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Book Review: The Cow with Ear Tag #1389

We want to believe that cows live happy lives. From our childhoods of Old MacDonald and his farm, field trips and cartoons and stuffed animals, we are raised to believe they are happy. The dairy industry tells us they are happy. The advertisements we see on TV reinforce the illusion. But it is only an illusion and more of us are awakening to the cruel reality of the world we have created for them. A world in which animals — cows, chickens, goats, sheep, and so many other species — are viewed and treated as little more than their component parts.

Why should a cow not receive the same degree of love and protection as the cat or dog we share our homes with?

This is a question in desperate need of an obvious answer. So I’m always happy to see more authors and publishers posing this question. Like this book by Kathryn Gillespie, published by the University of Chicago Press.

In The Cow with Ear Tag #1389 Gillespie takes us on a necessarily uncomfortable journey through America’s dairy industry. The core illusion built around the dairy industry is that cows somehow want to share their milk with us. And that they want to be milked. But the truth is, the milk is there for a very specific reason, one that is stolen from them every year. Each year, dairy cows are artificially inseminated and separated from their newborn calves within minutes after birth. A mother cow may bellow for weeks, calling out to a child that has been taken from her. Of course we can imagine the terror of this because we can imagine ourselves losing a loved one. And yet this is how milk is made. Cows don’t want to give their milk away. They create it for calves who are most often sent straight into veal crates, which the industry now euphemistically refers to as “hutches.” And the fact that the dairy industry is very much intertwined with the veal industry has long been the industry’s dirty little secret.

Gillespie is not the first person to analyze animal agriculture, but she provides an honest and human element to the journey that I found deeply moving. Her candor throughout her visits to farms and auction houses had me squirming in my seat as she watched those poor animals being pushed and prodded along. And it was not surprising but sad that nearly every dairy farm she approached for her research turned her away under the sad excuse of “biosecurity.” This is an industry that thrives on ignorance. On illusion.

But this book is not all pain and misery. There are inspiring moments amidst the stories of those who have founded animal sanctuaries, like Animal Place and Pigs Peace. Gillespie takes us along with her, where we can get a sense for what it’s like to care for an animal after it has suffered so much. As the founder of Pigs Peace noted, she had difficultly finding vets who understood how to care for aging pigs because in our world pigs aren’t allows to age. They all die young, as do cows and chickens. Those few chickens who do make it to sanctuaries have great difficulty simply standing upright because they were bred to get large quickly, so large that they can barely support their bodies.

Gillespie notes that there are 9.3 million dairy cows in the US that are used for their milk until they are “spent” after about three years and then sent to slaughter, to the tune of roughly 3 million cows per year. As Carol Adams writes in The Sexual Politics of Meat, “Female animals are doubly exploited: both when they are alive and then when they are dead.”

This is world I was raised into. A world in which I assumed we needed meat to survive, that violence to animals was necessary. I know now it is not necessary. That humans don’t need meat to survive and that we have never needed milk from a cow or a goat.

Gillespie is not out to belittle those who work in the industry — she is empathetic to the worlds they live in as well, and the emotional toll this work ultimately exacts on them. They are part of a system, a system that supplies a demand based on illusion, based on a tradition that so many of us except without question. Gillespie travels to a trade conference and notes how intertwined the dairy industry is with notions of family and patriotism and what it means to be an American. And it is these ideas that make it so difficult for people to give up milk and cheese and ice cream (even though they don’t have to give up any of it — vegan alternatives are far tastier and healthier).

This book is a valuable addition to a growing canon of literature that challenges our understanding of “normal” and that will, hopefully, as more people become aware of the horror, lead to positive changes for animals. It’s simple enough to start, really. You just stop eating meat and go from there. The Cow with Ear Tag 1389 is doing its part to opens hearts and minds.

The Cow with Ear Tag 1389

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Book Review: The Animals’ Agenda by Marc Bekoff & Jessica Pierce

The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce is an important and timely book that examines the human relationship with — or, more accurately, examines the many ways in which humans use — animals and how this relationship needs to evolve. This book asks readers to rethink how we see animals and to adopt more compassionate practices toward them, from animals used for food and entertainment to those in the wild.

