April 24, 2012 17 Comments
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.