The Animal’s Almanac: “Cherish them with warmth”


I’m currently researching a book that explores (in part) the nature of the human-domestic animal relationship in eighteenth-century North America. Integral to my argument is the claim that pre-industrial farmers developed an intuitive sense of their animals’ character as animals.Rather than objectify living farm animals, farmers worked to create environments that optimized their “animal-ness.”  

Needless to say, farmers ultimately exploited their animals for food, clothing, and other uses—a perhaps inevitable reality of life in a pre-industrial colony. The upshot, though, is that they generally did so without ignoring the animals’ point of view.  

This mentality was rooted in something so simple we tend to overlook it:  observation. Farmers spent the majority of their days interacting with farm animals. One document I explored was an account book from an eighteenth-century Massachusetts farm that practiced rotational grazing.  In a single month, according to this document, a young boy spent the majority of 18 days moving his father’s cattle from one pasture to another.  One can only imagine what he learned (unlike this poor kid).  For anyone who lives with companion animals, there’s no need to imagine.

What emerged from this pervasive mentality, this habit of observation, was an explicitly stated confirmation that animals mattered–as animals. Attention to the physical comfort of—and contact with—domestic animals was a constant theme in early American agricultural literature. In The Husbandman’s Magazine, John Smith admonished readers to “rub and cherish” their animals. “Cherish them with warmth,” he advised, “stroke them with your hands, raising the hide gently.”

Such attention to tender treatment had its counterpart in England as well, where as early as 1697, one writer was advising farmers to approach animals “with much familiarity, then stroke and scratch them gently.”  George Cooke insisted that the ox “must be indulged,” and he preferred “patience, mildness, and even caresses” as the means of doing so.  Horses, according to The New England Farrier, were to be “used with gentleness and good humor,” for they “remember injuries and have recollection to avoid appearances which once gave them pain.”

In a discourse on cows, the author of The Complete English Farmer, published in Boston in 1770, reminded readers that “ill treatment will only disgust them,” adding that the cow should be treated to whatever “aliments please him best.” Doggett thought it only fair that, since humans have domesticated animals (thereby rendering them practically useless to survive on their own), that they should “immediately become the objects of our kind regards.” Echoing the common fear that to hurt animals was to threaten human civility, he noted that “our sensibility is deeply wounded when they are abused.”

And so on. It goes without saying that today we’ve fallen from grace when it comes to cultivating a meaningful understanding of farm animals. Factory farms have effectively erased all contact with the animals we exploit, and the small-farm revival—as many posts on Eating Plants show (look under “the ethics of slaughter”) employs tired welfare-oriented rhetoric to obscure elitism, gluttony, and cruel dominion over farm animals. The irony in this tragic downfall is that pre-industrial farmers, working before Darwin, treated animals as if they were somehow aware that humans shared an evolutionary heritage with them.  And then after Darwin, when we knew better, we began to treat them like objects created by divine providence for our arbitrary use.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

17 Responses to The Animal’s Almanac: “Cherish them with warmth”

  1. CQ says:

    Undoubtedly there have been tender-to-animals and toxic-to-animals farmers throughout the world and throughout history, right up to this moment. And it’s somewhat comforting to learn about the kindly ones from days gone by.

    But I wouldn’t be satisfied if each and every farmed animal today were treated with utmost care and respect — right up to the betraying blow or the traitorous cut. In other words, for the animals’ and earth’s and humanity’s sake, I wouldn’t want to see a return to a pastoral past.

    You couldn’t be suggesting, James, that all would be well if, hypothetically, the human race quit thinking of animals as objects designed for our arbitrary use and farmers began treating them in a servanthood sort of way before killing them.

    So, my question is: How do we apply your historical research to our animal ethics today? How do we persuade others that animals were never made for man to subjugate and exploit, but, rather, to teach us how to live in close proximity to and hands-off harmony with different, diverse and delightful expressions of Life?

    • CQ,
      Everything can and should be placed in historical context–including ethics. I believe that historicization is essential to critical thought. The value of establishing an 18th-century baseline is that we can better evaluate our current place in time. We are, whether we like it or not, the inheritors of a past we had no role in creating. That past–as I show–involved a clear declension from a relatively enlightened view of animals into a mechanistic pespective conducive to factory farming. Undoing that process, and taking it to a new level of enlightenment, requires that we know how it “worked.” For me to suggest that we should go back to the past and treat animals as our forbears did would be to committ the worst kind of historicism.

      • CQ says:

        “…taking it to a new level of enlightenment.” Good!
        And “good” to your last sentence.
        I’m with you now, JM.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        James, I see the value of studying animal farming in an historical setting, and I look forward to reading your book. Also of possible value, or at least food for thought, we might consider the origin of animal farming. For that, it may be worth mentioning that the domestication of animals and human culture may be rooted, not in hunger as was previously believed, but in our penchant for jealousy and violence. I’m both fascinated and disturbed by the discovery of the oldest religious religious temple, Gobekli Tepe, which was built in Turkey by hunter-gatherers 12,000 years ago.

