Karen Davis, PhD,
United Poultry Concerns (UPC)
Question: How do we get people including environmental activists to stop eating meat?
Karen: Over the years, three main arguments have been brought against a meat-based diet in favor of a plant-based, or vegan diet. They are Health/food-safety, Ethics, and the Environment. Some people argue that we should emphasize health, food-safety, and environmental issues over the ethical treatment of animals, because people are basically selfish. Health and environmental quality affect people's lives directly, they say, whereas the ethical treatment of animal does not. The philosopher Michael Allen Fox, in his article "Environmental Ethics and the Ideology of Meat Eating" (Between the Species, 1993), lamented that for many or most people, "animal suffering and death in colossal quantities does not matter morally," or if it does matter, the ethical import is blunted by people's greater satisfaction in consuming animal products and their belief that jobs and the economy will suffer if people stop eating meat.
Others, like Erik Marcus in his book Meat Market (2005), argue that the health and environmental arguments against meat-eating have been frequently overstated, whereas the suffering and death of animals raised for food cannot be overstated, and that when many people learn the truth about what animals endure to become food, many will care and change their diet accordingly. I personally consider the suffering of animals raised for food to be the paramount issue, from which the other two issues flow. I consider it wrong - untrue and unethical - to assume that most people will never care about animals, including farmed animals.
To conclude that most people will never care about farmed animals is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagine how recently - little more than a century and a half ago - most people "didn't want to hear about" human slaves. I think that many more people will move toward change when they feel it is socially safe to do so. Millions of people have impulses of compassion for animals that are stifled by self-doubt and fear of ridicule. While some of the health and environmental problems caused by an animal-based diet will be reduced or masked by technology and pharmacology, the ethics of diet, the shared mortality and claims of our fellow creatures upon us, are lasting.
This said, I do not agree that the health/food-safety and environmental arguments are weak and should be set aside. As the global human population grows, and societies become ever more voracious consumers of resources, food-safety and environmental problems increase dramatically - they already have. Current trends indicate that the global production of meat and dairy products will double by 2050. Environmental research groups like the Livestock, Environment and Development Initiative (see "Livestock's long shadow" at www.virtualcenter.org) are calling farmed animal production "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global."
Last year, researchers at the University of Chicago noted that feeding animals to feed humans requires growing ten times as many crops as are needed to provide pasta primavera, faux chicken nuggets and other plant foods. According to a UN report, animal agriculture takes up 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the total land surface of the planet. As a result, farmed animal production is probably the biggest cause of deforestation as well as of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions - the toxic greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Considering that land animals raised for food now make up 20 percent of the entire land-animal biomass of the earth, and that this percentage could double over the next several decades, the question of where our animal-based diet is leading us and the earth becomes urgent.
Naturally, governments, corporations and even some environmental groups are looking for ways - smarter, more efficient technologies - to neutralize these effects without having to reduce farmed animal production and consumption. There is this idea, this hope, that six billion-plus people on the planet, devouring ever larger quantities of meat, dairy and eggs, can somehow consist with "humane, sustainable" animal agriculture. I think this is false, and that if a vegetarian (vegan) solution to our environmental problems seems unrealistic to some people, a significant shift away from industrial animal production practices to supply billions of increasingly urbanized omnivores is even more unlikely.
We have to remember, too, that even improved standards for farmed animals - which I support - are much lower than the living standards most people consider acceptable for animals of comparable sentience and intelligence such as dogs, cats, and chimpanzees. These standards don't come close to meeting the complex behavioral and cognitive needs of any of the animals involved. What avian specialist, Dr. Lesley Rogers, wrote about welfare improvements for hens used in commercial egg production applies to the production of farmed animal production realities, as such: "Although many of the currently discussed methods of improving housing for battery hens are most important and definitely to be encouraged," she writes, "it must be recognized that these are attempts by an industry designed for profit to make some concession to the welfare of animals. In no way can these living conditions meet the demands of a complex nervous system designed to form a multitude of memories and to make complex decisions" (The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken, page 218).