If this book has one message that we all need to hear, it’s that animals in our society suffer abuses that we currently accept as normal — the hope is that one day we will all see these practices as barbaric instead of acceptable or necessary. The authors argue that humans are indeed aware, on some level, of these abuses but are not taking steps toward actually preventing them. Most people still eat animals, still visit zoos, still hunt and fish. “We offer lip service to freedom, in talking about ‘cage-free chickens’ and ‘naturalistic zoo enclosures.’ But real freedom for animals is the one value we don’t want to acknowledge, because it would require a deep examination of our own behavior…Many animals live impoverished lives because of our desires or our lack of awareness.”

The Animals’ Agenda shows how, despite studies that prove the intelligence and emotional sensitivity of animals, nothing will change until humans accept this suffering and choose to stop supporting it — by not attending zoos, for example, or by not eating or wearing animal products. They compare the reality of standard, accepted animal suffering to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth: “The truth of animal feelings is similarly inconvenient, in that it challenges our highly profitable animal industries and our personal habits.”

The book is organized in sections that tackle the ways in which animals are at the mercy of humans, including farmed animals, animals in labs, pets, and wild animals. Among the most important points the authors make is that so-called improvements in the treatment of animals as a result of animal welfare studies actually do more harm than good because they let people off the hook by allowing them to believe the animals don’t suffer as much as they actually do. One powerful example is in the work of Temple Grandin, who “is hailed as a compassionate helper of animals while at the same time working within a venue in which billions of animals are harmed and killed…she has done more than anyone else to deflect attention from real freedom for animals. Even if a few animals are getting a ‘better life,’ it surely is not a good life.”

And this is the main point of The Animals’ Agenda: that non-human animals deserve the freedoms we human animals enjoy. And yet no non-human species comes even close. Even farmed animals who are fed and housed (allowing people to believe they are “cared for”) have no freedom whatsoever: “They are confined to small cages or crates, or else they are packed into a large space with so many others of their kind that physical movement is highly constrained…They have little to no control over social interactions and attachments.” Most of their diets are so unnatural to them that the animals feel hungry all the time, even when they are fed. And lest you think that “free-range” animals have it better, read on; as the authors show, “Humane is a dirty little lie.” Methods of castration, for example, that are “animal welfare approved” by the United States do not require anesthesia. And readers will be shocked to read of the terrible conditions and abuses that occur at AZA-accredited zoos.

One chapter of the book is devoted to companion animals and points out “how little research has been directed at the welfare of animals kept as pets, either in the home environment or in pet stores and breeding facilities.” Yet instead of focusing on ways to end the breeding and sale of animals, the authors focus on “exploring freedom and preferences in relation to our most common animal companions — dogs and cats” — despite their acknowledgment of the dearth of research. There are many good points in this chapter — the ills of the wholesale pet industry, the lack of knowledge most humans have about the needs of their pets — but by advocating for greater freedoms for companion animals, the authors do a disservice to shelter pets and their humans. While they acknowledge that “as companions of dogs, we can do our best to balance necessary constraints against as full a measure of freedom as possible,” they actually advise against keeping cats indoors (not mentioning exceptions for such circumstances as FIV-positive or declawed cats): “Depending on location, cats may have to contend with busy roads, with predators such as coyotes or cougars, with humans who have bad intentions, and with the possibility of injury or disease. But as with our children, we cannot protect them from all risk…Letting cats outside may be what ethicist Bill Lynn calls ‘a sad good,’ a good that involves an element of moral risk and harm.”

The fact that this book advocates so strongly for animals in other ways makes this chapter on pets a liability, as it risks derailing the book’s entire message: If readers think it’s okay to allow their cats to face injury, disease, and death from traffic or predators, why should they attempt to avoid causing such harm when it comes to farmed animals or captive animals in zoos? Many animal-rights activists would agree that keeping pets is something that humans should eventually give up — but until every last animal shelter is empty, these animals need to be adopted, loved, and protected. Companion animals deserve freedom the same way dairy cows do, but whereas the life of a dairy cow is a daily torture, most pets are not being tortured simply by being kept inside homes or behind fences for their own safety. Even a free dairy cow would presumably fenced in at a sanctuary, not left out on her own. It’s this chapter, in an otherwise stellar book, that may make it hard for non-activists to embrace the idea of animal freedom.

