Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter
From 27 November 2002 Issue
'Dominion': The Most Compassionate Conservative
By NATALIE ANGIER
HAVE you ever met a cat that was weaned too early and so developed the disturbing habit of nuzzling and kneading compulsively in your hair, your sweaters, your blankets, the crook of your elbow? Well, pigs prematurely taken from their mothers also root incessantly for something to chew or suck on; and if they are pigs spending their abbreviated lives in a factory farm, where maybe 500 animals are crowded into a space no bigger than a living room, the thing they try to chew on is the tail of the hog in front of them. This is not a happy habit for the industrial farmer: chewed tails can result in infections, and pigs that die, in Matthew Scully's pitch-perfect phrase, ''an unauthorized death.''
The factory farmer's solution? When the piglets are weaned, a good 12 to 16 weeks before nature had planned, their tails are docked, the lower part amputated with a pliers-like instrument. That small operation leaves the pigs with hypersensitive tails, which means the animals will not get complaisant and will struggle ever after to keep their clipped, throbbing appendages out of the mouths of their penmates.
Should you be inclined to pity the beasts for that or any other detail of their treatment in today's giant meat-making plants, however, the executives in charge of booming factory farms like Smithfield Foods in Virginia, which kills 82,300 pigs a day -- a quarter of the nation's total -- are eager to set your conscience at ease. When Scully asked Sonny Faison, head of Smithfield's Carroll's Foods division, in North Carolina, whether there isn't something ''just a little sad'' about confining millions of animals to cramped concrete enclosures, where there is no sun, wind, rain or even so much as a scattering of straw to sleep on, Faison declared au contraire. ''They love it,'' he insisted. ''They're in state-of-the art confinement facilities. The conditions that we keep these animals in are much more humane than when they were out in the field.'' Another Smithfield supervisor seconded the notion, painting a bleak picture of the life of free-ranging swine: ''I mean, you put 'em out, they kind of scrounge around in the mud, and in the summer, around here, animals that are outside risk getting mosquito bites and things.''
''Dominion'' is a horrible, wonderful, important book. It is horrible in its subject, a half-reportorial, half-philosophical examination of some of the most repugnant things that human beings do to animals, notably keeping them in the factory farms that have taken over the business of supplying America's insatiable meat tooth; and hunting them down on a new style of ''safaris,'' which are nothing more than canned, risk-free opportunities to bag exotic species as easily as one might drown a suckling kitten. The book is wonderful in its eloquent, mordant clarity, and its hilarious fillets of sanctimonious cant and hypocrisy. For example, Scully quotes from a book called ''In Defense of Hunting,'' by James A. Swan -- an authority favored by Gen. Norman
Schwarzkopf and other proud, manly-men hunters -- citing a passage that addresses the critics who weep over the animals and asks, aren't they special, even sacred, too?
''A thing can become truly sacred only if a person knows in his or her heart that the object or creature can somehow serve as a conduit to a realm of existence that transcends the temporal,'' Swan argues. ''If hunting can be a path to spirit, unhindered by guilt, then nature has a way of making sure that hunters feel compassion.'' To which Mr. Scully retorts: ''Like, wow, is that deep or what? Things are 'sacred' only when the hunter in his heart has made them so. . . . The creature becomes a 'conduit' to the transcendent. Guilt now becomes a hindrance to compassion, which is achieved in the very act of killing.''
''Dominion'' is important in large measure because the author, an avowed conservative Republican and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is an unexpected defender of animals against the depredations of
profit-driven corporations, swaggering, gun-loving hunters, proponents of renewed ''harvesting'' of whales and elephants and others who insist that all of nature is humanity's romper room, to play with, rearrange and plunder at will. Just as a presumed hawk like Richard Nixon could open relations with China, and a presumed liberal-softie like Bill Clinton could dismantle the welfare system, so Scully may do much more from the right for the pro-animal movement and the Endangered Species Act than any number of press releases and reports from the World Wildlife Fund and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Scully may also convert many readers to vegetarianism, a practice that he has followed for 25 years and that he realizes is rare among his political confreres. As his friend and fellow political commentator, Joseph Sobran, said on hearing of Scully's dietary preferences: ''A conservative, with a Catholic upbringing, and a vegetarian? Boy, talk about aggrieved minorities!'' At the very least, ''Dominion'' will encourage patronage of the small, independent organic farms, where the cattle are grass-fed and treated humanely, an option that Scully calls ''a decent compromise.''
Scully's argument is, fundamentally, wholly a moral one. It is wrong to be cruel to animals, he says, and when our cruelty expands and mutates to the point where we no longer recognize the animals in a factory farm as living
creatures capable of feeling pain and fear, or when we insist on an inalienable right to stalk and slaughter intelligent, magnificent creatures like elephants or polar bears for the sheer, bracing thrill of it -- and today's moneyed big-game hunters do just that -- then we debase ourselves. As the earth's most powerful species and the only one capable of meditating on our actions, we have a moral responsibility to treat the animals in our care with kindness, empathy and thoughtfulness, Scully says. When we forfeit that responsibility, we forfeit the right to any of the little self-congratulatory designations we have claimed: as God's ''chosen'' ones, or as Homo sapiens -- the wise ones -- or as possessing humanity in the sweetest sense of the word.
As Scully sees it, we may be ''of'' nature but we are not in it. For better or worse, we have dominion over the earth, and how we manage that position, whether as bloodthirsty tyrants or as benign patrons, is a core measure of our worth. ''Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind's capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship,'' he writes. ''We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don't; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.''
The author takes a particular dislike toward those who argue that animals, being incapable of dwelling on their mortality, therefore don't really suffer the way neuronally well-endowed humans can suffer. He also finds fault with those he considers moral relativists, like the philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that reason, rather than knee-jerk compassion or squeamishness, should dictate what we deem the comparative worth of the lives of animals or severely handicapped infants. Scully can wax self-righteous and absolutist, and he considers the ''squeamishness factor'' to be a handy indicator of something, like a factory farm, that is morally wrong. ''It is usually a sign of crimes against nature that we cannot bear to see them at all, that we recoil and hide our eyes,'' he writes, ''and no one has ever cringed at the sight of a soybean factory.''
Maybe so, but I have a deep fondness for plants, and a respect for the sophistication of the evolutionary path they have taken over hundreds of millions of years; and when I see a truckload of beautiful old redwood trees being toted off for lumber, I feel as much sorrow as I do when I see a deer carcass strapped to a car hood. It is a terrible, ineluctable thing, that we must kill to live -- if not animals, then plants -- and the burden is one that the author does not fully address. And when the author applauds his sometime employer President George W. Bush as a ''rescuer of stray animals'' who ''would be appalled by the conditions of a typical American factory farm or packing plant,'' but fails to mention the aggressive efforts of the Bush administration to open to drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- where the caribou and the polar bear roam -- it is obvious that moral flabbiness is a nonpartisan disease.
Still, this is a beautiful book, rich with thought, and a balm to the scared,
lonely animal in us all.
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