What all this means is that animal advocates have solid environmental arguments to put before the public on behalf of a vegan diet, arguments that should be made in conjunction with the health and ethical reasons for going vegan. Indeed, these reasons are related, and all three reasons are ethical as well, because how we treat animals, the planet and our bodies goes beyond mere utilitarianism. Environmental ethics must include farmed animals. As polluted and poisoned as we are making the world around us, the concentration of poisoned gases and pathogens inside a modern chicken or turkey building is beyond description. If you stick your face in a used cat litter box or an old-fashioned diaper pail and breathe deeply for ten minutes, you'll get some idea of what it feels like - what it does to you - to breathe excretory ammonia fumes for your entire life, as these poor birds are forced to do. I believe the public can be brought to understand that forcing birds - any animals - to stand, lie and breathe in their own and their predecessor's excrement is not only dangerous, but morally wrong.
Question: What price do meat-eaters really pay for cheap, readily available animal products?
Karen Davis: I doubt we can prove that consuming animal products in fairly small quantities is harmful. Things being equal, it would appear that a vigorous human lifestyle can sustain some intake of healthy animal flesh. The reality, though, is that more and more people, like the animals they are eating, are sedentary, which increases one's susceptibility to poor health, weakened immunity, and diseases. While there is clear, certifiable evidence that a diet rich in animal products causes or significantly contributes to degenerative diseases - actual cases can be cited and actual clogged arteries and starved internal organs can be viewed every day in the hospital or morgue - where is the comparable evidence that people getting enough calories on a varied plant diet suffer, as a result, from calcium, protein, and iron deficiencies, heart attacks and strokes?
In addition, evidence shows that animal products pose a significant and growing food-safety risk for people. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the major foodborne pathogens that make people sick and can even kill them - viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi - are found mainly in "meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products, and eggs."
Many people don't realize that foodborne bacteria, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shigella, Yersinia, E. coli, and Listeria in poultry and other animal products, don't just "go away." These pathogens can migrate from people's intestines to other body parts - blood, bones, nerves, organs, and joints - to cause seemingly unrelated diseases that may emerge only later in life, such as arthritis. Campylobacteriosis, a disease that comes from handling and eating contaminated chickens and turkeys, and is the most widespread foodborne illness in the United States, can cause a paralytic disease with fatal nerve damage known as Guillain-Barre syndrome. Campylobacteriosis - which causes severe abdominal cramps, nausea and diarrhea - has "trebled in the past 15 years" in New Zealand, where retail chicken products and packaging have been found "literally dripping with campylobacter," according to a 2006 report.
Salmonellosis, like Campylobacteriosis, is an infection of the intestinal tract causing nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, fever, chills, weakness and exhaustion. For years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has acknowledged "the number of hens with reproductive-tract infections that can cause egg contamination," according to The Wall Street Journal. In 2006, researchers in the European Union called Salmonellosis and Campylobacteriosis "by far the most frequently reported food borne diseases in the EU," and in January 2007, Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) called poultry "the most common source of food borne infections in the EU."
In January 2007, Consumer Reports reported that tests on 525 chickens purchased from U.S. supermarkets and specialty stores in 23 states found 83 percent of chickens contaminated with Campylobacter and Salmonella bacteria - a substantial increase from their 2003 study. In addition, 84 percent of the Salmonella and 67 percent of the Campylobacter bacteria showed resistance to antibiotics.
We sometimes hear that people have developed E. coli and Salmonella infections, even antibiotic resistance, from eating plants such as spinach or cantaloupes. However, the root cause isn't the plants; it's the animal-based fertilizer and wastewater runoff from animal farming operations. E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and similar bacteria derive from the intestines of animals - that is their natural habitat. I'm amazed at how often media reports omit this information, partly because the animal production industries obscure it in their press releases.
To the many foodborne illnesses attributable to animal products, we've added to the list mad cow disease and avian influenza. Both are products of farmed animal production practices. Cattle - designed by nature to eat grass - became fatally infected with mad cow disease in being forced to eat feed containing tissue from the central nervous systems of infected cows. A variant of this fatal neurological disease can be transmitted to consumers of beef products, and even though the feeding of central nervous system tissue to cows has been banned in the U.S., Canada, the EU and some other countries, it continues to be fed to birds and pigs raised for human consumption.
This means that consumers of poultry and pork products ingest, indirectly, the central nervous system tissue of cattle, millions of whom die all the time of undiagnosed diseases. Given the international trade in animals' body parts and processed foods containing animal products - which are increasingly assembled not only from different animals but from different countries - it is virtually impossible to regulate the agribusiness economy in the interest of food safety. Something that sticks in my mind from Gail Eisnitz's book Slaughterhouse is her saying that each hamburger includes about a hundred different cows. An icky little grease ball item like a chicken nugget is made out of stuff from the four corners of the earth.
