Some readers may be familiar with a publication called the Quarterly Essay. This periodical was created to provide a forum for lengthy essay writing on important topical issues. The first edition, an essay by Robert Manne on the stolen generation of Aborigines, came out over ten years ago.
Forty-odd editions since have covered, a number of times each, contemporary topics like politics, international affairs, and the environment. For the first time in the series, the forty-fifth issue is about our moral relations to animals. Called “Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals”, it is a provocative piece by young writer Anna Krien.
Krien herself admits to pangs of self-doubt about attempting an essay on the topic of animals, rather than (say) the rise of China or asylum seekers or the media. But she pushed on, morally fortified by the recollection of a story about an orange cat who strayed into a Michigan prison, and softened the tough prison culture by allowing life-sentence prisoners to practice kindness. An essay about the importance of animals, she concluded, was worth pursuing.
The aim of Krien’s essay is to challenge our thinking about animals. She wants to do this, however, by deliberately not adverting to certain “positions” people espouse, such as vegetarianism or animal rights. Instead, she believes that there is a general, if often concealed, response to the modern treatment of animals which most of us share. What is this supposedly common view?
One thing she thinks we harbour is an often contradictory response to the treatment of animals; we hold a “minor clause” which enables us to say or pretend that x is wrong but y is OK, even if x morally approximates y. Perhaps an example might be someone who says that eating pork from factory farms is alright but that hunting for animal trophies is bad, or vice versa.
But the more important claim appears when she says this: “I am not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. The 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? That is the premise of this essay”.
In order to illustrate and develop this claim the author describes three main examples or “encounters”. The first revolves around the now famous Four Corners expose “Bloody Business”, on live cattle export to Indonesian abattoirs (“It’s not something you can breathe through”, she writes).
Krien visits Indonesia and witnesses just how difficult it is to advance animal protection in a developing country with a very different culture. She discusses the Mark 1 MLA trip-boxes that have made cattle fall heavily on their sides. Accompanied by an Australian beef producer who has high expectations of animal welfare, she watches the killing of cattle under what, in Indonesia, are very good slaughter standards. But, even here, things go badly wrong. A moment’s lapse of concentration causes a half-stunned cow to come careening out of the box and slipping around in a panic on the blood and water.
Krien’s conclusion from her journalistic excursion is that the treatment of cattle – such as those sent from countries like Australia to Indonesia and the Middle East – is not “malicious or brutish”, and yet it is awful. The Four Corners report brought this vividly to our notice, although, she notes, public concern for beef cattle did not necessarily last.
The second example concerns the ethically fraught area of animal testing and experimentation. Acknowledging the importance of animals in the development of medical science, Krien nevertheless points to some thorny components of this field. For example, she investigates the origins of what she calls scientific “newspeak”, which resulted in scientists referring to animals and their treatment in euphemistic language which hides the true harm done to them (“brain insult” rather than “brain damage” for example). She further argues that the vast industry which has grown up around lab animals makes it “difficult to work out what now comes first – the disease or the product”.
Finally, Krien turns to encounters concerning hunting. Much of the discussion here focusses on our fear and hatred of predators and the difficulty of livestock and native predators living alongside each other. In particular, dingoes have been treated as vermin to be eradicated, and the distinction between them and dogs gone wild has often been conveniently overlooked or blurred. But perhaps, Krien suggests, we should recognise a place for dingoes in our ecosystems, even more so because there is now evidence that they help to control the spread of cats and foxes.
The examples of hunting, killing, and testing serve as Krien’s exemplary encounters from which she builds her central proposition. And that proposition is that there is something rotten in our relations with other animals (not just in the examples she gives but more generally also).
That is, Krien raises the idea that we often treat animals as things rather than as beings. Moreover, her provocative contention is that we are actually aware of this, but choose to ignore or rationalise it. We cover it up and seek refuge in the fact that using animals in these ways is really very normal. She writes:
“What I want to say is, let’s not kid ourselves. The injustice is complete. This is not a debate over whether our treatment of animals is unethical or not. It’s unethical. We know this. The question is: just how much injustice do we want to partake in?”
So Krien thinks. Now I want ask: is it true? Do we deep-down “know” that there is a rotten injustice in the way we treat animals? And do we try to avoid coming face to face with it? Or is this an illusion?