Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals
By Anna Krien
Quarterly Essay 45, Black Inc,
$19.95, pp 132
Anna Krien is a youngish Melbourne writer who won awards for her first book, the 2010 nonfiction work Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests, an impressive piece of immersion journalism. At the start of Us and Them, she is refreshingly uncertain about the sentiment expressed in the subtitle. Quarterly Essays, after all, are written about the seismic issues — global warming, the financial crisis, the rise of China, the decline of America, indigenous affairs, refugee policy, the history wars, who should run the country, who should run the world — and, as Krien frets, ‘ … here I am, writing about animals?’
I think she frets unnecessarily. Animal welfare may not be a seat-changer at the next federal election, but in general public discourse it is a hot-button issue, a literal barbecue-stopper. As scientific research (somewhat paradoxically) continually updates our understanding of the emotional lives of animals, we are thinking harder than ever before about the unthinkable things we do to them.
Now and then animal mistreatment does make headline news, from the maladroit slaughter of Australian cattle in Indonesia (Krien makes the important point that the abattoir workers are not motivated by cruelty) to the case of a Sydney woman who threw her dog off the balcony.
Increasingly, this rethinking is leading to legal change, from small, non-startling steps such as mandating slightly less cramped cages for battery hens, to large, controversial ones such as the Spanish Parliament’s 2008 decision to grant human rights to the great apes.
Even so, we can take Krien’s doubts at face value. It’s clear she didn’t come to this assignment with her mind made up, and her essay is all the more powerful for it. Peter Singer might have written this piece, or J.M. Coetzee, arguing the case in compelling fashion, but I wonder if these days it’s people like Krien, flawed advocates, who have the best chance of changing the way we think about our fellow animals. (And this is not to take anything away from Singer in particular: Animal Liberation, published in 1975, remains the über-text.)
Krien does not want us all to become pleather-wearing vegans. Early on she confesses to her own rather typical relationship with animals: ‘ … that is not to say I don’t eat them, don’t wear them, don’t ingest pills that have been tested on them. I have done all these things.’
She continues, coming to the critical question of this essay: ‘I am not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce — deep down we all know it. The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with?’
Krien adds that she has no interest in the opposing debates about how humans are better than animals (we write books!) and are therefore entitled to eat them, or about how animals are so like us (‘rats have empathy’) as to be deserving of Medicare cards.
This is great stuff. As someone who does his imperfect best not to be complicit in the harm of animals, I find Krien’s no-nonsense approach reassuring. Yes, we treat animals terribly — and the numbers are staggering: half a billion slaughtered for food each year in Australia alone — but that doesn’t make meat-eaters Nazis. Wherever you sit on the dietary spectrum, you’re one of ‘us’ (even cannibals). It’s ‘them’ we need to think about, so we can decide where to draw the line on their suffering.
Krien considers this question in three contexts: the live cattle trade to Indonesia, in the wake of the gruelling Four Corners/Animals Australia exposé of conditions in some abattoirs there; scientific testing on animals; and hunting, specifically of livestock predators such as dingoes in Australia and wolves in North America.
This is a narrow field of operation, one that excludes far more animal suffering than it includes. You can’t cover everything, of course, especially not in 20,000 words, and perhaps Krien, operating as a journalist, was limited by what she could see in the time she had. Yet for an essay on animals largely to ignore the horror of factory farming is a serious omission. Yes, we get glimpses of it in the chapter on the cattle trade, but the ongoing nightmare — the battery cages, the sow stalls, the brutalised sheep — remains in the shadows. And while I abhor hunting, I find its inclusion here a bit of a fringe issue.
The chapter on animal experimentation was an eye-opener, at least for me. I had a vague idea that using guinea pigs (and everything from snails to chimps) as guinea pigs was in decline, but the truth is the contrary. In Australia, a middle-sized player in this as in all things except sport, almost seven million animals are used in research and testing each year and, Krien writes, ‘the figure is growing, not declining’.
However, it is Krien’s opening chapter on the cattle trade that makes this essay. It is a standout piece of reporting. She visits an abattoir in Sumatra to observe the slaughter of Braham cattle from the Northern Territory. Nineteen are due to die this night. The Queensland man who runs the meatworks, Greg Pankhurst, has invested heavily in technology designed to minimise the animals’ suffering and employed animal welfare officers to oversee the operation. He comes across as a decent bloke, someone concerned to do the right thing.
And this is what happens: the first three cows are killed quickly but the fourth somehow evades the stun gun, flees the chute and skitters onto the blood-drenched killing floor, where barefoot men stand in exposed rib cages, carving up the dead beasts. The men, clearly horrified, try to lasso the terrified cow so she can be killed with knives. She eludes them and so they try, hopelessly, to put her back up the chute, towards the stun gun. ‘ … and all I can think,’ Krien writes, ‘is just kill her, just kill her, just f***ing kill her quick as you can …’
This is the thing: not killing her isn’t an option. For a thorough grounding in the ‘us and them’ debate, read Animal Liberation or Matthew Scully’s Dominion (the most powerful book I have read on the topic). Then read Anna Krien, because the chances are you will feel like she does.
Stephen Romei is the Australian’s literary editor. His blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws, is at theaustralian.com.au/thearts. He is on the council of Voiceless, a Sydney-based animal welfare group.