Like mad cow disease, avian influenza - bird flu - is a disease of farmed animal production. The viruses that have evolved in recent decades to become the virulent strains of H5N1, H5N2 and H7N3 have lived harmlessly in the intestines of waterfowl for millennia. At least one of these viruses - H5N1 - is reported to have killed 163 people so far. While predictions vary as to whether an H5N1 pandemic – affecting humans - is imminent, massive avian influenza outbreaks are occurring in poultry houses around the world. Influenza experts quoted in Michael Greger's book Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching (2006) stress the fact that mass consumption of poultry is the root cause of virulent bird flu, summarizing, that "In our efforts to streamline farming practices to produce more meat for more people, we have inadvertently created conditions by which a harmless parasite of wild ducks can be converted into a lethal killer of humans" (page 166).
In early February of this year, I watched a television report on the increasing role that irradiation is going to play in bringing food to consumers' plates. While there are disputes as to the risks of consuming irradiated food, especially over time, what stands out is the fact that irradiation is a technological response to, an acknowledgment of, filthy food. Dangerous levels of contamination from animal farming operations, including fertilizer and wastewater runoff into soil and water supplies, are affecting even the plants grown for direct human consumption. Covering up filth is cheaper than cleaning it up, but the reality is, industry cannot economically clean up the living quarters of thousands of animals packed together in their own waste. Running a sanctuary, I know how hard it is keeping the living quarters of less than a hundred chickens clean on a daily basis - and consider the fact that there is no daily cleaning schedule in large-scale animal production operations.
Knowing what we know about all these things, animal advocates can accurately and persuasively argue that a vegan diet is not only an ethical opportunity to create a less violent, cruel and toxic world, but an intelligent food safety initiative that doesn't depend on the government. Nor will a vegan diet sacrifice jobs or ruin the economy, as some people fear. As long as people exist, the same amount of food will have to be produced, and someone will have to produce it for them.
Just imagine if all those protein-rich soybeans and other plants that are now being fed to farmed animals were harvested directly for people and turned into everything from burgers to ice cream. Or if much of the land that is being used to grow crops for farmed animals were freed up for environmentally responsible uses. The huge amount of money that is now being spent to patch up human bodies ravaged by animal-based diets and to clean up an environment polluted by farmed-animal wastes can be used to retrain workers and redirect food technologies. Farmers will grow, companies will manufacture, and foodsellers will sell whatever people will buy.
As consumers, we can thus use our purchasing power to speed technological conversion to the production of all-vegetarian foods. In retooling, producers will create their own competition, hiring just as many workers as before to feed the hunger-as-ever-population. For those who care about animals, health and the well-being of the planet, and who have educated themselves in these areas, the happy task is to show people the many wonderful vegan products, recipes and menu items that are available to them. No one should be allowed to get away with dismissing vegan food anymore as a boring "diet of tofu and sprouts." Not that there is anything wrong with tofu and sprouts; rather, what is unacceptable is the stereotype of vegetarians and vegan cuisine as meager and ascetic. This is totally outdated, and the public needs to be made aware of the fact.
Question: How do we make amends to the farmed animals humans have made to suffer so?
Karen: That's easy. We can stop abusing them. We can stop eating them and their eggs and drinking the milk that nature intended to nourish these animals' own nursing infants. Through the years people have said to me things like, "Well, what'll happen if we stop eating meat? Won't the animals overrun the planet?" Or they say, "Since these animals have been bred for domestication, they can't survive on their own. Won't they become extinct if we stop eating them?"
To these questions I answer, first, that farmed animals will not overrun the earth if we stop eating them, for the simple reason that we will no longer intentionally breed them by the billions, as we do now, for human consumption. The tens of billions of farmed animals in existence today are here because human beings manipulate their numbers through artificial insemination and other unnatural, coercive and degrading interventions. If the farmed animals who are here now were the last generation, yes, the majority of these poor souls would die miserably in their filthy prisons - as, in fact, countless millions of them do already – but there would be no future generations of animal victims to replace them. Life for these animals is already as bad as it gets. It is no exaggeration to cite the living conditions and terrorist treatment of human prisoners at Abu Ghraib and such evil places as a way of trying to convey to people the sheer hell that animals are living in.
