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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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Film Review: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Okay, so this isn’t a book review — but it’s such an important documentary that I wanted to review it here on EcoLit Books. (The book connection: As you watch the film, you’ll learn about a few books to add to your reading list, including Comfortably Unaware and The World Peace Diet.)

Cowspiracy (which is currently still available for its special Earth Day price of $1) covers the impact of animal agriculture on the planet — it’s the number-one contributor to human-induced climate change and affects everything from the rainforests to the oceans — and why some of the biggest environmental organizations never talk about it.

cowspiracy

Filmmaker Kip Andersen interviews representatives of governmental and “environmental” organizations, including the Sierra Club, Oceana, Surfrider (he tried to talk to Greenpeace, which wouldn’t agree to speak with him), and it’s fascinating to watch them stumble over their words when asked about animal agriculture’s impact on the planet.

And yet the facts speak for themselves. To produce just one quarter-pound burger takes 660 gallons of water (in other words, two months’ worth of showers). One gallon of dairy milk uses 1,000 gallons of water to produce, and for every one pound of fish caught, there are five pounds of bycatch (including dolphins, sharks, turtles, and penguins). To protect cattle-grazing lands in the United States West, ranchers kill coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, cougars — and wild horses and burrows are being rounded up and held so that cattle ranchers can use public lands for grazing.

Why won’t so many environmental groups talk about this? It’s not an easy topic, with agribusiness being so powerful. In Brazil, 1,100 activists have been killed for speaking out against animal agriculture. And of course, as Michael Pollan says in the film, asking people not to eat meat and dairy is a “political loser” for member-based organizations.

Yet there are both individuals and organizations who will speak the truth, and this is where the heart of the film is. A spokesperson for the Sea Shepherd Conservation society says there is “no such thing as sustainable fishing,” and quotes what founder Paul Watson often says: If the oceans die, we die. “That’s not a tagline,” she adds. “That’s the truth.”

Cowspiracy contains some difficult truths for omnivores, but it’s important viewing for anyone who’s concerned about the environment — and the last half hour is truly inspiring for those who are open to making a difference. (And in the last twenty minutes is one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen in a film…don’t miss it.)

“You can’t be an environmentalist and eat animal products. Period,” says Howard Lyman, former cattle rancher and author of Mad Cowboy. “Kid yourself if you want…but don’t call yourself an environmentalist.”

Visit Cowspiracy to learn more. And even if you don’t watch the entire film, do check out the film trailer, read some of the facts, and find out how to take action.

 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Book Review: Comfortably Unaware: What We Choose to Eat Is Killing Us and Our Planet by Richard Oppenlander

Richard Oppenlander’s Comfortably Unaware is a book everyone on the planet should read. Unfortunately, the book’s biggest drawback is that it may not feel accessible to those who need to read it most.

In Comfortably Unaware, Oppenlander makes the case for why the planet needs us humans to adopt a plant-based diet in order to preserve the earth’s rapidly dwindling resources. His sources and statistics are compelling and spot-on—and yet they’re not nearly as well known among environmentalists as they should be. Without question, to be an environmentalist is to be a vegan; as Oppenlander highlights throughout this slender book, animal agriculture is the single biggest cause of our worst environmental problems. From the oceans (raising animals for food pollutes our waterways more than all other industries combined) to the rainforests (70 percent of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed to raise livestock) to the air (the farming of animals is responsible for 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions), Oppenlander offers staggering statistics that should make all of us think about our diets.

comfortably unaware

And for those who feel they are not yet willing to give up meat, Oppenlander points out that the depletion caused by animal agriculture may leave us with nothing at all. Already, 55 percent of the world’s fresh water is being used to raise animals for food. In the U.S. alone, 70 percent of all grain feeds livestock instead of humans, while worldwide more than a billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition. He notes that “80 percent of the world’s starving children live in countries where food surpluses are fed to animals that are then killed and eaten by more well-off individuals in developed countries.”

In addition to environmental concerns, the book highlights other reasons for adopting a plant-based diet and tackles some of the more popular myths about animal protein and osteoporosis (as one example: countries with the highest diary consumption have the highest incidences of osteoporosis). Oppenlander also notes the horrific conditions under which farmed animals suffer and writes of the sensitivity of pigs, the inquisitive intelligence of chickens, the personalities and emotions of turkeys. While the depletion of the earth’s resources is his main focus here, he paints a full picture of why the diet of the future needs to be plant-based. He is also ready with answers to the anticipated questions of how the loss of animal agriculture would affect the economy.

