to eat meat at three meals a day, Freedman writes with compassion as well as understanding. Change is hard, she admits, but she’s not shy about exhorting readers to give it a try — and she’s taking a hands-on approach. (Visit her website for more info.)

“So what’s it gonna be?” Freedman asks us. “You’re either in or you’re out.”

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Book Review: How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King

how animals grieve cover

Let me begin by saying I recommend this book to anyone who doubts that animals grieve. The evidence presented is overwhelming.

Dolphins who try to keep their dead calves afloat. Elephants who seek out the remains of their dead years after their passing. A cat who wails inconsolably after losing a sibling. A turtle who comes ashore and stares for hours at the photo of its dead loved one.

Or the story of two ducks, Kohl and Harper, who had been rescued from horrible lives in a foie gras factory. Author Barbara King writes:

That Kohl and Harper lived for four years at the sanctuary was, given their traumatic past histories, a happy and unexpected outcome. When Kohl could not longer walk, or his pain be treated effectively, he was euthanized. From outside the barn where the procedure took place, Harper was watching, and after it was over, he could see his friend’s body, lying in straw on the barn floor. At first, Harper tried to communicate with Kohl in the usual ways. Getting no response, he bent down and prodded Kohl with his head. After more inspection and prodding, Harper lay down next to Kohl and put his head and neck over Kohl’s neck. He stayed in that position for some hours.

Harper got up eventually, and sanctuary caretakers removed Kohl’s body. For a while after that, Harper went every day to his favorite spot, once shared with Kohl, next to a small pond. There he would sit. Efforts to introduce him to another potential duck friend didn’t take, which was especially sad because Harper was now more nervous around people without Kohl. Everyone at the sanctuary recognized Harper’s depression. Two months later, Harper died as well.

Reading the many stories included in this book isn’t easy. Particularly because, as King notes, too many of the scientists who provide the source material resist seeing grief where grief clearly resides. And, in some horrible cases, scientists have inflicted grief onto animals only to prove that it does exist.

The author astutely makes the point that not all humans grieve publicly, so we can’t assume that the lack of display with animals is proof that they do not grieve. People are not all the same, and neither are animals of a given species.

The key is not that all animals grieve but that all animals have the capacity to grieve. And this is the point that matters most. It’s not that one “special” cat suffers visibly while other cats may not suffer so visibly. It’s that all animals feel loss and deal with it in different ways.

The major lesson to be taken from this book for those in charge of animals is to allow the necessary time for grieving. Don’t just rush away the body. Let the animal companions spend time with the body and grieve in their own ways, if this takes a few minutes or hours or longer.

People need time to grieve. So do animals.

“Grief is but the price of love,” the author writes, quoting animal welfare activist Marc Bekoff.

Anthropomorphism is a four-letter word in scientific circles and the author did a good job of keeping her distance while laying out the facts for all to see — though at times I felt she worked a bit too hard to keep her distance (I’m not scientist so I have no problem anthropomorphizing). For instance, while there is ample evidence that elephants and dolphins and apes grieve, the author cites the limited evidence for monkeys to conclude they do not mourn the dead.

It’s time that more people felt grief over the way we treat animals. This book is an important step in that direction.

How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King

University of Chicago Press

EcoLit Books received an advance review copy of this title from the publisher. Here is our review policy.

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Book Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Animals

Lapham's Quarterly: Animals

The Lapham’s Quarterly has devoted its Spring 2013 issue to Animals. It’s a marvelous collection of historical essays and stories.

Many of the stories included are in the public domain, such as this excerpt from Moby-Dick.

What jumped out at me was this excerpt from the essay The Silent Majority by John Berger.

The cultural marginalization of animals is, of course, a more complex process than their physical marginalization. The animals of the mind cannot be so easily dispersed. Sayings, dreams, games, stories, superstitions, the language itself recall them. The animals of the mind, instead of being dispersed, have been co-opted into other categories so that the category animal has lost its central importance. Mostly they have been co-opted into the family and into the spectacle.

I also read a short essay Can They Suffer, circa 1780:

The day may come, when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may come one day to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villousity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

Reading historical essays such as this make it clear that the idea of animal rights is hardly novel (though it still feels that way at times). It’s perhaps as old as mankind.

That some of us question the eating of animals and have questioned it for hundreds of years is comforting though one might think it depressing. I could say to myself: Nothing changed over the past two hundred years; why should anything change in the next two hundred years? Or I could say: There was someone writing about this issue in 1780, and I have a responsibility to continue writing about it.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Henry David Thoreau, circa 1858:

Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have “seen the elephant”? These are petty and accidental uses—just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones—for everything may serve a lower as well as a higher use. Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

Thoreau continues (in the Atlantic):

Is it the lumberman, then, who is the friend and lover of the pine, stands nearest to it, and understands its nature best? Is it the tanner who has barked it, or he who has boxed it for turpentine, whom posterity will fable to have been changed into a pine at last? No! no! it is the poet; he it is who makes the truest use of the pine,—who does not fondle it with an axe, nor tickle it with a saw, nor stroke it with a plane,—who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it,—who has not bought the stumpage of the township on which it stands. All the pines shudder and heave a sigh when that man steps on the forest floor. No, it is the poet, who loves them as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand. I have been into the lumber-yard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.