The Animals’ Agenda goes on to note the ways in which even wild animals, on both land and in oceans, suffer due to our influence — from habitat loss to our noise to our trash — and that even conservation work, such as capturing and tagging animals, has its own negative effects. Education is key here, and the authors’ message is clear: “a great number of things we currently do to animals are simply wrong and need to stop: the unnecessary slaughter of animals for food and fur, the use of animals in invasive research, the confinement of animals for human entertainment, and our excessive encroachment on wildlife.”

While Bekoff and Pierce detail the good science that is happening regarding animal welfare, they also note that we must “close the knowledge-translation gap”; in the end, much of this knowledge primarily serves the industries that abuse animals. For things to improve, for us to put “what we know about animals into the service of animals themselves,” it will take nothing less than a compassionate society to adopt a mindset of true animal freedom. A very good first step toward that is reading this book.

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Book Review: What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

I am forever wondering what my dog, Galen, is thinking. Sometimes I go nose to nose with her, stare into her brown eyes, and ponder what’s happening in that little brain of hers. In those moments, I presume she thinks either, “Why have you thrust your face in mine?” or “How about you give me a cookie?” I’m embarrassed to say for how many years this ritual has persisted and how many times a day it’s repeated. But it is this longing to get into Galen’s head that attracted me to the pioneering work of neuroscientist Gregory Berns, much of whose research involves going inside a dog’s mind.

Berns, an Emory University professor and founding member of the Society for Neuroeconomics, is the scientist who, in 2011, came up with the radical notion that dogs could be trained to enter an MRI machine and remain still long enough to have their brains scanned and thus, studied. How Berns turned his controversial idea into groundbreaking science is the story at the center of his 2013 book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. Now Berns is out with What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, which picks up where How Dogs Love Us leaves off.

For those unfamiliar with Berns’ work with dogs, the introduction to What It’s Like to Be a Dog provides a condensed account of how he and his team trained a host of dogs—starting with Berns’ own rescue, Callie—to don ear muffs and “shimmy” into loud, hulking MRI machines.

Berns and his rescue, Callie.

It is an extraordinary chronicle of patience, determination, and above all, respect for the dogs that would participate in the studies. Berns writes that three principles guided the team’s research: do no harm to the dogs, do not restrain them, and give the dogs “the right of self-determination.” That meant the dogs “had the same fundamental privilege as humans participating in research: the right to refuse.” Being dogs, refuse is sometimes what they did. Fortunately, more of the time (and for treats aplenty), they did not.

Callie in the MRI machine

Berns has long been fascinated by the brain. He began studying humans’ brains, turned next to those of dogs, and as telegraphed by the subtitle of this newest work—And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience—is extending his brain imaging research into the broader animal kingdom. This is important for readers to note because those expecting What It’s Like to Be a Dog to be a wholly dog-centric read will be disappointed. (I presume the title was chosen to entice dog lovers, and I admit, it’s what initially drew me.)

At its core, What It’s Like to Be a Dog is Berns’ first-person account of his attempt to answer the question: Do animals experience emotions like people do? The science in the book—Berns provides primers on the evolution of the brain and its structure—is written for the lay reader, and it is what underlies the non-dog narratives that drive the story. These narratives revolve around Berns’ adventures tracking down and studying the brains of sea lions, dolphins, and the now-extinct thylacine, a tiger-like marsupial native to Australia.

What Berns finds, through the myriad imaging studies he performs, is that there are enough similarities in the architecture of human and animal brains to extrapolate that animals have feelings much like humans do. “Our results have shown,” he writes, “no matter which animal’s brain we examined, that if it has a cortex, the animal is very likely sentient, and that its subjective experience can be understood by degrees of similarity to ours.”

Ethical implications flow from Berns’ findings, and this is the territory in which he closes the book. If animals are indeed sentient, a rethinking of how we treat them in agriculture, in laboratories, in our homes, in our every encounter, is not simply long overdue, it is imperative.

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Wolf Haven: Sanctuary and the Future of Wolves in North America

After finishing Wolf Haven I went straight to the Internet and looked up Wolf Haven International.

I had been aware of the California Wolf Center, located outside San Diego, but was not aware of Wolf Haven, located just south of Mt. Rainier. And now I can’t wait to visit.