Despite the fact that, for most omnivores, becoming vegan is a change that usually happens gradually, Oppenlander doesn’t go easy on those who may want or need to move slowly toward a plant-based diet. Of the increasingly popular “Meatless Monday” campaign, he writes, “Good; that’s terrific. Now you will be contributing to global warming, pollution, and global depletion of our planet’s resources six days of the week instead of seven.” This isn’t likely to endear omnivores to the cause or inspire change; much more compelling are other statistics Oppenlander offers, such as the true cost of having a quarter-pound hamburger for lunch: It takes fifty-five square feet of rainforest to produce a quarter-pounder, which also requires 1,200 gallons of water.

Comfortably Unaware doesn’t tell stories—the book is more a collection of statistics and pleas to change our ways—but these facts do add up to a story, and it’s a tragic one: We are devastating the planet in ways that may soon be irreversible, and yet our culture, traditions, and habits have so far prevented us from making the necessary changes that could save the environment from the point of no return. Though the book may be difficult for some omnivores to digest, its message is important enough and urgent enough that I hope all will read it.

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Book Review: Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food

Farm Sanctuary by Gene Baur

Farm Sanctuary by Gene BaurAre you going to do the Walk for Farm Animals this month because you read this book? Read this book and you might find yourself there next year.

Of all the causes one could devote their life to in this world — farm animals? It’s easy to forget how much we love them. Gene Baur offers a reminder.

…farm animals are sentient beings, capable of awareness, feeling, and suffering, and we humans have an ethical obligation to refrain from behaviors that inflict suffering on them.

Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal protection organization with sanctuaries in New York and California, talks about his activism on behalf of farmed animals.

The book contains disturbing descriptions of suffering and facts about how animals are treated. It also examines the consequences for the environment and human health “…it’s not much of a stretch to say that our health care crisis is closely tied to the health crisis in the animal agriculture industry.”

It does not, however, tip over into titillating descriptions of violence. Rather, the focus is on the animals (the small percentage among the billions slaughtered) that make their way to farm sanctuary.

The humane farms serve as sanctuaries for the animals, but also for the activists. Watching individual, named animals at ease and healthy on the farm, people can take comfort in the lives they can save while confronting the institutionalized cruelty inflicted on billions of others.

It can be easy to forget how enjoyable and healing it is to see animals living in peace. In part, that’s because, viewed as commodities, most animals are now hidden from view in warehouses. Factory farming has become standard practice (actually a number of increasingly “efficient” and increasingly cruel practices) enforced by agribusiness.

With the suffering of farmed animals come health and environmental disasters and failures in social justice for the contract farmers and farm workers. A quote attributed to Brian Halwell of the Worldwatch Institute points out that, “…there are now more prisoners than farmers in the United States. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.”

So, yes, of all the causes one could devote their life to in this world Gene Baur chose farm animals. Thank you, Mr. Baur.

He makes a compelling case for why people should consider the treatment of cows, chickens, ducks, turkeys, and pigs. When we’re aware, we care.

It’s time to face industrial agribusiness, whose blindness to the suffering of animals is almost equal by their indifference to the well-being of the public. Our health, the appropriation of scarce planetary resources, food security, and how we treat other animals cannot be left to corporations and the government alone.

What to read next?
The Jungle (1905) by Upton Sinclair. See the EcoLit review.

If this quote stood out for you: “Accepting institutionalized animal cruelty as a cost of doing business requires a flexible conscience, and I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when the same attitude starts slipping into the way we treat each other.” See also: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010) by Karen Armstrong or The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (2009) by Peter Singer.

If this quote stood out for you: “Eating plants instead of animals goes a long way toward promoting kindness and sustainability, not to mention good health.” See also: Forks Over Knives: The Plant-Based Way to Health (2011) by Gene Stone and Dr. Colin T. Campbell and Animal Liberation (1975) by Peter Singer.

shelpigInspired by this book?
Visit Farm Sanctuary or go to your local sanctuary. Over on my blog, I wrote about my recent experience at Pigs Peace Sanctuary in Stanwood, Wash.

And, of course, there’s always the Walk for Farm Animals. I’m walking Sept. 21 in Seattle. [contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

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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.”