This is the first in a series of postings about books animal activists can learn a lot from. These won’t be reviews, per se, but musings on why such books are relevant to the movement and important for activists to know.
Generally, when someone mentions “animal rights books,” we think of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, or perhaps one of Tom Regan’s books. Such works are worth reading, of course, but there is a wealth of other books that deserve attention.
I’m going to begin with a book that came out just last year: Why Animals Matter: The Case for Animal Protection by Erin Williams and Margo DeMello, two extremely experienced and dedicated animal advocates.
I met both Erin and Margo about four years ago at a fundraiser for the House Rabbit Society (HRS), and since then I’ve followed with great interest their activism and writing endeavors. Margo is a longtime writer, scholar and animal advocate as well as a nationally known expert on rabbit behavior. In fact, her book Stories Rabbits Tell (which she co-authored with Susan Davis) is a must-read for anyone who lives with rabbits or is interested in these often-misunderstood creatures. Margo worked as the director of HRS, and today she combines her volunteer work for this group with work for two other nonprofits: Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary in California and Prairie Dog Pals in New Mexico. Oh, and she also teaches sociology, cultural studies and anthropology at Central New Mexico Community College.
You’ll find Erin Williams at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), where she puts her sunny personality and polished writing skills to work as communications director for HSUS’ Factory Farming Campaign. (She was part of the HSUS team that helped usher California’s Prop 2 into existence.) A former 4-H student, Erin grew up on a dairy farm in Illinois, where she helped raise countless animals but refused to sell them at the end of the season; instead, she found homes for them or they stayed on the farm. One animal, however, made an especially powerful impression upon her: a cow named Zelda. Zelda was a Brown Swiss who was unable to conceive and so she could not lactate, which is a liability on a dairy farm. Sadly, Zelda was slaughtered, and Erin didn’t find out until a week later. Soon after, she stopped eating meat. Among her work for animals, Erin has also been a wildlife rehabilitator, a campaign director and a shelter director for HRS.
I offer this background on Erin and Margo to emphasize that these women have a tremendous amount of knowledge and real-world experience to offer readers; they aren’t simply journalists reporting on what others are doing.
As I re-read Why Animals Matter for this post, I was struck by how comprehensive this book is. It is divided into sections covering animals used as food, game and pests, clothing, research tools, companions (yes, the pet industry contributes to animal abuse) and amusement. I was also impressed by the tremendous effort it obviously took to research so much information and present it in a straightforward manner: Despite the overwhelming amount of animal abuse covered within its 405, well-documented pages, Why Animals Matter remains a remarkably accessible book, inviting all readers to consider how the institutional abuse of animals has impacted not only the their lives, but our planet and human health.
Although the book covers nearly every animal cruelty you can think of, the Animals As Food section is by far the largest, and for good reason. As Erin and Margo explain, “Of all the ways that humans exploit animals, the suffering endured by animals at the hands of the meat, egg, and dairy industries is the worst by any order of magnitude. The number of animals who we hunt, experiment on, wear as fur, use for entertainment, or abandon at shelters is but a tiny fraction of the billions of animals who we kill for food each year.”
Sidebar stories told throughout the book highlight animals’ ability to recover from abuse and learn to accept care from compassionate humans. There’s Jacob, the Holstein calf who had fallen off a transport truck and now lives at Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary; there’s Blue Boy, a nilgai whose broken horn saved his life, since it made him less desirable to trophy hunters; and there’s Timber, a mixed-breed shepherd-malamute who went from a lonely existence chained in a backyard to a life of luxury with a new, loving family. The story of Lucy (formerly Lucky) the rabbit had a special impact on me:
At first glance, Lucky seems similar to most other rabbits. Petite and curious, she enjoys the company of people as well as her two rabbit companions, and she always welcomes a treat. What makes Lucky distinctive is that, despite surviving a horrible act of cruelty, she has not lost her trust in people.
In 2004 Lucky’s owner, Nick, duct-taped her to a quarter-stick of dynamite and threw her into a California lake. The fuse did not detonate, and Nick and his friends retrieved her from the lake. Shockingly, the young people debated whether to relight the fuse. They also documented their efforts to blow her up, placing photos of the bedraggled and terrified rabbit online.
Soon afterward, a House Rabbit Society (HRS) rescue volunteer saw the images and alerted authorities. Officers rescued Lucky and released her into the care of the organization. After providing her with medical and foster care for three weeks, HRS adopted her to Rachel Hess, an experienced rabbit guardian. Now named Lucy, she lives with a permanent, loving family, including two other rabbits, Abigail and Benny, who play with her during the day and snuggle with her at night. Rachel notes that when she and her husband first adopted Lucy, she was the “beta” female bunny to Abigail’s alpha bunny. But Lucy exerted herself and is now the alpha female. All three bunnies are still bonded and they cuddle and groom, but Lucy definitely is the lead bunny. She knows she is home, she is loved, and she has a permanent family.
If you haven’t read Why Animals Matter: The Case for Animal Protection yet, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. Better yet, pick up a few: this is an ideal book for compassionate family and friends, and gift-giving season is right around the corner. You’re not likely to find a better or more comprehensive treatise on the topic of animal exploitation anywhere.