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.

The Politics of Sight: Observing Farm Animals, Then and Now

Farmers in pre-industrial America were intense observers of animal behavior. They had to be. At a time when farm animals were integral to material life, agriculturalists couldn’t afford to neglect their economic livelihood. Some historians estimate that early American farmers may have spent the vast majority of their days–all of their days–tending to the seemingly endless wants and needs of their animals. I believe it. Spend time with the records of any early American colony and you will find yourself enmeshed in world of cows, pigs, and fowl.

The result of this persistent, inevitable observation was a deeply intuitive sense of the intrinsic value of farm animals. There is, of course, no denying that farmers ultimately exploited their stock to serve human needs–that goes without saying. Less appreciated, however, is the fact that dominion over animals was, as far as my research is revealing, as gentle as it was customary. Farmers paid consistent attention to the most subtle behaviors of the animals under their care, even going so far as to note what kind of sounds animals liked to hear. Abuse of animals could quickly lead to social ostracization.

Industrialization of animal agriculture undermined this habit of observation. Destroyed it, actually.  Most consumers today have no idea that meat, milk, and dairy necessarily requires the ruthless exploitation of sentient beings. It never crosses their minds. Producers, too, have little incentive to observe animals, much less understand their inherent value as animals. A highly rationalized factory system obviates that need, deadens our powers of observation, and sets us on the distant periphery of immense abuse. I know this may all be painfully obvious, but I think the demise of observation as the essential bond between humans and animals in agriculture is one of the most important, and destructive, developments in human history.

The resurgence of small-scale animal farming claims, in some respect, to recapture this lost bond. I’m dubious of such a claim. I can only speak anecdotally on this issue, but most small scale animal farmers I know outsource much their labor, are by no means as dependent on their animals as their pre-industrial forbears were, often work other jobs, and, frankly, seem to spend more time blogging than farming. I think it’s safe to say that very few small scale animal farmers today spend the vast majority of their day, every day, with their pigs, cows, chickens, and goats. They might fashion themselves as pre-industrial farmers nurturing the same bonds as those forged by their agrarian ancestors, but the world is no longer pre-industrial.  They’re a band of hobbyists whose work is as close to pre-industrial farming as a Renaissance festival is to the medieval era.

All of which leaves us with a paradox–or at least a weird situation. At a time when farmers truly appreciated the “animalness” of their animals–an appreciation borne of intense observation–they were, due to the vagaries of a settlement society, directly dependent on those animals for their livelihood. Today, however when plant-based agriculture has advanced to the point that it produces enough plants to feed 7 billion people, a cadre of environmentally concerned opponents of factory farming are seeking to bring us back to the old days by waxing rhetorically about recovering the lost human-animal bond. What they miss, I think, is that their purported power of observation is compromised by an unavoidable fact:  we don’t need the animals under their observation. The result is that “humane” farmers do not get the “animalness” of their animals. To the contrary, to raise an animal to kill when it is not necessary to do so means that the animal is not an animal, but an object, a commodity.

Animal Rights: Where to Draw the Line


Humans make remarkably sweeping decisions about our relationships with animals based on minimal knowledge about animals’ intellectual, emotional, and social lives. We seem to have very little problem commodifying sentient non-humans in order to enjoy the most remote and completely unnecessary luxuries.

We do so, moreover, without asking whether or not this act might be a violation of the rights that enlightened humans hold sacred. Ivory, fur, feathers, and fins–not to mention food and clothing–are the grammar and syntax of our material lives. It’s easy to take this lexicon of materialism at face value–there is, after all, little overt motivation to ask troubling questions about the status quo. But what if the status quo perpetuates profound injustice? And what if, by our every day consumer choices, we’re directly complicit?

These questions and thoughts came to mind as I read Steven M. Wise’s Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights. Wise bravely confronts the legal question of which animal species deserve legal rights as persons. Critics will say that his conclusions are ultimately arbitrary, which is technically true. But the nature of the question–where to draw the line on a continuum of life–by its nature demands an arbitrary response.  There’s no way to be absolute about such a question.

Wise’s accomplishment is to make the line less arbitrarily drawn. The myriad and complex questions surrounding animals and rights were hardly all clarified at the end of this fascinating book. But I do know that if humans are going to grant the basic rights of personhood to humans who are mentally debilitated, we must grant them to a wide range of animals, including African Greys, Dolphins, bonobos, chimpanzees, dogs, and orangutans. And that’s something to ponder.