        As explained by Sandra Sham in Archaeology Magazine, a publication of the Archaeological Insitute of America, : “……. the people who created these massive and enigmatic structures came from great distances. It seems certain that once pilgrims reached Göbekli Tepe, they made animal sacrifices. Schmidt and his team have found the bones of wild animals, including gazelles, red deer, boars, goats, sheep, and oxen, plus a dozen different bird species, such as vultures and ducks, scattered around the site ……. ”

        While I have my disagreements with Rene Girard, I think the discovery of Gobekli Tepe supports his theory, that the domestication of animals is an outgrowth of ritual animal sacrifice. In other words, the people at Gobekli Tepe practiced what Girard calls the “scapegoat mechanism” — innocent animals were killed to substitute for human violence within hunter-gatherer groups. It’s likely, imo, that many sacrificed animals were kept as the Temple, and eventually the most docile became dependent and domesticated:

        It’s only theory, but as someone who believes in addressing the root of the problem and until Girard’s theory is discredited, I’ll contend that animal farming is rooted in violence and the immoral abuse of nonhuman animals — there’s nothing admirable about it.

        If anyone is interested in support of Girard’s theory, “Imitation, Mirror Neurons, Mimetic Desire: Convergence Between Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard and Empirical Research on Immitation”: And for a critique on Girard’s book, “Les Origines de la Culture”:

      • CQ says:

        Ellie, thanks for filling us in with that sound scholarship. I will share your comment with Steve Kaufman, who heads the Christian Vegetarian Association and has written a lot about the scapegoating of animals. Girard’s theory makes total sense to me, too.

      • Ellie Maldonado says:

        CQ, you’re very welcome! I’m glad we agree on Rene Girard’s theory. Thanks for sharing this with Steve Kaufman.

  2. Mountain says:

    Love this post. Hope I haven’t annoyed too many vegans over the last few days with my decidedly non-vegan point of view.

    Especially appreciate your point about the importance of observation. Far too few people on either side of the debate seem to have any firsthand knowledge of animals other than as pets. Animals have real needs, wants, and desires. Simply as a practical matter, a farm runs much better when we consider these & act accordingly, rather than attempting to simply impose our will.

    In reference to this post, I may begin referring to myself as a post-industrial farmer. In practice, post-industrial farming looks a lot like pre-industrial farming, and very little like industrial farming. The biggest difference I see is that a post-industrial farm has access to the vast supply of waste products created by our industrial world. We are in the process of using these waste products (food waste, wood chips, lawn clippings, coffee grounds, paper products) to create compost that serves as the food source for the (omnivorous) farm animals and fertility for the soil.

    • CQ says:

      Hey, Mountain, speaking in a light-hearted vein, one can choose to be annoyed with your view — which wouldn’t be hard 🙂 🙂

      Or, speaking seriously, one cannot help but be in absolute amazement at how the evil that is speciesism blinds its adherents to its speciousness.

      How can you say you want to run a farm well by *not* imposing your will on animals and then turn around and have an “it’s time to impose my will” day, when you’re their not-so-benevolent dictator? On that fateful occasion, their “real needs, wants, and desires” go out the window, don’t they? That’s illogical, to me. Illogical because THERE IS NO NEED to use animals for labor, for fertilizer, or for nutrition.

      How are you able to divorce yourself from the awfulness of taking the life of an innocent, trusting, loyal individual whose capacity for joy and sorrow, for wit and charm, for peace and contentment, you have come to know so well over many months or even years? My head and my heart just can’t wrap around that! Especially now that I know who these beings are and am easily able to stand in their stead mentally, morally, emotionally, spiritually.

      Have you ever explored veganic gardening? If not, why not? What’s preventing you from being all-the-way sustainable, from removing every vestige of cruelty, and, for that matter, from eliminating the element that reputable, unbiased scientists contend is the leading cause of greenhouse gases? Your farm may be small, but one million (or more) small farms equal, as far as environmental impact goes, several factory farms.

      I hope you feel well-treated here. No harm intended. Only “a new level of enlightenment,” to borrow JM’s phrase.

      • Mountain says:

        Hey CQ,

        I’ll start with your claim of speciesism, since I’ve seen that accusation thrown around frequently on vegan websites, and by vegans on sustainable agriculture websites. I find vegans are every bit as guilty of it as their opponents. For one, plant agriculture– through tilling, irrigation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and mechanical harvesting– kills massive quantities of rodents, birds, and insects. And yet, people seem to think that vegan eating causes no death or unnecessary suffering, when it undeniably does. Why are the lives of these species less valuable or important than the lives of farm animals? People argue that small-scale vegan farms based on permaculture principles cause less suffering & death, but the vast majority of plant food is produced by industrial agriculture. If you hold meat eaters responsible for the horrors of factory farming (which I do not participate in either as a consumer or producer), then plant eaters are responsible for the horrors of industrial plant agriculture.

        I don’t believe I have an “it’s time to impose my will”day at the farm. Everything (and everyone) who lives must one day die, and everything that dies must be eaten. Whether by humans, mammalian predators, carrion birds, insects, microbes, or some combination thereof. The only way to avoid animals being eaten is to stop them from coming into existence in the first place, and I believe the world is a much better place with animals in it. The question, then, isn’t whether an animal will die, but the length & quality of its life, and who will eat it after it dies.

