Book Review - Jeffrey Masson's new book on the emotional world of farm animals
- [From the 11/30/03 San Francisco Chronicle Book Review Section]
Why people should care when pigs fry and cows cry
Reviewed by Selina O'Grady
The Pig Who Sang to the Moon
The Emotional World of Farm Animals
By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
BALLANTINE; 277 PAGES; $25.95
It has always struck me as odd that little children are regularly brought up on books about fluffy farmyard animals, but we never say, "And you will be eating every one of them very soon." Last year 10 billion animals were raised and killed for food in the United States alone. In the process many are crammed into battery farms, force-fed or have their young taken from them. Clearly there are a lot of meat eaters who just do not find this a problem. Jeffrey Masson's book is an impassioned attempt to explain why they should.
Farmyard animals, he claims, are just like us because they have similar emotions. They can feel anxious, bored, grief-stricken, lonely, deliriously happy. The animal lover will, of course, hardly need persuading of this. The difficulty for Masson is to convince everyone else not only that animals feel but that they feel just like us and that we should therefore radically alter our behavior toward them.
After all, it is hard enough for us to guess what our fellow humans are feeling -- and they can talk. How can we possibly know whether and what different species feel? No problem, says Masson. You just have to look at an animal to know. Take Mary, the chicken, her beak deformed from factory farming,
now living in a sanctuary. She became the inseparable companion of a young rooster, Notorious Boy. When the first winter rains came, they were found huddling close together, Notorious Boy's wing draped over Mary "to protect her.
. . . If we can't call this love, the word has no meaning."
This charming anecdote, followed by his wonderfully confident assertion of the chicken's interior life, is indicative of Masson's style of "argument" throughout. He gives us anecdotes about pigs, cows, sheep, goats, ducks and geese as well as chickens to "prove" how emotionally similar they are to us. (Pigs come out of this treatment particularly delightfully; they thrive on affection, have a short attention span, are easily bored but apparently have a great capacity for pure pleasure. Goats are not far behind: They are humorous, fun-loving and independent.)
But how do you get from the anecdote to the truth about whether and what the animal is feeling? Only by anthropomorphism, by empathy, as Masson is happy to concede, citing Darwin's "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" as his bible. (Masson, rogue psychoanalyst turned animal writer, claims that he was the first since Darwin to specifically address the emotional lives of animals.) Indeed, the anecdotal, anthropomorphic approach is increasingly respectable among researchers studying animal behavior, such as Francis de Waal and Jane Goodall. ("The plural of anecdote is 'data,' " says Mark Berkoff, a biologist at the forefront of scientists who believe animals have emotions.) But in the absence of academia's "sterile experiments, " as Masson calls them, it is easy for the skeptic to dismiss impassioned claims for animal emotions as pure sentimentality.
There are, however, anecdotes that must turn the stomach of even the most blithe carnivores. Masson describes the stench, artificial light and almost total silence in a vast barn packed with 25,000 pure white chickens, and factory farm pigs, so heavy they find it difficult to stand, biting the bars of their crates. Here, Masson's style of argument seems at its most convincing:
It is hard to believe that these animals are not suffering.
Indeed, if Masson had set his sights lower, he could have made a much better argument. There is good scientific evidence (which he does not cite), based on the similarity in our brain anatomy and chemistry, that animals may share with us the less complex emotions of pain, fear, stress, pleasure, maternal love. What these emotions actually feel like to animals we have no way of knowing, pace Masson. But it is unlikely that they will feel the same because so much thought and self-consciousness goes into human feeling. Our grief, for instance, is made up of what a life means, of memory, of the effect on others, of time, etc. Masson proclaims that a cow forced to mourn her only calf is no less tragic a figure than a human in such a situation. Wrong. Human parents mourn their children a lifetime. They understand what they have lost. Does a cow? Certainly Masson's book will not convince anyone who needs convincing that it can.
Masson argues for the equivalence of human and animal emotions because he hopes this will lead us to the ultimate stage of treating farmyard animals well: not exploiting them in any way at all, including taking their eggs or milk. If they feel like us, how can we kill them, treat them cruelly or use them for our own ends? Sadly for Masson, all too easily. Look how we all manage to sit down to our laden dinner tables while millions of our fellow humans starve and suffer in the poor world.
Selina O'Grady is a San Francisco writer.
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