The Animal’s Almanac: Justifying Eating Animals

Trace the oppositional arguments against animal rights to thier deepest roots and you’ll find an embarassment of ignorance. I was reminded of this fact while reading a bit on the history of animal advocacy.  A common tact employed by active opponenets of animal rights–and a rather innocuous one–was to obscure the weakness of their position in a cloud of sarcasm. One editorialist, undone by all the “proselytizing animal lovers” coming out of Victorian England, snarkily retorted that, if we were now going to care so much about mere animals, we should offer them “a little education, a little night school training, [and] a few newspapers printed in their language.” Funny (not). (See Diane Beers, The Prevention of Cruelty.)

In a more disturbing vein, those threatened by the rhetoric of animal compassion frequently sought refuge under the cope of sexism. Noting that a large proportion of the animal rights movement was women, medical experts concocted a hysteria-related disease known as “zoophilpsychosis.” Only unhinged females, the diagnosis suggested, could resort to the whacked out idea that animals mattered more than objects. Readers of Carol Adams (The Sexual Politics of Meat) will quickly recognize that matters today have changed little since the nineteenth century. In fact, on the sexism front, they may have become worse. “Meat,” she concludes (with ample and horrifying evidence), “is a symbol of male dominance.”

It’s true, and worse. I’m not going to elaborate here, but I urge you to plumb the depths of the pro-meat agenda. One needs little analytical expertise to quickly realize that common justifications for eating animals require an uncommon resort to sexism, speciesism, and solipsicim. Nowhere in this effort to justify unnecessary suffering will you find compassion, tolerance, or open-mindedness. Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, will you find an affirmation of love.

The Animal’s Almanac: On Dogs (1807)

I’ve been reading a fascinating historical document. It’s a book, published in 1807 in Philadelphia, called The General Character of the Dog: Anecdotes of that Beautiful and Useful Animal. The author, Joseph Taylor, aimed to highlight “various instances of sagacity and faithful attachment” that he observed among members of the canine species. He did so, he explained, to “prevent future mistreatment.”

A sample quote: “When I see the several actions and designs of my Dog, I profess it is impossible to avoid being amazed. His passions are more quiet than those of many men. There are some [men] whose joy or grief at accidents, give them so little emotion , and are so dull, as to render it difficult to say which it is that affects them: but, in this honest animal, both are lively and strong. When any of the family return home, he discovers great gladness in caressing and skipping about them, and seems dull and concerned at their going out.”  (12)

The logic behind Taylor’s intention is worth appreciating: he was writing about the emotional and intellectual lives of dogs in order to prevent humans from abusing them.  In so doing, Taylor was affirming an important truth—the more we know about the inner lives of non-human animals, the more inclined we are to behave in a way that’s consistent with their intrinsic worth.  Much of our instrumentalist approach to animals is due to the simple fact that we know so little about them. What was true in 1807 is, alas, still true today.

The Animal’s Almanac: On Hunting

The Animal’s Almanac is a new feature of my blog, one in which I will draw on the past to shed light on the current relationship among people, animals, and food. 

In 1782, Hector St. John Crevecoeur published Letters from an American Farmer. In it, he surveyed life in British North America, commenting on everything from the behavior of Native Americans to the danger of the rattlesnake (“the only observation I wish to make is that the rattling is loud and distinct when they are angry.”) His thoughts on hunting are especially revealing.

We tend to mythologize the American frontier as a land of rough hewn Davy Crocketts, a land where a man lived by his gun and the game it provided. This nineteenth-century image is, however, belied by an eighteenth-century reality: British Americans, according to Crevecoeur, believed hunting to be a sign of degeneracy.

“Our bad people,” he wrote, referring to his fellow settlers, “are those who are half cultivators and half hunters.” He added, “and the worst of them are those who have degenerated altogether into the hunting state.” The idea that “hunting is but a licentious idle life” was widely shared in colonial America, a sign that settlers were failing to domesticate land and animals and, in so doing, becoming “savage” like the Indians.

Animal domestication–as I will show in the next almanac–led to a fundamentally different kind of relationship with animals than did hunting. Basically, farmers got to know animals as beings with distinct wants and needs. Hunting, by contrast, reduced an animal to a moving target (at least for the English settlers). Americans have done a much better job of inflating and glorifying the importance of hunting in American history than exploring the nature of the human-animal relationship in the context of domestication.