        My primary interest is in the quality of an animal’s life– that it be in harmony with its evolutionary nature, that it be enjoyable and filled with activity that gives its life meaning– but length of life is very important, too. I can’t raise meat birds because, no matter how ideal a life they live, it is ended far too soon; 8 weeks for Cornish Cross, but even for slower-growing birds, it’s just a matter of months.

        I raise laying hens because they live a much fuller life. Most pastured poultry farms keep their chickens about a year longer than industrial confinement farms, but eventually the cost of chicken feed outweighs the value of their eggs & the birds are culled. That’s why I’m working on a model in which the birds forage all of their food. Not only is this more natural for the birds, it eliminates the financial pressure to cull a bird before it has lived a full natural life (anywhere from 5-15 years). That it eliminates demand for soy & corn, and the horrors associated with their production, is an extra benefit.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I, for one vegan, am not annoyed, Mountain, but we certainly have very different points of view. I guess I can’t convince you that farm animals are essentially herbivores, but oh well ….

      I appreciate your understanding that “Animals have real needs, wants, and desires.” — what I don’t understand is why you don’t apply this to their need for bodily integrity, their desire to nurture their young/remain with their mothers, and their most fundamental interest in protecting themselves from harm/to survive (?).

    • CQ says:

      Mountain, I feel my response to you is unbecoming of an ethical vegan and unbecoming of a good neighbor. My sincere apologies for being sarcastic, flippant, and unkind. You didn’t say anything to deserve a disdainful response or a personal attack. Even if you had, my comments are still unwarranted. I take them back and ask your forgiveness.

      This is not my blog. But I now see that non-vegans have always been welcome to air their views here, and when they do, they should expect to be treated with respect.

      • Mountain says:

        No hard feelings. And I hope I haven’t offended.

        You wrote: “THERE IS NO NEED to use animals for labor, for fertilizer, or for nutrition.”

        If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life. There may be no need to use animals for labor, but if you’re doing it right, the animals enjoy what they’re doing & never work a day in their lives. I may view the activity as weed clearance & pest control, but I trust the chickens just see it as eating tasty plants & bugs.

        If an animal is going to live, it is going to poop somewhere. I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t arrange to have this poop end up where it will do the most good, promoting growth & biodiversity on the farm.

        Finally, if an animal is going to live, it is going to end up providing nutrition. This nutrition could go to a predator (& in providing an open system that provides animals with the freedom & autonomy they deserve, we will inevitably lose some to predators), or insects, or microbes. Or me. If I have worked hard to organize a system in which it lives a full & meaningful life, I don’t see what is wrong with using the nutrition of its body to grow & sustain the farm.

  3. cobalamin says:

    Does industrial farming have anything to do with slavery? Hence slavery ended and industrial farming began?

    It seems like slavery was abolished; no free workers to work on farms which made an individual come along with an idea to enslave animals. Not enslave animals per se, merely raise and slaughter animals without much work and at a lower cost.

    • Ellie Maldonado says:

      I think industrial farming began after WWll, so it’s not a consequence of ending slavery. I’ve met family-type farmers who claim they love their animals, which I find the height of hypocrisy. It was the horror of pre-industrial farming that inspired Donald Watson to found the Vegan Society in 1945.

      • Mountain says:

        Factory farming as we know it, with feedlots and confinement houses and all that garbage, didn’t start until the government began subsidizing grain. Subsidies led to surpluses (as they inevitably do), which led to people seeking all kinds of horrible new uses for those grain surpluses. Take away the government subsidies and you’ll get rid of the main fuel behind factory farming.

  4. brian lindberg says:

    One of the interesting things that we learn from neuroscience is that the portion of the human brain where human emotions occur is shared throughout the mammal kingdom (see A Genaral Thory of Love, Lewis, Amini, Lannon). Anyone with a beloved pet understands this, and anyone who has lived around cattle knows this. My father, who farmed with horses as a boy, understood this. Whenever I must go into the city, I am saddened by the isolation of city dwellers from nature. A park cannot remediate this. Let’s hope that Bucky Fuller will be proved right and cities will disappear in the post-industrial age.

  5. India-Leigh says:

    very interesting and thought provoking post. Your research sounds facinating and sad all at once. Brian’s comment about animals having emotions is an obvious fact that any human (who isn’t choosing to ignore it so to deflect the need to change. I think that is called ‘selective knowledge’) can see. It surprises me that the de-scentientcising (is that a word?) of animals post Darwin should occur. Rather I would have thought the theory of evolution would uprise feelings of gratitude and connection to all living things. I often think that humans are the least evolve living organisms on the planet. The cockroach has lived for millenia, some insects are almost supernatural with their ability to be dormant, practically dead, for decades to come to ‘life’ again, birds can subconciously make their hearts grow larger for the outset of migration, bats and bees have internal sat navs and termites have taught us how to be capable of constructing buildings that have a constant internal temperature that is eco – friendly…the list goes on. As does my complete reverance for the animal kingdom. I look forward to your book.

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