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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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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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Book Review: Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell

being-a-dogNo matter how quietly I screw off the cap on a jar of peanut butter, within seconds of its opening, I will feel my dog’s dark brown eyes drilling into me. I’m here, those eyes say. And I’m waiting. Waiting, that is, for a spoonful of her favorite treat.

If dogs can sniff out bombs and bedbugs, cancer and orca poop (more on that in a moment), I shouldn’t be surprised that Galen can sniff out peanut butter. And now, having just completed Alexandra Horowitz’s newest exploration of doghood, Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, my appreciation for a dog’s olfactory skills has grown tenfold.

Horowitz, a cognitive scientist who runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and the author of Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, is an exceptional guide into the science of smell as it pertains to both dogs and humans. Inspired by her work at the lab and her own rescue dogs, Finnegan and Upton, Horowitz explores not just the physiology of the canine and human olfactory systems, but how both species use their noses to experience the world. As an explorer, Horowitz is a skilled investigator; as a writer her prose is clear and often poetic.

“Have you toured the dog nose?” she asks. “Ridden on a corkscrew of air into the dark vault, bumped along its curves, caught a breeze up to the chamber where a molecule will settle into the wetlands and begin to tickle the nerves to the brain?

I have—at least near enough for my liking.”

As anyone who has walked a dog knows, most dogs prefer the casual, lots-of-time-to-sniff stroll over the fast-paced, this-is-about-exercise hustle. That’s because dogs understand the world through smell, not sight, as we, humans, do. This, of course, has everything to do with biology. “Architecturally,” Horowitz explains, “our noses are children’s block towers next to dogs’ modern architecture: made of similar stuff but in a much simpler, more brutalist formulation.”

For scientifically minded readers, the anatomical design of both species’ noses is deconstructed in detail, yielding takeaways such as the fact that dogs’ nostrils, unlike ours, work independently and ipsilaterally (odors entering the right nostril are processed by the right side of the brain; odors entering the left nostril are processed on the left) and dogs have two-hundred million to one billion olfactory receptor cells—millions more than the six million we have. What this means in practical terms, Horowitz writes, is this:

… let’s think of an aroma pleasing to our noses: cinnamon rolls cooking in a home kitchen. The average cinnamon roll has about a gram of cinnamon in it. Sure, the human nose is on it, from the moment we open the door of the house. Now imagine the smell of one trillion cinnamon rolls. That’s what the dog coming in with us smells when we enter.

It’s because of their remarkable sense of smell that dogs are being trained to sniff out explosives, drugs, malignant tumors, diabetes, truffles, mangoes—the list goes on and on, and even includes that orca poop I mentioned earlier. To discover how such specialized training is accomplished, Horowitz crisscrosses the country visiting the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the Conservation Canines program at the University of Washington, and several scent-research sites in between. It’s in Seattle that she learns about Tucker, the black Labrador retriever mix who detects the “slimy scat”—or poop—left by the orcas who live in Puget Sound. That scat, like the scat of all animals, provides researchers with a gold mine of information, from the health, sex, and reproductive status of an individual animal to how large the population is and how widely it ranges. Scat-detecting dogs, as they’re called, can be trained to track up to twenty species. But what’s perhaps most amazing is that when tracking one species, the dogs ignore what Horowitz calls “the universe of nontarget scat around them.”

Horowitz infuses Being a Dog with her belief that dogs have a lot to teach us about smell. That’s because over millennia, she says, humans “unlearned how to smell.” The good news—for those interested in reversing this trend—is that we can train ourselves to reclaim our sniff. Horowitz has begun to reclaim hers by, among other things, getting down on all-fours and smelling her New York City neighborhood as her dogs do. Fortunately for readers, that’s not her only suggestion. But the meaning behind it couldn’t be any more clear:

The world abounds with aromas,” says Horowitz, “but we are spectacle-less. The dog can serve as our spectacles.”

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Book Review: The Dog Merchants

The Dog MerchantsMost dog lovers consider their canines loyal companions, best friends, or beloved family members. (Count me in that last category.) The American legal system considers them property. Journalist Kim Kavin, in her new book, The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers, suggests that we view dogs in a more provocative way—as products, not unlike the chicken and steak, veal and pork, that line “that big case of meat in the supermarket.” After all, she tells readers, some thirty million dogs are bought and sold each year, in what is estimated to be an $11 billion-a-year global marketplace.

