As Pacelle observes, it is not normal in human history to see animals as commodities much like plasma TVs even as we live in ever greater intimacy with them as pets. It is perverse to share our beds with cats and dogs as millions more of them every year are gassed or injected with sodium pentobarbital in animal shelters — a grotesque euphemism, as is the word “euthanasia,” for there is no shelter there, nor mercy in the killing of animals who are healthy, rambunctious, and young. They die terrified, and they die pointlessly: Very few are vicious, and most are capable of forming deep, affectionate bonds with humans. Revulsion at this is neither a left-wing sentiment nor a new one. “Though critics try to cast the animal-protection movement as something foreign, eccentric, and subversive,” Pacelle writes, “this cause has long been a worthy and natural expression of the great Western moral tradition.” William Wilberforce, he adds, is rightly remembered as a campaigner against cruelty to animals.
Pacelle’s tour d’horizon of the development of our understanding of animal nature raises important points. The Cartesian and Skinnerian views of the animal mind are dead. Since the cognitive revolution began in the 1950s, psychologists have grudgingly come to accept the obvious: Animals have minds. (No one without a Ph.D. in psychology could have failed to see this in the first place.) What kind of minds? We do not precisely know, but surely they have them.
Do they suffer? Of course. Do they love? Everyone who has lived with a cat or a dog knows the intensity of their emotions. Not just the cats and dogs, either; the natural world is bursting with stories of animals who have formed loving bonds with humans — lions, tigers, elephants, all the way down the phylogenetic tree to octopi. What are we to make of the sight of a monster crocodile who slobbers his way toward the edge of his pool, snorting with satisfaction, in order to be chucked under his chin by his trainer? That is a reptile, after all, one whose ancestors were on the planet millions of years before humans appeared. The capacity for this behavior appears to be at least latent throughout the animal kingdom. Is it right to observe this and conclude that our behavior toward animals is morally unimportant, or, as Pacelle characterizes the arguments of critics, that “animal welfare is ultimately a trivial matter — the product of effete modern sensibilities?” No, I agree with Pacelle: Our treatment of animals is a measure of our character, and to mistreat an animal “is low, dishonorable, and an abuse of power that diminishes man and animal alike.”
In any event, I’ve not yet noticed that anyone who cares for animals is diminished in his capacity to care for humans. To the contrary, in fact. Surely our compassion is not in such finite supply that we must measure it out in teaspoons lest there be none left.
The book ranges over a horror of commonplace cruelties, from puppy mills to sport hunting, but common sense suggests to me that of all these cruelties, industrial farming is both the worst and the one we least wish to think about. It is good, many conservatives will respond, because it is efficient: The world needs cheap food. Profits are good, and wealth is good — but most will allow that some industries are profitable and vile. That it is possible to make a fortune as a pornographer does not mean it is noble. That it is possible to become rich by making music that glorifies gang culture and cop-killing does not mean we ought to admire those who do so.