Just for a moment, forget about the 50 billion or so chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs and other land animals being slaughtered for human consumption each year. Forget the 5650 million hens rotting in battery cages around the world. Picture in your mind the tens of millions of birds who, because of bird flu - "a virus of our own hatching" - have been, are being, and will continue to be gassed to death, kicked to death, clubbed to death, electrocuted, burned alive, buried alive in plastic bags, sliced to death in woodchippers, and buried alive under firefighting foam - all due to the mass consumption of birds and their eggs.
As for the argument that a vegan diet would force farmed animals to become extinct, first of all, many of these animals would pretty quickly revive their suppressed capacity to live on their own, raise their families and become feral - there are plenty of feral chickens, turkeys, goats, pigs and cattle to prove this point. Second, I would argue that it is better for animals who could not survive as a result of their human-created afflictions, such as the defective skeletons and metabolic disorders of birds bred for meat, to die out. I find it rather cynical for people who defend farmed animal production and the abuse it inherently entails to express concern about the extinction of the animals if humans stop eating them. As sad as extinction is, even sadder is the proliferation of life under these circumstances.
Question: What have you learnt from and about animal interspecies communication from out of your sanctuary for chickens and turkeys?
Karen: It's interesting how scientists continue to debate over whether birds and other animals possess language and consciousness, whether they communicate or just make noise. Just recently, an article on neuroscience in The New Yorker said that while animals are conscious of their surroundings and, sometimes, of themselves, they don't have language. I wrote a letter back saying that the fact that nonhuman animals don't have verbal language doesn't mean they don't have language. Running a sanctuary for chickens, turkeys and ducks for 20 years (now including a peacock and two peahens) has taught me a lot about the role of languages in the lives of these birds, ranging from their complex vocal communications, to their intense staring matches, to the way a chicken has merely to direct her beak, without any physical contact whatsoever, at another bird who's squeezed in too close, maybe, around a food bowl. The recipient of the silent command to "back off" needs no further instruction. She freezes for a few seconds, then finds a way to wedge herself into the charmed circle by a different route.
I'd say that just about everything in these birds' waking lives involves communication. It is well established that embryonic chicks communicate with the mother bird from inside the eggs and that she responds by adjusting herself or the egg or eggs to satisfy the need conveyed by particular signals from her embryos. A hen calls her chicks when she finds food, and a rooster calls out to his hens to come see what he's found for them - "chook chook chook!" - and here they come, running from all directions across the grass, their wings fluttering like little airplanes, to see what he has for them. I've watched this communication take place a million times.
If I walk outside with an armload of kale or collard greens, say, the birds not only run toward me at the sight of those greens; the ones who see me first "vocalize" to the others, who may off somewhere, under the trees or something, that treats are at hand, and here they come.
Say that our ever-watchful Rhubarb, the rooster, spots danger, like a hawk cruising the sky. What does he do? He sends up a shrill cry that's immediately echoed by all the other roosters in the yard. Often the whole flock will start up a loud, incessant, drum-beating chorus with all members facing in the direction of the first alarm, or they scatter for cover in the opposite direction. When it looks safe again, the other roosters, voice upon voice, will inquire, in effect, "Are we safe now?" and Rhubarb will send up an "all clear" crow and everyone will resume their activities.
We once had two roosters, Ruby and Pola. Ruby, who got along great with the other chickens, could not resist attacking people. Pola you could hug and kiss to death and he loved it. When I'd go out to the chicken yard, there was always Ruby to contend with, so I got in the habit of calling "Pola!" - at first in sheer playfulness - to chase off Ruby so I could proceed. But it happened that almost immediately, all I had to do was shout "Pola!" and Pola would stop whatever he was doing, perk his head up, run over and chase off Ruby. Pola understood what I wanted him to do - get Ruby out of the way - and he did it.
Our hen Petal, who was otherwise as quiet as could be, would raise a ruckus if her adored Jules was out of her sight for long. Her otherwise demure little voice became SQUAWK SQUAWK SQUAWK. At this, Jules would lift his head up, straighten up, mutter to himself in Chicken Talk, and go to Petal. Silence.