The Dog Merchants is not Kavin’s first foray into the business of dogs. She began digging into the issue for the book Little Boy Blue, which focuses on America’s taxpayer-funded animal shelters and the burgeoning rescue movement. What she learned doing that research inspired her to look beyond shelter dogs to the myriad ways dogs are sold worldwide, be it by breeders, pet stores, animal shelters, rescue groups, or dog auctions. In all of these transactions—whether they are called purchases or adoptions—dogs are exchanged for dollars. And all those dogs exchanged for all those dollars add up to an industry the scope of which is larger than most dog lovers realize and that goes virtually unregulated—too often to the detriment of the dogs.

In researching The Dog Merchants, Kavin’s mantra was follow the money, so among the places she takes readers is the largest dog auction in the United States, where both breeders and rescues bid on purebreds. The breeders, of course, bid for dogs they want to breed and sell. The rescues bid for dogs they want to keep from being bred. In the end, their bidding drives up the cost of each dog.

Kavin also goes behind the scenes of the 138th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where Sky, the winning Wire Fox Terrier, is “a dog in whom wealthy people owned shares, like a corporation.”

In the introduction, Kavin says she’s not on the side of the breeders or the rescuers—“I’m on the side of the dogs”—but breeders and buyers of dogs bred for shows like Westminster, where judging focuses solely on appearance, receive Kavin’s harshest scrutiny. That scrutiny, however, is well deserved. Modern dog breeds, which date to 19th century England, were bred for looks not temperament. The ramifications of that kind of breeding, which continues today via the breed standards propagated by kennel clubs, leaves dogs at risk for birth defects and genetically inherited health problems. Indeed, Kavin reports that a British study found inbreeding in ten popular breeds, including Boxers, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers. And then there’s this striking factoid: The 2003 winner of Britain’s version of the Westminster dog show, a Pekingese named Danny, suffered so badly from a breathing problem common to dogs bred to have flat snouts that he’d undergone surgery to help him breathe and to cool himself. Kavin writes, “Anyone who looks closely at some of [Danny’s] winning photos … will see that he had to be placed on an ice pack while posing next to the trophy, so he wouldn’t overheat before the photographers were done making him a star, one who would now be in demand worldwide as a stud to breed more dogs just like him.”

The idea of dogs as products—and dog owners as consumers—may strike some as objectionable, but Kavin, herself a long-time dog-lover and dog owner, says it shouldn’t. Rather, she argues that viewing dogs through an economic lens gives dog lovers the clout to force the multi-billion-dollar industry to raise standards. “I believe that no matter how much all of us love our pups, thinking of them as products—just like so many of the sellers do—is the only way we can truly change the dog industry for the better.”

To help consumers make smart decisions about future pets, Kavin includes questions want-to-be-dog-owners should ask before buying from a breeder or adopting from a shelter or rescue. She’s also created a companion website, dogmerchants.com, where dog owners can research and review breeders and rescues.

Kavin’s bottom line is this: Dog lovers don’t need to be involved in dog rescue to make a difference in dogs’ lives. (Though, of course, if you have time to volunteer, shelters and rescues are always looking for the extra help.) What dog lovers need to be is smart shoppers, because only through the collective power of our purchases can we begin to demand the kind of treatment all dogs deserve.

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Book Review: Landfill Dogs

Landfill cover2

In Landfill Dogs, photographer Shannon Johnstone pays homage to shelter dogs with images that capture their indelible spirit, but also the tenuousness of their existence.

Johnstone awoke to the twin issues of shelter overpopulation and euthanasia several years ago when she began volunteering at her local animal shelter, North Carolina’s Wake County Animal Center. The shelter is open admission. It gets overcrowded. And like many overcrowded shelters throughout the country, it sometimes euthanizes for space. It’s a situation, she writes, that so many of us “know exists but try not to think about.”

Challenging herself to “make visual this hidden tragedy,” Johnstone began taking dogs who’d been at the shelter for at least two weeks, and who were in danger of being euthanized, to a landfill-turned-county park. On these outings the dogs could be dogs—they rolled in grass, jumped for tennis balls, sniffed shrubs and dirt and the sometimes snow-covered earth—and Johnstone fixed her camera on them. The dogs’ portraits were then posted on the shelter’s website, a last ditch effort to save their lives. Overwhelmingly the photographs did their job.

