Why You Should Care About All Animals, Not Just Your Pets

Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, Emily Bazelon talked with Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy about their new book, Our Kindred Creatures: How Americans Came to Feel the Way They Do About Animals.

This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emily Bazelon: I wanted to bring in also the industrialization of livestock which is so much with us now in terms of how we raise food and how far away it seems and how little, I think, lots of people want to think about what it takes to get that food onto our plate.

How are people thinking about this in the late 19th century and how is it a shift away from the kind of tactile immediacy of a family farm where you really interacted with all the animals—whose eggs you took or whose meat you ate?

Bill Wasik: It really is a remarkable transformation during just a few decades where around the time of the Civil War—I guess this transformation begins in the kind of 1840s and 1850—you have the Midwestern producers start raising the animals and then shipping them by rail to various population hubs to be slaughtered locally. So that’s the first big shift.

Then what you have, and this is really the shift that we document more in the book, is the rise of refrigerated rail cars allowing you to do meat packing. So, right next to the stockyards in Chicago, which really becomes the epicenter of this, you have these massive sort of slaughter factories that develop, where the animals get sold to Armour and Company or Swift and Company, these big meat centers. They will slaughter the animals right there in these big, kind of grim, factory-like buildings, and they will pack the meat for shipment and the meat will get shipped all around the country.

This really kind of completes the transformation of the food animal from being something that really lives and dwells and dies kind of near you to something that becomes this abstraction, often hundreds of miles away. And it just makes it possible to not really be aware of its existence and certainly not be aware of the kind of scale of the life and death of the animals and the just sort of general kind of grimness of their lives. You’re able to sort of put it out of mind a lot more because of that transformation.

I was really struck by how this whole period sets up this dichotomy we still live with, where we’re incredibly devoted, maybe too devoted, to our pets, interested at least in some forms of wild animals like polar bears and elephants, and then mostly we just shut out thinking about the livestock that we consume. Often, I wrestle myself with how much to care about animal welfare versus human welfare. Is one becoming distracted from human misery by thinking about animals?

But your book made me think differently about this. I started thinking of caring about animal welfare and rights as a kind of essential marker of the development of society: that there can be energy that goes toward this. And I wanted to get your thoughts about exactly how we should care. Where does it make sense to place our energy? How do we take some of our over-love and overspending on pets and get more benefit for more animals from that? Is that something we can transfer beyond our own beloved creatures?

Wasik: The awareness, I do think, is a big part of it. I mean, one of the things we talk about in the conclusion to the book is that one of the problems of caring about, for example, food animals, is that it isn’t just that they’re at a distance from us, but also the relationship between, say, our consumption—the things we spend money on—and how they’re treated is also just crazily mediated and systemic. If you buy a latte, the foam in the latte is not just going to come from one cow that you could sort of sit and think about that cow. It’s going to come from hundreds of cows, and the sense of responsibility becomes very diffused.

And I think that climate change, of course, kind of looms over everything about animal treatment because one of the big important reasons that we need to think differently about food animals is not just their welfare, but also the fact that they are just an incredible source of carbon emissions, and that reducing our reliance on animal products will wind up being really, really important to getting to a sustainable future.

But the other thing that, I think, is analogous there, is that climate change has a similar sort of problem where the connection between what-we-do and the effects-of-what-we-do is so complex and mediated that it doesn’t really trigger the moral sense in the same way.

And so, one of the things that I think a lot about is the process, which I do think is ongoing, of us developing a kind of “systems” way of thinking about our decisions. We talk a lot about how problems are systemic, and I do think one of the complications of thinking about problems as systemic is that it means that it’s a little bit harder for us to totally understand the connection between what we do and the effects of it.

But I do think that really forcing ourselves to think about the connection between the decisions that we make and the way that these distant animals are treated is just something that we need to keep front of mind a lot more. Maybe that’s not the most satisfying or effective answer, but I’m also not sure that there’s any other way to think about it.

Monica Murphy: I’d say, too, that it doesn’t feel like a real choice to me to choose between kindness to animals and kindness to our fellow human beings. Because very often when we’re choosing that “kindest choice” for animals, we’re choosing something that’s basically pro-human at the same time. Being more aware of consequences of our actions as consumers, as community members, that tends to sort of carry towards better behavior towards your fellow creatures, human and otherwise.