They Shoot Narwhals, Don’t They?
(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author’s invitation. Also, trigger warning for discussions of violence, including that of a sexual nature.)
“Hierarchies feed oppression because it allows for valuation: those at the top are more valued than those at the bottom. Oppressors like hierarchies that keep animals at the bottom because then you can do to humans what you do to animals if you say that the humans are like the animals. So it feeds oppression to have animal objectification.” – Carol J. Adams (page 492)
“Change is hard, but not changing is just as hard.” – Carol J. Adams (page 487)
“Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you any more.” – Franz Kafka (quoted on page 490)
In Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering, author-activist and longtime vegan Mark Hawthorne examines some of the effects of these human hierarchies, which universally place nonhuman animals – an estimated three to thirty million species, comprised of trillions upon trillions of individuals – at the bottom of the proverbial shit pile. (That such categories even exist – human animals, and all the “others” – is itself a testament to the self-centeredness of the human species.)
While I was expecting an encyclopedic, A-to-Z look at animal suffering, Bleating Hearts is something much different; Hawthorne shines a light on practices that, for whatever reason, don’t garner as much attention in animal activist circles: Balut eggs, an Asian delicacy that involves boiling developing duck embryos alive. The plight of the ever-popular slow lorises (please don’t forward those YouTube videos, people, no matter how cute they seem!). Dolphin-assisted therapy (cruel, and a scam). Horse fighting (which often ends in the serial rape of a mare, positioned in the ring to induce the stallions to compete). Rogue taxidermy. If you think you know all there is to know about animal exploitation, think again. Even the most seasoned activist will discover something new within these pages.
Bleating Hearts is loosely divided into chapters focused on different areas of animal exploitation (I say “loosely” because there are quite a few areas of overlap). The familiar topics of food, fashion, research, sport, and entertainment are all covered, and Hawthorne further delves into areas that are often overlooked: “working” animals, animals sacrificed in the name of religion and art, and the sexual and physical abuse of nonhuman animals (oftentimes in conjunction with interpersonal violence). It goes without saying that the information presented in Bleating Hearts is quite disturbing and can be triggering – but the final chapter, “Secret Abuse: Sexual Assault on Animals” is especially difficult to read.
Exhaustively researched and documented – the footnotes comprise some 102 pages! – Bleating Hearts is as informative as it is disheartening. I took copious notes as I read, and am rather flummoxed as to how to weave them into a cogent narrative without turning this into one of my epic, too-long-for-Amazon reviews. (See, e.g., Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: A vegan feminist book review, with recipes! Bring a snack.) Instead, I’ll just share a few of the more interesting facts I picked up:
Though not the primary focus of Bleating Hearts, a number of themes became apparent as I progressed through the book:
Words have the ability to both shape and reflect how we see the world around us. For this reason, it’s important that we use accurate, descriptive, and unbiased language when talking about animal exploitation. Or any exploitation, for that matter. Intersectionality also matters.
(For this reason, I was more than a little disappointed to see Karen Davis refer to the Orthodox Jewish practice of kapparot as “interspecies rape.” You know what’s rape? RAPE. While the birds tortured and killed in kapparot may very well have been raped – or are themselves the products of rape – “the ritual transference of one’s own transgressions and diseases to a sacrificial animal” does not, in fact, constitute rape.)
Likewise, the anecdotes in Bleating Hearts are filled with stories of animal exploiters who show a similar disregard for women: Monty Merola, the convicted rapist who was caught torturing and tormenting horses whose dismembered parts were bound for the feeding troughs of zoo animals. Zoophiles who express a preference for sexual gratification with nonhumans because they’re less troublesome and demanding than women. Domestic abusers who humiliate their victims by forcing them to perform sexual acts with nonhuman animals. Exploited slaughterhouse workers who take their frustrations out on animals even more exploited than they (a phenomenon that didn’t make it into Bleating Hearts, but deserves a mention here nonetheless).
Perhaps no instrument illustrates this relationship quite like the rape rack, of which Hawthorne laments: “In many ways, the rape rack is the crucible on which all who consume meat or dairy products must weigh their collective conscience, the place where we must surely agree that society’s use of animals has exceeded any reasonable measure of sanity. How can we possible reconcile a world where a device like this not only survives, but is legitimized as a standard business practice?” (page 454)
Among these atrocities, it can be difficult to hold onto even the tiniest shred of hope. Luckily, Hawthorne ends his discussion on a positive note. Chapter 11, “Achieving Moral Parity,” includes a series of questions posed to six “ethicists, writers, and philosophers”: vegan-feminist theorist Carol J. Adams; Hal Herzog, professor of psychology at West Carolina University; James McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University-San Marcos; renown ethologist Marc Bekoff; Mylan Engel, Jr., who teaches animal rights (among other things!) at Northern Illinois University; and Richard Ryder, perhaps best known in AR circles for coining the term “speciesism.” (It’s in this Q&A section that I found the quotes which open this review.) Though I found myself shaking my head vigorously at some of their answers, more often than not their insights proved thought-provoking, encouraging – inspiring, even.
Additionally, at the end of each chapter Hawthorne includes a list of things you can do to help alleviate the suffering detailed in the preceding chapter. In the case of animals exploited for food, the answer is clear: go vegan! Hawthorne posits veganism as a moral baseline but, of course, there’s always room for improvement. Though the steps sometimes seem infinitesimal in relation to the sheer scope of our crimes against animals, it’s helpful to have a starting point. Already I see several areas where I can do better.
The only suggestion I would add is to Chapter 10: in addition to supporting programs for the human victims of domestic violence, seek out those shelters that care for nonhumans as well. Increasingly, women’s shelters are recognizing the role that animal abuse plays in domestic violence and are offering refuge to their clients’ companion animals – if not for the animals’ sake, then for that of their “owners.” (Many victims refuse to leave abusive situations unless they can find safety for their companions as well.) Donate (time, money, supplies) to DV shelters that accept nonhumans. Volunteer as a shelter worker, or offer to foster a dog or cat in your own home. The HSUS maintains a list of such programs (called “safe havens”) on its website. If there isn’t a DV shelter that accepts companion animals in your city, work with your local humane society (note: not the same as HSUS inter/national) and women’s shelter to implement a program!
Although a terribly difficult read, there’s much to be gained from Bleating Hearts. I suspect that seasoned activists will derive the greatest benefit, since this is hardly an “intro to animal rights” text – but perhaps Hawthorne can spur some omnivorous readers to make the connection between the dogs on their laps and the cows on their plates. After being confronted with the horrors in this book, I hope it will become increasingly difficult for readers to resist change rather than simply embrace it.