Mary Puppins, courtesy Shannon Johnstone
Mary Puppins, courtesy Shannon Johnstone

Johnstone writes that as Landfill Dogs went to press, 123 of the 140 dogs she photographed had found homes, 5 remained in the shelter, 12 were euthanized.

I stumbled across Johnstone’s photographs three years ago, when Landfill Dogs existed as a series of online photos. I was struck by the intensity of the images, especially those featuring dogs’ faces. The dogs’ expressions, the contours of their jaws, their eyes—searching, questioning, hope-filled—stayed with me for days. Ultimately, I reached out to Johnstone and asked permission to use one of her photos on the cover of my book, Dogland. Fortunately for me, Johnstone agreed.

What sets Landfill Dogs apart from similar photo books is that Johnstone tracks down many of her dogs post-adoption and turns her lens on them once again. In these portraits, you can see the difference a home makes. The dogs’ eyes smile, their faces are less tense. The dogs’ humans smile, too.

A happy ending? Not exactly. For Johnstone knows that too many shelter dogs won’t live this happily ever after. Thus, she includes several photos that reveal both the act and the results of shelter euthanasia. Perhaps Johnstone’s purpose in ending on this low note is to challenge us, as she challenged herself, to “see with new eyes” the plight of our country’s shelter dogs.

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Do Unto Animals: A Guide to Raising a More Compassionate Family

do-unto-animals

I grew up around cats, so it always struck me as odd when people didn’t understand what a cat’s purr signified.

Then again, I did not grow up around cows or goats or sheep and don’t understand their behaviors.

You have to learn how to live among animals. How to read the languages they speak through their body language and the noises they make. And since not all of us were raised in households with pets or by outdoorsy parents, how do we learn how to peacefully coexist with animals when we don’t have much practice?

This book provides a great start.

What I liked about this book:

  • Stewart advocates for adopting dogs from shelters and not buying them (Adopt Don’t Shop).
  • She sings the praises of pit bull and black cats (black cats are considered lucky in countries like Italy and England).
  • She encourages readers to support the wildlife they share their yards with — and not just bees and butterflies, but snakes and spiders. Even the much-derided mole gets some compassion.
  • She includes plenty of craft ideas for getting your kids involved in interacting with your pets and exploring the nature outside.
  • I appreciated “The Hurtless Hunt” – a section on naturing that doesn’t require killing nature to take it back home with you.
  • Stewart is an active supporter of animal sanctuaries and provides ways to help that go behind simply writing a check.

The most significant section is about farm animals. I was impressed to see Stewart explain why she doesn’t eat meat — and then explain just how special cows (and all farm animals) are: The sorrowful sounds a cow will make when separated from her calf. The personalities of each of her adopted flock of sheep, with accompanying illustrations. For Stewart, dogs and cats are not any more deserving of affection than goats and sheep and pigs; they all are equally deserving.

Stewart writes that she and her husband have a mixed marriage — he eats meat and she does not, and the children get to choose their diets. But much has changed since this chapter was written — her husband, Jon Stewart, no longer eats meat.

Despite the strong messages included in this book, it is by no means preachy. Stewart has a warm, welcoming voice that encourages all readers to simply take a moment to see the world through the eyes of animals.

The book is loaded with illustrations and interesting asides. It’s a fun read and can be reused by readers referring to the numerous craft ideas they can put to use with their children.

If your family plans to adopt animals or simply wants to better appreciate the nature outside your front door, I recommend this book.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the title of the book derives from the golden rule — a rule that we should apply not only to how we treat our own species but all species. The world will be a far better place when we do.

Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better
Artisan Books

Further endorsement of this book comes from Leon, pictured below, a Maine coon mix who is currently up for adoption at the Jackson County Animal Shelter in Southern Oregon.

Leon

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Book Review: The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

No one gives animals a voice like author Richard Adams. While most may be familiar with his novel Watership Down (1972) from childhood, readers of EcoLit may especially appreciate The Plague Dogs (1977). Adams credits Victims of Science: The Use of Animals in Research (1975) by Richard Ryder and Animal Liberation (1975) by Peter Singer as influences for this book, which tells the story of two dogs’ escape from an animal research station in North West England.

