Open letter to animal rights writers



A renowned author of animal rights–themed books, speaking at an event four+ years ago, invited emailed ideas from the audience. Mine follows:

Dear _______,

I enjoyed hearing you speak […], so this is a response to your request for input re your forthcoming book. I’m an MA student of creative writing […], and have been exploring the issue of animal rights a little in the theory and non-fiction components of my course.

Going to such an event raises many questions for me, not least of which is how to appeal to people who don’t consider where their food, clothing, medicine etc. comes from. While a speaker like Steve Kilbey is to be commended for his conviction and commitment, such a polemical and aggressively self-righteous approach risks alienating those who may be just beginning to question their consumption habits.

Have you seen a doco called Earthlings? […] It is far and away the most emotionally powerful plea to consider what animals feel that I’ve ever seen. I watched it in five sittings, weeping continuously and sometimes howling with shock and outrage. Knowing is one thing. Seeing and hearing is quite another.

The material was grouped in five segments, dealing with abuses in the pet, food, clothing, entertainment and research industries, in that order. That the horror escalated through the course of Joaquin Phoenix’s narration was likely a cumulative effect, but it seemed that the abuses became progressively less justifiable as the film went on.

One issue that I found to be under-represented at the festival was that of pets, whether to have them at all and if so, what to feed them. You said something about animals being happy in the wild. I’m sorry if I’m paraphrasing you poorly. But this was a subject that came up at uni when I workshopped an interview with an animal rights activist. For example, should a vegan who buys flesh for her cat to eat daily feel justified in judging someone who buys and eats flesh only once a week? At the festival I met a woman on a stall who feeds chicken to her cat every day, and as I asked questions – out of interest, not to incriminate her – she became overwrought and irrational. I sensed an inner conflict.

The ethics of owning pets seems to be a relatively uncharted area, and one that leaves vegan pet owners vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. It’s abusive to keep a carnivorous creature and not feed it a carnivorous diet – a dog or cat can’t ‘consent’, in the same sense that humans can, to be vegetarian – but a person who rescues stray dogs or cats from a pound or wherever, then feeds them what they were born to eat, indirectly supports the abuse of animals killed for meat.

Have you read Life of Pi, the 2002 Booker Prize winner, by Yann Martel? I remember feeling angry when the narrator argued in favour of zoos. Yet the book was very popular and his argument is seductive. From pp. 15–18:

‘Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are “happy” because they are “free”. … The life of the wild animal is simple, noble and meaningful, they imagine. Then it is captured… Its “happiness” is dashed. It yearns mightily for “freedom” and does all it can to escape…

‘This is not the way it is.

‘Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low and where territory must constantly be defended and parasites forever endured. What is the meaning of freedom in such a context? Animals in the wild are, in practice, free neither in space nor in time, nor in their personal relations. …

‘Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water. A biologically sound zoo enclosure—whether cage, pit, moated island, corral, terrarium, aviary or aquarium—is just another territory, peculiar only in its size and in its proximity to human territory. … Territories in the wild are large not as a matter of taste but of necessity. …

‘One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to care for you?’

You may be familiar with this book, and if not, you’re no doubt familiar with this argument. It’s a provocative one. I see people feeding wild birds at the local parks and beaches, and the birds often look bedraggled and dirty and have lost a healthy caution around humans.

So the subject of whether to keep pets and what to feed them, and whether wild animals are happy, is the same subject, I think – because a pet is similar to a captive animal in a zoo despite the fact that some owners like to dress theirs in knitted vests or bandanas.

I don’t know if a subject like this falls within the scope of your book. But it doesn’t seem to get much of an airing. The idea that people humanise their pets and dehumanise their meat sources is key, I think. That was one of the great strengths of the doco Earthlings for me: it made animal suffering accessible. It was hard for me to imagine that anyone watching it could believe that the animals were suffering any less intensely than a human would if strung up by his or her feet, stripped of all skin yet still alive (for instance).

I must say I was troubled to hear Steve Kilbey speak of the dull eyes of cheese-eaters, and of vegans (or was it vegetarians?) being ‘sexier’. Personally, I think that to have any political viability whatsoever, it’s probably necessary for the animal rights/liberation movement to suppress awareness or questioning re the possibility that plants are sentient. Do they feel pain if we can’t see or hear it? That’s been a problem for fish: they can’t cry out when they’re suffocating so the topic gets debated, as if it could be possible that they don’t feel pain! I once heard Peter Singer say that he doesn’t believe plants are sentient. But for a long time, educated folk believed that the earth was flat. Dull eyes, to my mind, are those that reflect a rigid, dogmatic consciousness, not just a certain sort of diet.

I wish you much inspiration and the very best with your forthcoming book.

The author replied that they could not watch Earthlings, too graphic, could not stand Martel’s novel, and after a few further comments, wrote, ‘Tell me more about you!’ I did, in the context of my values and lifestyle re animals.

The reply was ‘fascianting’ [sic] and ‘made me think’: ambiguous. I never went looking for the book. But I still wonder how someone who’s unwilling to feel certain feelings (e.g., those that might be stirred up by Earthlings) can hope to move readers to true empathy with other species? Reason alone can seduce and persuade, but can it catalyse deep inner change?

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