But make no mistake; this is no petting zoo. In fact, the sanctuary goes to great lengths to keep many of the wolves far away from people so they stand a better chance of survival when they are introduced back into the wild. Just last month a number of Mexican gray wolves were reintroduced into northern Mexico after having spent time at Wolf Haven.

Approximately 200 of the Wolf Haven residents are forever residents; either captive bred or simply unable to survive on their own, Wolf Haven gives these animals some much-deserved peace. I wish I could say that the underlying message of this book will bring the reader peace, but the sad truth is that there is war on wolves, one that began a long time ago.

It’s estimated that when European settlers first made their way across North America that there were more than two million wolves here. But when settlers imported cows and sheep and steadily moved west, wolves soon focused their energies on these animals. Before long, the war on wolves had begun.

In about a hundred years wolves declined to as few as 1,500 animals. The eastern Red Wolf is still on the edge of regional extinction, along with the Mexican gray wolf in the United States.

Here in Oregon, few issues agitate animal lovers more than the plight of wolves. As Wolf Haven notes, our governor Kate Brown (despite the fact that she claims to care about the environment) allowed the wolf to be removed from the protected list. Apparently the government believes that a few dozen wolves constitutes “enough” wolves in this state. And now, tragically, their numbers will dwindle again as hunters and ranchers go after them.

With this in mind, the book Wolf Haven is a fitting tribute to a wolf sanctuary that is doing its part to protect these species.

If the measurement of a successful book is inciting someone to action, then Wolf Haven certainly qualifies. It has inspired me to give to this organization and one day make the trip up north to visit.

And to also remind our governor that wolves do matter to many residents of Oregon.

Wolf Haven: Sanctuary and the Future of Wolves in North America

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Book Review: Just Life

When I read a New York Times story about a New York City neighborhood grappling with a rare animal-borne disease that killed one resident and left at least two others seriously ill, it was, for me, a tragic case of life imitating art. You see, I’d recently finished Neil Abramson’s Just Life, a fast-paced fictional tale in which a mysterious and deadly zoonotic disease is spreading through a neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In the Times’ story, medical officials concluded the disease—leptospirosis—was being spread by rats. In the novel, Abramson challenges readers by asking this: What if an animal-borne disease isn’t transmitted by rats or squirrels or birds or raccoons? What if the carrier is the family dog?

Dogs are the whole of veterinarian Samantha Lewis’s life. Her mother is dead, she’s estranged from her father, and she has little time for friends, lovers, or her shrink, whose diagnosis—that Sam has undealt-with-anger issues—she terms a “load of crap.” Sam devotes all her energy to running her New York City shelter for abandoned and abused dogs. It’s thankless work that keeps her questioning the humanity of her fellow humans, keeps “her expecting the people out there to care and being disappointed when they didn’t, of the flow of the unwanted and the rejected, of all the goddamn cages[.]”

Now the city is threatening to shut down Sam’s shelter—whether or not she can find homes for her dogs. And she doesn’t know why.

It’s during Sam’s campaign to save the shelter that an unidentified virus begins taking the lives of children in Riverside, the Manhattan neighborhood in which Sam’s shelter is located. When tests point to dogs as carriers of the deadly virus, New York’s politically-ambitious governor orders the NYPD and the National Guard to quarantine the neighborhood. Sam fears the quarantine is just the beginning. She knows that government-imposed responses to zoonotic-based diseases always follow the same trajectory: Quarantine. Cull. Kill.

Sam’s mission is now not only to save her dogs, but all the dogs in Riverside, and to uncover what’s making the local dogs sick. Sam gets help from a motley crew of fellow dog lovers, all of whom, like Sam and her shelter dogs, are seeking sanctuary from their own troubled pasts. There’s the local police officer mourning the tragic death of his K-9 partner, the homeless teen emancipated from the city’s foster-care system, the elderly priest fighting the onset of dementia, and the psychologist whose drug addiction ended her career.

While Just Life offers readers a page-turner of a plot, the novel’s strength lies in Abramson’s depictions of the human-canine relationship at its most beautiful and enduring, and also at its most ugly—in the abuse and abandonment of hundreds of thousands of dogs each year, in their euthanization in crowded shelters, and in their callous treatment as subjects in research experiments.

It’s through mining this ugliness that Abramson brings forth the novel’s heartfelt message: that too often “…we refuse to acknowledge—[humans and animals] are all the same in the most material ways; we are all just life.”

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