And then there was our hen Charity, who came to our sanctuary as a chick from a school hatching project, who lived to be 12 years old. Charity insisted on laying her egg each day in the basement in a little depression she'd made among some books. So I'm working at a table in the basement, and there's Charity at the window, looking in at me, bobbing her head back and forth, and tap, tap, tapping with her beak for me to go around to the cellar door and open it so she can run down the steps and settle herself in her book-nest, and lay her egg. When I get to the door to open it for her, there she is, waiting. This was a daily ritual for two or three years. After she'd laid her egg and spent a little time with it, she'd run up the steps signaling to me that she was ready to go outside again.
One of my most interesting observations of communication involved our two rescued turkeys, Mila and Priscilla. Though roughly the same age, Mila was a peaceful turkey and Priscilla was belligerent. When Priscilla got into one of her moods, you could see her getting ready to charge my husband or me. What stopped her was Mila.
Mila would enter directly into the path between Priscilla and us, and block Priscilla's charge. She'd tread back and forth in front of Priscilla, uttering soft pleading yelps, beseeching her to stop, and Priscilla would gradually calm down. Information was successfully communicated between these two birds who had been bred for the meat industry, which some scientists like to say (without evidence) has weakened their brains.
I urge anyone reading this who would like to learn more about turkeys and their amazing lives to purchase my book More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, published by Lantern Books and available from United Poultry Concerns. It shocks me that the turkey is America's unofficial national bird (the bald eagle is the official one), a bonafide Native American, and yet few people in this country know anything, or seem to care anything, about this complex and vital creature who for most Americans is nothing but a big dinner on Thanksgiving Day, and turkey sandwiches for the rest of the year.
I learned so much about turkeys researching this book, and I put the information into the book. It includes everything from an analysis of the unfortunate cultural role that the turkey has been forced to assume, to the range of behaviors showing how keenly aware and responsive turkeys are to one another and to their surroundings. You can almost weep when you read about the cheerful way the mother turkey and her young go about in the woods and fields together, and how, if one of the young ones gets lost, he or she sends up a "lost call." When the mother bird hears this call, she gives a few anxious yelps, upon which her youngster, "opening his wings," gives "a joyous flap or two and with a few sharp, quick 'yelps,' he goes on a run to join his companions."
If only there were a huge Mother Turkey in the Sky to hear and respond to all of the lost calls that are being uttered by the billions of baby turkeys who are imprisoned all over the earth merely to grow up and be slaughtered.
Many scientists, while they are willing to concede that birds and other animals can experience negative emotions such as fear, cry "anthropomorphism" if you suggest that animals can experience happiness and pleasure, as well. Marian Stamp Dawkins, a professor of animal behavior in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, who has done a lot of experimental research into "what hens want," in her review of Jonathan Balcombe's 2006 book Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, scoffs at the presumption that the individuals of other species, while showing similar behavior to that of humans when eating, being touched by their companions, or having sex, enjoy the experience. Like a dusty old skeleton in a closet, she writes that consciousness in animals "is still a hard problem."
To conclude this section, I will describe one of my most precious memories. It involves a large, lovely white hen rescued from a roadside market, named Sonja, who lived in our house, slept in my bedroom closet, and bounded down the hallway each morning into the kitchen around 6 a.m. One day, a neighbor's dog killed one of our roosters in the yard. As I sat crying on the living room floor, Sonja came over and stood beside me. When I leaned towards her, she buried her head in my neck and began purring in the softest way. I put my arms around her, and we stayed like that for a long time. Sonja knew I was sad, and she comforted me. How do I know she knew? Her whole being communicated it to me. A few years later, a Washington Post article about United Poultry Concerns titled "For the Birds," quoted me as saying, "I wished I could have stayed in that moment forever."
Question: What do I think about the current state of the animal rights movement and how can it be made more progressive?
Karen: When I joined the animal rights movement in the early 1980s, there were plenty of street demos, rallies, and leaders shouting, "We speak for the animals," We shall not be moved," and so forth. Back then, it seemed as if sport hunting and fur would soon be gone, and that vivisection would follow as result of horrific undercover exposures. PETA was just getting started, Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation was the movement's bible, philosopher Tom Regan delivered fiery speeches, and The Animals Film seemed sure to get people to stop eating meat, and much more. It was an exciting time. As the poet Wordsworth wrote about the early days of the French Revolution, "Bliss was it in those days to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!"