The omniscient narration allows Adams to delve into numerous perspectives most notably the dogs: Rowf, a loyal eager-to-please Labrador to the core, and Snitter, a prescient fox terrier who has undergone brain experimentation and acts a lot like Fiver, the mad rabbit in Watership Down.

The book also explores the motivations and personality of the researcher Dr. Boycott: “He represented, in fact, a most ingenious paradox, noble in reason, express and admirable in action, his undemonstrative heart committed with the utmost detachment to the benefit of humanity. Something too much of this.” and “Besides, who in his senses could reasonably expect Dr. Boycott to ask himself, on behalf of the human race, not, ‘How much knowledge can I discover?’ but ‘How much knowledge am I justified in seeking?'”.

It’s an affecting and memorable book, and worth reading if only for the opening scene which describes Rowf’s experience in a water experiment. He’s made to tread water until he drowns and is then revived — repeatedly.

The horrors of animal testing are tough to confront.

These experimental animals are just sentient objects; they’re useful because they are able to react; sometimes precisely because they are able to feel fear and pain. And they’re used as if they were electric light bulbs or boots. What it comes down to is that whereas there used to be human and animal slaves, now there are just animal slaves. They have no legal rights, and no choice in the matter.

Fiction provides a buffer that makes these animals’ experiences approachable though no less heartbreaking and based in fact. Fiction evokes empathy without triggering our instinct to recoil.

Although Adams adds political intrigue, the story bogs down in the middle as the dogs roam the countryside. It gains momentum with the appearance of an old-school, investigative, rabble-rousing journalist, Digby Driver: “Privacy, reticence and human worth melted before him like ghosts at cockcrow.” The novel explores all the influences that permit animal research and shows how this torture survives only in shadow.

It’s a dark story with a pervasive sense of doom. While the dogs escape the testing facility, Adams continues his authorial job of torturing his characters. Rowf and Snitter are first hunted for the crime of killing sheep and then as possible carriers of the plague. As one sympathetic character notes, “It’s a bad world for the helpless.”

The dogs’ conversations about their prospects for survival are heart wrenching. Snitter, who once had a “real master,” sticks up for men, while Rowf despairs. He feels he is being punished for not doing his duty as a dog (withstanding torture). Snitter notes, “Men can do worse things than hurt you or starve you—they can change the world.” And not for the better, the dogs conclude.

Beloved canine companions may find themselves the recipients of extra hugs and treats during the reading of this book.

Adams has a florid style: “Freedom — that consuming goal above doubt or criticism, desired as moths desire the candle or emigrants the distant continent waiting to parch them in its deserts or drive them to madness in its bitter winters!”

Some readers won’t make it through the word fest, while aficionados of 19th century classics may revel in it: “Oh happy living things! No tongue their beauty might declare.”

There’s little payoff in the ending, a pointed and unapologetic deus ex machina: “Do you think great Pan is going to sit idly by while Dr. Boycott stabs, maims, and drowns his creatures in the name of science, progress and civilization?”

However, there’s a reward for readers of EcoLit who persevere — the appearance of a real-life hero. Environmentalist Sir Peter Markham Scott (1909–1989), knighted for wildlife conservation and a founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature, makes a cameo.

While several stylistic choices limit this book’s appeal, it’s classic, heartfelt EcoLit with intellectual chops.

It’s time people started thinking of Man as one of a number of species inhabiting the planet; and if he’s the cleverest, that merely gives him more responsibility for seeing that the rest can lead proper, natural lives under minimum control.

What to read next?
We3 (2005), a graphic novel by Grant Morrison, evokes some of the same emotion and ideas as The Plague Dogs in a greatly condensed and visual form. It features a weaponized cat, dog, and rabbit who escape from a government defense research facility. Notably, Morrison is the author of Animal Man, a comic book released in omnibus form in August, with strong animal advocacy roots.

Victims of Science: The Use of Animals in Research (1975) by Richard Ryder and Animal Liberation (1975) by Peter Singer influenced this book and Pincher Martin by William Golding, a novel about purgatory and drowning, is referenced within.

Inspired by this novel?

Visit the Beagle Freedom Project.

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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.

Beg

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.”