31 August 2010

An incredibly thought-provoking book

Proportionately, I don't read a lot of nonfiction each year. Maybe one work of nonfiction for every 10-15 works of fiction.  But boy howdy, every now and again I really hit the jackpot with a book that entertains, educates, and enthalls, and most recently it was with Hal Herzog's forthcoming book from HarperCollins,  Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat.

 Herzog uses this book to explore the ambiguous moral complexities (or would that be complex moral ambiguities?) of the relationships people have with animals.  What are we to make of the fact that in 1933, the Nazi party signed into legislation the world's most comprehensive animal protection laws?  Why do so many people denounce cockfighting but think nothing of popping back a few fast food chicken nuggets made from hens whose lives are undoubtedly worse than the gamecocks'?  How is US Congress able to not recognize certain breeds of mice and rats as animals in the Animal Welfare Act, enacted in 1966 and still in place today?  Herzog's book leaves more questions than answers in this book that is endlessly fascinating, describing in surprising detail the ambivalence and ambiguities and complications we feel towards the animals we love, hate, and eat.  

He devotes an entire chapter to the "comparative ethics of fighting chickens versus eating them."  Herzog argues that fighting cocks live the life of Riley compared to the  "Dante-esque living conditions" of the COBB 500, a chicken modified by Tyson Chicken for its disproportionate breast meat.  He certainly convinced this reader (with help from Michael Pollan and Eric Schloss) that there are real evils in the mass production (read: torture) of chickens for the fast food industry that far outstrip the evils of cockfighting, and not just because of the sheer numbers.  So when he turns the discussion to issues of class and race, it becomes even more thought-provoking: "Why then is it legal for us to kill nine billion broiler chickens every year, but cockfighting can get you hard time in the federal penitentiary?"  After all, "factory-farmed chickens are exempt from virtually all federal animal welfare statutes INCLUDING the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958" [emphasis mine]. Cockfighting in the US is mostly the domain of rural working class whites or urban working class people of color, so Herzog suggests that "society is much more likely to criminalize forms of animal abuse that involves minorities and the poor than animal cruelties that affect the wealthy." According to him, over 5,000 horses died at racetracks in the US in the years 2003-2008, and yet polls show that most Americans are not in favor of banning horse racing.  He concludes, rather succinctly, "like cockfighting, horse racing represents a confluence of gambling and suffering. But unlike cockfighting, thoroughbreds are the hobby of the rich."

There are dozens of other chapters, each of them fascinating and disturbing by turn, and I'd go so far as to recommend it to almost every category of mature reader I know.  As a bookseller, I'm not sure I can think of higher praise. 

Just read it.  Seriously.


  1. well being concerned about animal rights and almost a full on piscatarian I cannot read this..but am glad someone wrote this sort of book. I will only eat meat from free range humane farms..so once a year a turkey if my cousin buys it from the Jordan Farm in Rutland..and chicken VERY rare but never ever Purdue, Tyson or store bought..thanks Emily

  2. Ann, I hear you. I'm not a vegetarian (or a piscatarian), but I've cut WAY down on my meat consumption in the past few years. Reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma started it and this book just reinforced it. The higher costs of humanely raised and slaughtered cows, chickens, turkeys, etc are NOTHING compared to the ethical costs of mass animal slaughter that our society mostly wants to ignore.

    If I'm a guest in somebody's home, I'll eat meat if they serve it, even if I don't know its provenance. But in our home or when dining out, I want to know its background. Lucky for us, we live in an area where restaurants are proud to support grass fed beef, cage-free chickens, etc.


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