This is why we started EcoLit Books.

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Book Review: The Revenge of GAIA

The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity by James Lovelock

I began reading about Gaia after editing the second book in Blair Richmond’s Lithia Trilogy, The Ghost Runner, in which an environmental studies professor brings up the Gaia hypothesis in class. I was intrigued by the idea that the earth is a living, breathing entity that might defend itself against threats. Of course, this glimpse of Gaia was in a fictional context, and I wanted to learn more about the origins of Gaia. So I began reading the work of James Lovelock, the independent scientist who founded the Gaia hypothesis (now the Gaia theory), beginning with some of his earliest writings about Gaia in the 1970s and onward to The Revenge of Gaia, published in 2006. One thing that struck me was Lovelock’s optimism in his earlier works (“whatever we do to the system, we will be drawn into the Gaian process of regulation,” he wrote in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979), followed by his dire predictions later on (“before this century is over, billions of us will die and the few remaining breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the arctic regions where the climate remains tolerable,” he wrote in The Revenge of Gaia in 2006). If this sounds drastic, this is precisely the point—we humans should have started paying closer attention long ago to how our abuses of land, air, and water have affected the planet.

Now, Lovelock believes, we are past the point of no return. The idea of sustainable development, he tells us, is like a smoker quitting smoking in order to cure his cancer—it’s far too late for that, as the damage is already done. The planet is desperately ill, Lovelock writes, and will “soon pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years.” Can anything be done? Lovelock suggests turning to nuclear energy right away, and he also believes we need an international program to save the environment “whose scale dwarfs space and military programs in cost and size.” We must to act as if we are in immediate danger, he says, because we are. In an earlier book, Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine, first published in 1991, Lovelock mentioned the three deadly Cs: cars, cattle, and chainsaws—and our efforts at sustainable regulation so far haven’t been enough, leading to the devastation of land and forest, the pollution of air and oceans, and a planet warming too rapidly now to be able to stop its progression. In The Revenge of Gaia, Lovelock offers little hope for the future: “There is a small chance the skeptics may be right, or we might be saved by an unexpected event like a series of volcanic eruptions severe enough to block out sunlight and so cool the Earth.” When the best we can hope for is catastrophic volcanic activity, this is pretty depressing—but my hope is that readers don’t dismiss these predictions but embrace them and find new hope in protecting the planet.

As devastating as this book is to read, I appreciate that Lovelock doesn’t mince words—soft-pedaling around the problem or denying it altogether isn’t going to save the planet or the animal and human populations that are and will be in danger. Lovelock emphasizes that the responsibility lies with us all—it’s not exactly a call to action but a reminder that we are all a part of the system and should remember that with all of our choices. “As we go about our daily lives we are almost all of us engaged in the demolition of Gaia,” he writes. “We do it every hour of every day, as we drive to work, shop or visit friends or as we fly to some distant holiday destination. We do it as we keep our homes and workplaces cool in summer and warm in winter…We will, by thinking selfishly only of the welfare of humans and ignoring Gaia, have caused our own near extinction.”

book link

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Book Review: Mark Twain’s Book of Animals

I recently discovered (and ordered) a book that focuses on Mark Twain and his writings and views about animals. Edited by Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, focuses on the many ways Twain not only wrote about animals but advocated on their behalf.

Here’s an article that summarizes the book. And an excerpt:

Fishkin was inspired to undertake the project after realizing how central animals were to Twain’s works and that his views on animals revealed a great deal about how he viewed people.

Fishkin was surprised by what she found during the course of her research. “ I had not realized when I embarked on this project that Twain was the most prominent American of his era to throw his weight behind the animal welfare movement.”

Mark Twain was greatly influenced by the ideas that Charles Darwin laid out in his groundbreaking publication, The Descent of Man (1871), a book that “startled the world,” as Twain put it. She examined copious notes that Twain wrote in the margins of his copy of The Descent of Man (housed with the Mark Twain Papers at the Bancroft Library) and analyzed their significance.

In particular, Fishkin found that that Twain was affected by Darwin’s idea that man and animal were in reality, much more similar than people liked to believe. “The topic he was dealing with was emotional and intellectual continuities between humans and non-human animals. Darwin wrote that the lower animals were capable of experiencing the same emotions as people and that they were capable of rudimentary reasoning, as well. ”

I look forward to reading this book.

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