Tuesday, 23 December 2014


“Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.” - Samuel Butler

There is a passage in C.S. Lewis’s book “The Silver Chair” where Eustace and Jill (the children who are transported by magic to Narnia, the land of Aslan) find themselves amongst giants. They are mollycoddled and made much of, fed all manners of things delicious and made as comfortable as possible. All seems to be delightful and they enjoy their sojourn there until they discover a giants’ cookery book that has this in it:
“MAN: This elegant little biped has long been valued as a delicacy. It forms the traditional part of the Autumn Feast, and is served between the fish and the joint. Each man...”

When I first read this as a child I felt a shiver of morbid fascination and abhorrence down my spine. I imagined myself in the place of poor Eustace and Jill, being fattened by giants so that I would be part of a rare and gastronomically delightful course in the Autumn Feast banquet. Cannibalism fascinates us and at the same time strikes us as the utmost indication of barbaric behaviour. Yes most of us think nothing of biting into a delicious ham sandwich, or a juicy steak or a serving of coq-au-vin.

The art of dining has been elevated to an exquisite art form and all manner of exotic ingredients are combined with the staples from the garden, the vegetable patch, the orchard and of course the farmyard to concoct delicious dishes to tempt even the most jaded palate. Vegetarians are few and far between, although the percentage of vegetarians in Western countries is on the increase (about 1% of Western populations would be classed as strict vegetarians – see this interesting [though dated] article: http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/poll.htm).

For our literary Tuesday today, I offer you a book that is a veritable bible for vegetarians and animal activists, as it considers the plight of farm animals – animals raised for the sole purpose of providing food for humans. The book is “The Pig who Sang to the Moon” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (2003). He argues convincingly that farm animals have feelings and consciousness. Intelligence and curiosity, self reliance and humour, sociability and bravery, grief and dignity are hardly the words that would immediately spring to our mind to describe goats and pigs, cows and chickens; however, Masson demonstrates that these emotions and attributes are evident in these ‘lowly’ animals.

In his 300-page book, Masson devotes each chapter to an animal: Cow, pig, chicken, sheep/goat, duck, etc and examines through history, literature, anecdotes, scientific studies and his own personal experience the way that we describe these creatures as “dumb beasts without feelings” is completely wrong. We all have immense sympathy for companion animals and pets like cats and dogs. We would think it enormously inhumane and barbaric to kill cats and dogs for food, but most of us would not blink an eyelid at eating a ham sandwich. However, pigs are cleaner than dogs and easier to housetrain, of all animals their physiology and flesh is most like ours, they are incredibly friendly and will curiously follow us all day, more so than our pet cats. In fact, “mini” pigs have been successfully adopted as pets by some people.

Masson’s position in his book is that farm animals that have been specifically bred for our table fare are living in a completely artificial environment (in some cases analogous to a medieval prison in human terms). These animals find themselves struggling to cope in an environment that is all wrong for them. The specific instinctual behaviours that these animals carry in their genes do not have a chance of being expressed in these wrong environments. They have been unable to adapt as adaptation takes hundreds of thousands of years and we have domesticated them for only thousands of years. How can a cow that is separated from her calf immediately it is born and bred to be milked by a machine daily, carry out the incredibly tender and loving rearing of her young that we see in wild cattle? How can a battery hen luxuriate in an obviously enjoyable dust bath that the free range chicken can? How can a pig be curious and companionable and clever if it is confined to an indoor “factory farm” sty and never sees the light of day in its life?

This is a book that will elicit gut-wrenching emotion from most of its readers, as it really does pack a punch in the stomach (both puns are intended!). Masson describes a harsh and brutal reality (and yes, the truth is bitter), but he is also optimistic about the way that some enlightened farmers go out of their way to make an environment that is more pleasant for the animals they rear, seeing that we are unable to completely do away with farm animals.

To be a devil’s advocate, Masson does fling some wild hypotheses around in his book (which are not substantiated or even argued through logically). He can become emotional over what he discusses and tugs at our heartstrings rather than the intellect in places. He can jump around from topic to topic without much connection or the rigour of a scientific paper. He often preaches from his self-righteous pulpit and can be extremely negative about some things (for example, arguing that even when raising chickens humanely in a free range farm, it is immoral to take their eggs from them).

Nevertheless, when we consider that 10 billion farm animals are killed for human consumption annually in the USA alone, Masson’s book is extremely thought-provoking. We have known for hundreds of years that we don’t need to eat animals to survive (vegetarians and vegans have lived long healthy lives throughout recorded history). Increasing evidence shows that vegans live a longer and healthier life than others. Gandhi said: “…first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight with you, then you win.” Masson closes his book by suggesting a variety of ways that we can help the plight of farm animals (not necessarily by becoming a vegetarian or a vegan).

Jeff Masson’s other books on animals are also worth looking at:
“When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals”
“The Emperor’s Embrace: Reflections on Animal Families and Fatherhood”
“Dogs Never Lie About Love: The Emotional World of Dogs”
“The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats: A Journey Into the Feline Heart” 

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