That phase of the animal rights movement has passed, but this does not mean that our movement has failed, or that it is ailing necessarily. In fact, this, too, is an exciting time to be alive, as we see more and more positive press coverage being given to animal issues, and especially to farmed animal issues. Some significant reforms are taking place, thanks to activists' persistence. Here in the U.S., United Poultry Concerns spent 13 years campaigning to get the egg industry to stop its hundred-year practice of force molting hens by starving them for an entire week or two at a time. We succeeded. In the U.S., Canada and elsewhere, a movement is underway to get laying hens out of battery cages. Some big universities, as well as some multinational companies, are switching to eggs from uncaged hens. In the EU, battery cages will be banned in 2012, and in California, a ban on the production and sale of duck liver pate (foie gras) is scheduled to go into effect in 2012.
This morning (02/17/07), I read an editorial in the News& Observer, North Carolina's biggest newspaper, expressing support for the decision of "Smithfield Foodsx, the nation's largest pork company and a mainstay on the North Carolina agribusiness scene, [to] phase out its use of the cages in which breeding sows are confined." Following Smithfield's lead, Canada's largest pork producer, Maple Leaf Foods, announced last week that it, too, is phasing out sow stalls in all of its corporate operations over the next decade.
These reforms are the result of the dedicated work of animal activists: conducting and publicizing undercover investigations, educating the public, enlisting the support of animal scientists, putting pressure on foodsellers and the like. This is not to say that things are good for animals, over all, particularly from a global perspective. However, it is to say that given what activists and animals are up against, there is no reason for us to hang our heads. The best way for our movement to make progress is for us to keep working and not give up. As I have said and believe, it isn't about having faith, it's about keeping faith. We have to keep faith with what, and who, we care about, with what we're aiming to achieve. We have to keep working, and be smart about it.
Back in the late 1980s, when I was thinking about starting an organisation for chickens, some people discouraged me ("people aren't ready for chickens," "you'll never survive financially"). At the same time, I was strongly encouraged by people like Henry Spira, who launched the campaign against Frank Perdue in the U.S., and Clare Druce, the founder of Chickens' Lib in England. Today, chickens are very much in the forefront of advocacy campaigns in the U.S. - The Humane Society of the United States has stepped up to the plate in a big way for battery-caged hens – and the same thing is starting to happen in Canada under the leadership of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.
In Victoria, Australia, Patty Mark's ongoing battle on behalf of chickens has been a phenomenal inspiration to all of us who are working on behalf of farmed animals. Things really are changing. I can walk into just about any convenience store on the Eastern Shore, where our office and sanctuary are located in the heart of the poultry industry, and people know what the term vegetarian means. Not only that, most people I talk to are not hostile at all. Many people nowadays say things like, "Oh, my daughter is a vegetarian." Many, seeing the chicken trucks go up and down the road, hate the way the birds are treated, and this, coupled with a growing awareness of the link between high meat consumption and health problems, encourages a friendly attitude towards the idea of being vegetarian, or vegan.
Not long ago, I could have sworn that the county clerk in an office down the road was hostile the day she asked me what my "Stick Up for Chickens" button meant, but when I very nicely talked with her a little and handed her our Chickens brochure from my pocketbook, she looked it over quietly, and then said, to my surprise, "You know, I've been thinking about becoming a vegetarian, but I don't know what to eat. I grew up on chicken and dumplings. What do you suggest?"
My point is, never assume that a person is unreceptive. Be positive in your encounters. Changes are occurring, and activists should feel encouraged. We have a long way to go, but we've come a long way in the past twenty-five years. Just last week a longtime shelter worker in Washington, DC told me that as a result of the continuing effort to educate people about spaying and neutering their dogs and cats in the Washington, DC area, the number of dogs coming into the shelter has dropped from more than 11 million ten years ago, to around eight million now. That is not perfect, but it is progress.
Question: Tell us about your latest book, The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale: A Case for Comparing Atrocities (Lantern Books, 2005).
Karen: When PETA launched its Holocaust on Your Plate exhibit a few years ago, comparing Nazi concentration camp victims with the animal victims of factory farming, a furor arose within much of the Jewish community over the comparison, which was viewed by many as an insult to Holocaust victims, survivors, their families, and to all Jews. At the same time, scholars like Charles Patterson, who is himself a Jew and the author of Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, published by Lantern Books in 2002, argued compellingly, and showed by example, that the comparison is justified. When the Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer, said through his main character in his short story, "The Letter Writer," that "In relation to animals, all people are Nazis," the stage was set for the comparisons that followed.
