Review | The cognitive dissonance in adoring pets while eating meat and ignoring wildlife extinction explored in Henry Mance’s compelling review of how humans see animals
- Species extinctions may be the biggest existential threat to life on Earth, yet people who abhor animal suffering can disregard wildlife and farm animals’ fate
- The divide doesn’t make sense, writes Henry Mance in his exploration of the dissonant ways humans love – or don’t love – other creatures
How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World by Henry Mance, pub. Viking
Rob Puddicombe’s alleged crime was trying to save rats. Two decades ago, the animal activist was arrested for scattering an antidote to rat poison across a small island park off the coast of California. He was hoping to spare thousands of rats, invaders to the island, from being poisoned. Park authorities wanted the rodents dead to save native animals, such as Xantus’ murrelets and Anacapa deer mice, from extinction. Puddicombe thought the rats deserved compassion, too.
His case became a cause célèbre: does loving animals mean an end to human-caused suffering for each living creature, great and small, or does it include killing some to save whole species?
The Puddicombe case – he was eventually acquitted for lack of evidence – isn’t mentioned in How to Love Animals in a Human-Shaped World, a sweeping and thought-provoking book by British journalist Henry Mance. But the central question looms large: what is the difference between people who love animals as individuals, each deserving an anguish-free life, and those who view animals as populations and species that need our protection to save the planet’s ecosystems?
Mance, the chief features writer for the Financial Times in London, doesn’t see one. He is both a vegan opponent of factory farming and an ardent proponent of biodiversity conservation. To him, “the divide doesn’t make sense”. To make his case, Mance takes readers on a ranging, first-person journey to a job at a British slaughterhouse, a Polish boar hunt, a blessing of the pets service at San Francisco’s Catholic cathedral and many other adventures.
The result is a compelling and (mostly) thorough review of the many strange and contradictory ways that humans see and respond to animals – as food or products, as entertainment, as essential to Earth’s ecological balance, as indispensable companions, etc.
The contradictions in these perspectives, argues Mance, are behind both the unspeakable cruelty of our meat, eggs and dairy industries and our wanton destruction of nature. To Mance, animal suffering and species loss are two sides of the same bent coin.
The author supports his view with a staggering array of troubling facts – livestock biomass is 14 times that of the world’s wild mammals; the average United States pig farm raises for slaughter more than 8,300 pigs a year; every human eats an average of 20kg of fish annually; more than a million wildlife species are considered at risk of vanishing altogether; and so on.
It is as impressive as it is dispiriting. When it comes to animals, people have a lot to answer for.
Mance’s focus, however, is less about answers and more about questions: how can we love our dog as “family”, for example, while still happily searing a pig’s flesh on the barbecue? His aim is to highlight the cognitive dissonance that makes these incongruities possible. In this, he is especially effective when contrasting meat eating with our compassion for the pain of individual animals and pets. He is less successful in drawing equivalence between our weirdness around animal suffering and our disconnect from – and disregard for – wildlife.
The stakes are vastly different. Species extinctions, now happening about 1,000 times faster than the natural rate, are perhaps the greatest existential threat to life on Earth. Animal cruelty, on the other hand, may be a sorry, moral stain, but it is unlikely to send the entire planet into an ecological tailspin.
Importantly, ecosystem-wrecking invasive species – a problem for which killing animals is often the best solution – are now the No 1 threat to endangered vertebrates around the world. The clash is real between animal-lovers such as Puddicombe, who want to value every sentient life, and those conservationists who make tough choices to keep species from disappearing. Offering that the divide between them “doesn’t make sense” hardly serves to mend it.
The author, however, is on the right track in supposing that better empathy for creatures, in general, would probably lessen both our cruelty to domestic farm animals and our disregard for nature. If we offered other life just a small fraction of the attention, affection and investment we spend on our pets, for example, the world would be a more humane place with a far brighter, more hopeful future.
This terrific exploration of the many often-zany-and-dissonant ways people love – or don’t – other creatures may just help us get our thinking straight: we need a good clear look in the mirror to finally recognise the animal we see there.