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Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you managed not to hear about the animal rights theme before reading Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), do comment with your experience of the novel. Or, it you haven’t yet read the book, maybe stop here, skip the cover blurbs, and go directly to your naked experience of this exquisite novel.

The book is finely structured so that the identity of the protagonist’s sister may come as a revelation — it won’t spoil the novel to know ahead, but will it change your experience?

Readers of EcoLit, however, might be enticed to read the book precisely because they know this is Fowler’s chimp novel, includes a sympathetic character who takes action for animals as a member of the Animal Liberation Front, and takes on animal testing. It addresses animal cruelty, “the world runs on the fuel of an endless, fathomless animal misery” and the definition of person, “Something that sieves out dolphins but lets corporations slide on through.”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves tells the relatable story of a young adult re-examining the events of her upbringing and trying to understand them with maturing perspective. It’s told in a first person point of view and alternates between 1979, Rosemary’s childhood, and 1996, her college years. As a child, Rosemary competed for attention with her sister, Fern, a chimpanzee raised as a human family member in an elaborate experiment to study language development. For true-life examples of this, see The Washoe Project (1967) and Nim Chimpsky (1973).

This upbringing shapes Rosemary’s character. In college, she befriends a physically expressive theater major, a wild child trouble magnet — just the kind of person someone raised with a chimpanzee would find familiar. As a child, Rosemary bests Fern only with words and becomes loquacious (this gives the novel a lovely — eliding, Melpomene, gamesome, psychomanteum, hypnopompic — vocabulary too).

Rosemary’s father displays scientific detachment, “Let’s just say that my father was kind to animals unless it was in the interest of science to be otherwise. He would never have run over a cat if there was nothing to be learned by doing so.”

Her mother nurtures and intends to raise Fern, too, as a “forever” child. Yet, when Rosemary is five, Fern disappears and the family breaks. The experience scars Rosemary and represses her talkative nature. Is she the reason Fern has been exiled? Could she be gotten rid of just as easily? Was it something she said?

Fern’s departure causes a rift between Rosemary and her older brother, Lowell, as well. He cannot silently accept Fern’s absence and eventually takes action on her behalf. While society deems him a criminal, Rosemary notes, “Lowell’s life has been the direct result of his very best qualities, of our best qualities — empathy, compassion, loyalty, and love. That needs to be recognized.”

The book contains a call to action for women to add their voices to the animal rights movement. Rosemary eventually seeks out her sister, and allows herself to confront the horror of what Fern’s life must have become, “What did they do to her in that cage? Whatever it was, it happened because no woman had stopped it. The women who should have stood with Fern — my mother, the female grad students, me — none of us had helped. Instead we had exiled her to a place completely devoid of female solidarity.”

Rosemary doesn’t talk about her sister and, if so, doesn’t mention that Fern is a chimpanzee. She knows that revelation will irrevocably shift people’s perception and invalidate her own experience: Fern is her sister. As her mother puts it, “So much like you, only with a lot of suffering added.”

There’s not an anti-science message here, but a strong critique of methods: “I didn’t want a world in which I had to choose between blind human babies and tortured monkey ones. To be frank, that’s the sort of choice I expect science to protect me from, not give me.”

As her awareness grows, Rosemary realizes that she must use her words on her sister’s behalf, for Fern, for the voiceless animals.

“The spell can only be broken by the people. They must come to see how beautiful she is. They must storm the prison and demand her release. The spell will be broken only when the people rise up. So rise up already.”

What to read next?
For a perfect pairing, go to Pat Murphy’s Nebula award-winning story “Rachel in Love,” (1991) about a girl who comes of age in a chimp’s body. Kafka’s short story “A Report to An Academy” (1917) referenced in Fowler’s novel is also worth a read. RachelinLove

For another smart, well-crafted novel that contains a perception shift, read Monique Troung’s novel Bitter in the Mouth (2010) on themes of identity.

In nonfiction, Fowler’s novel mentions Donald Griffin’s Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (2001), and for examples of how women’s voices and participation in rights movements (human, civil, homosexual, women’s, and animals’ and, in general, “…a commitment that other living things, no matter how distant or dissimilar, be safe from harm and exploitation.”) do make a difference read Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011).

Inspired by We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves?
Visit Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest and Save the Chimps.

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Book Review: Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police


So what is this book doing on EcoLit Books?

Bear with me.

Let me first back up about five years. I was researching my novel The Tourist Trail, wondering to what extent law enforcement agencies had tried to infiltrate animal rights groups. I had heard firsthand of an attempt of the FBI to infiltrate The Sea Shepherd Society, and I had come across several documented cases of the FBI “flipping” activists to turn on one another. But I came across little concrete evidence of undercover agents working for extended periods of time as activists. I felt confident this sort of thing was indeed happening — so I ran with it in my book — but it was mostly “fiction.”

Across the pond, it appears that this sort of activity is all too real.

A few years ago, news broke about an undercover police officer who had not only infiltrated an animal rights group but had a child with one of the activists.

This story — and many others — is included in this troubling book: Undercover.

Journalists Rob Evans and Paul Lewis have written a book that is very much hot off the press. And, according to the authors, undercover agents are still embedded in activist groups.

In 1968, in response to growing concerns over anti-war protests, the Metropolitan Police created the Special Demonstration Squad — intended to send agents undercover for long periods of time. Targets included the animal rights movement, anti-racism movement, climate change protestors — anyone that fit under the “domestic extremism” category.

My focus is on those officers who infiltrated the animal rights groups.

In 1983, the SDS began targeting animal rights organizations. Much of this book is devoted to officer Bob Lambert, who for years portrayed an animal rights activist, going so far as to help write an anti-McDonald’s brochure that led to the longest civil libel trial in English history (McDonald’s lost). He also fathered a child with a fellow activist, only to disappear years later after the child was born and his assignment concluded.

The authors identify 10 undercover police officers and estimate that there have been more than 100 in action over the past four decades. Some of the stories are rich with irony. For example, at one point an activist group was close to disbanding due to attrition of members. However, the addition of an undercover agent and a few undercover investigators hired by McDonald’s (yes, McDonald’s) convinced the members to keep going because they were under the impression they were adding new members. I don’t know if this qualifies as entrapment, but there are more than a few stories that most certainly do. The undercover agents were helping to fund operations, offering activists rides to protest and action sites, and egging activists into getting more radical.

Interestingly, a few of the police officers, after their assignments ended, often struggled to leave their fellow activists behind. Mental breakdowns were a common problem, understandable since so many men were not only living double lives but were involved in multiple romantic relationships.

Also noted in the book was the growth of a database of named activists — a database that I’m sure has expanded exponentially as the intelligence community has tapped social networks and email providers.

Lines that I once believed the US or the UK wouldn’t cross I’ve since come to believe are crossed so frequently that they don’t really exist anymore.

There are so many tragedies in this book. The stories of women who were lied to by men paid to lie to them. The activists entrapped by undercover agents who literally urged them into direct action. The phenomenal waste of taxpayer money.

But more than that, it’s a tragedy for the animals. For the planet.

I’m not saying activists are all saints; they aren’t. But the surveillance industry has grown so pervasive, so well financed, and so aggressive that it has turned all activists into “terrorists,” and every protest is suddenly a cause for undercover activity. And it is ruining what makes democratic societies so vibrant — the freedom to protest, to speak out, to believe that individuals can make the world a better place.

Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police

by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis
Published by Faber & Faber and Guardian Books

PS: You can learn more on a Guardian website devoted to the book.

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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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