In researching The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale, I became interested in the psychology of resentment, and in the effort on the part of some victims of atrocity to establish a kind of corner on unjust suffering, such that no other suffering on earth, or in history, or in the future, could ever compare.
What I learned in my reading, about atrocities committed by, for example, the Europeans and their descendents upon Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and other victim groups including women, was that every group tends to resent their suffering being compared to that of others. Every victim group more or less considers the atrocity that they have suffered to be the most tragic and outrageous of all. Susan Sontag captures this phenomenon in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, when she says: "It is intolerable to have one's own sufferings twinned with anybody else's." What this tells us in part is that resentment against being compared with animals is part of a broader psychology that we need to address. It led me to write, in The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale, first, that members of an oppressed group resent comparisons of their suffering with members of another oppressed group because they believe that the analogy demotes their suffering from something unique to "a mere instance" of generic suffering. Second, a group may feel that their suffering is actually more important than that of any other group. The question of just comparisons between or among different groups is important, since it is not just any suffering, but the unjust, deliberately mposed suffering one's group has already endured which adds to the resentment one feels in having to protect one's own group experience from appropriation by another group. The original injustice should not be compounded by the further injustice of being used, in Richard Kahn's words, merely as "an emblem for more pressing matters."
This said, I argue in my book, and I do believe, that while there are risks that the atrocities being compared could lose their identities and become mere interchangeable, rhetorical tropes, ironically subverting the very purpose of making the comparisons in the first place, an incommensurable oppression may retain its identity while shedding light on other incommensurable magnitudes of suffering and injustice in the world. It may, as Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, disclose "new subjects for fellow feeling" and be "a turning point in the history of moral feelings and of sorrow - as deep, as original, as demanding."
In The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale, I explore the psychology involved in invoking the abuse of animals to express the magnitude of one's own oppression – the way chicken slaughterhouse workers will say, for example, "we're treated like animals," while rejecting the analogy being turned around.
It is also interesting that while many Jews may resent their suffering being compared to that of animals, Holocaust scholars, such as James E. Young in Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust, point out that an essential part of the Jewish tradition is the placing of more recent suffering in terms of previous experiences, in order to make sense and create meaning and understanding out of all of the experiences. Locating traumatic events within an existing context of similar events is universal among people. Thus, says Young, to those who consider the Holocaust off limits for comparative analysis or usage, "As other experiences functioned as figures for the Holocaust, shaping comprehension and expression of specific events, the Holocaust itself would now function as a guiding figure for other events."
It may be observed, finally, that the term holocaust is an ancient Greek word for the "burnt offerings" of sacrificial animals by groups, including, but not limited to, the Hebrew tribes. The original holocaust victims were animals (and no doubt, humans), yet, ironically, we're not supposed to regard those animals, or their counterparts in today's world, as holocaust victims. We are not supposed to contemplate the experience of nonhuman animals in being turned into burnt offerings, meat, metaphors, and other forms that obliterate their lives, personalities, feelings, and identities. I reject such admonitions.
But even as I make a case for comparing atrocities, I think that we have to be very selective and careful in our use of comparisons. Recently an activist who was planning a demonstration on behalf of battery-caged hens asked me what I thought about making placards with swastikas on them. My advice was, and is, don't do it. What happens in such cases is that the hens are forgotten in the heated rhetoric that erupts over the use of Nazi symbols to draw public attention to the plight of animals. Moreover, it is a kind of final insult to assume that nobody will care about a suffering and abused animal unless it can be shown that this animal's misery is comparable to that of a human under similar circumstances.
As animal rights advocates, we have to be strong enough to accept the paradoxes and ambiguities that confront us in our activism while developing methods that incorporate and transcend them. In The Holocaust and the Henmaid's Tale I make a case for comparing atrocities as a form of education in a way that I hope will better the world. At the same time, I have a chapter entitled "The Life of One Battery Hen," in which I evoke for the reader the experience that I imagine to be that of a battery-caged hen from her point of view, from her first glimmer of consciousness to the closing moment of her death, starting with "Deep inside an industrial incubator filled with thousands of chick embryos, a baby hen is growing inside an egg. . . ."
Under one aspect, there is absolutely nothing in the world to compare with this experience. Under another aspect, however, there is, because each individual experience, while unique and unrepeatable, expresses the larger fabric of life to which no single individual or group of individuals can lay claim as the sole proprietor.
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