BOOK REVIEW: In Defense of Animals

In Defense of Animals

Despite its bold cover, In Defense of Animals is a book that has difficulty finding its voice. Depending upon the issue, the author doesn’t seem to know whether he’s on the animal welfare or animal industry’s side.

As with many books of this nature, the author begins with a history of humane advocacy. Nineteenth-century Britain was truly a dark age for animals, as a good size of the public wasn’t only indifferent toward animals, they were sadistic:

Some British zoos and menageries featured bear-baiting as an attraction for visitors.

We see a 19th century engraving of a bear baiting contest, attended by many gentlemen with their dogs. I found it quite interesting that every dog pictured, save for one, are recognizably bull terrier/Staffordshire breeds, the forerunner of today’s pit bull terrier. While bear baiting may be consigned to the history books, pit bulls are of course still combatants in bloody fights held for the amusement of sadistic individuals.

We read of the trials of “Humanity” Dick Martin, an early animal welfare crusader who sought to put an end to the cruel madness.

In the House of Commons, [Dick] Martin’s demands for an animal protection law were answered with catcalls, jeers, and loud laughter.

(Sound familiar?) Nevertheless, a British anticruelty law eventually passed.

The new law authorized magistrates to levy “a penalty of 10 shillings to 5 pounds or imprisonment on persons convicted of cruel treatment of horses, mares, geldings, mules, asses, cows, heifers, steers, oxen, sheep, and other cattle.” Unfortunately, the law extended no protection to cats, dogs, or other animals. These animals had to wait eighty-nine years before their legal rights were recognized in a general British animal protection law known as the Animal Charter.

America followed later:

By the middle of the 19th century, eight [American] states had some form of anticruelty law. These laws protected only work animals and livestock; the treatment of cats, dogs, and wildlife was not included in these statutes. On those rare occasions when a state’s anticruelty law was invoked and someone arrested for cruelty, most judges handed out light fines or mild lectures to the culprits. Cruelty to animals simply was not regarded as a serious offense.
Cats and dogs, since they had no legal protection, were at the mercy of their owners or handlers. Nobody interfered with the treatment accorded a cat or dog; they might be starved, beaten, left without shelter, shot, or abandoned, and it was nobody’s business but the owner’s. Property was property.

I find this information interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that then, as today, enforcing animal cruelty laws is difficult, and animal abuse cases often take a backseat to all other societal concerns. Secondly, take note of the animals protected: livestock and farm animals, but not cats and dogs. This is the exact reverse of the situation today, in which most state laws specifically exempt farm animals and agricultural practice from any cruelty statutes whatsoever. It also patently disproves a frequent claim made by anti-animal rights interests. Animal industry supporters frequently claim that humane advocates once sought to protect cats and dogs only, until the movement was “hijacked” (in the words of one writer) by more radical elements who dare to advance the idea that cows feel pain too. Nope—Fluffy and Fido were out of the loop for many years, not much of a concern until a rise in affluence allowed pet keeping to become widespread.

McCoy continues:

The law also took into consideration the plight of livestock transported in freight wagons and railroad cars. Frequently cattle, hogs, and sheep destined for the slaughterhouses were jammed so tightly into wagons and freight cars that they could not move. They had to stand in their own excrement. If there was a kind driver or railroad worker on the trip, the animals might receive food and water. Many times, however, the animals received no food and water. As a result of these wretched conditions, large numbers of animals died on the trip to the stockyards.

Ironically, the exact same situation continues to this day, only in the trailers of semi trucks rather than railroad cars!

Societal changes never come without complaint.

Those who opposed the humanitarians called them fanatics, frustrated men and women, spinsters and eccentrics, and sentimental do-gooders … They were often polarized by disagreements and personality conflicts, a fact the prevented the humane movement from having a united front.

(Once again, sound familiar? The only difference now is they’ve added “terrorists” to that list of insults.)

McCoy begins the “modern day” section of his book with a look at pet welfare issues. We read:

The unwanted dog and cat problem had become so acute by 1974 that a group of animal agencies held a national conference in Chicago on what they called “The Ecology of the Surplus Dog and Cat Problem.” The conference was cosponsored by the American Humane Association, the American Kennel Club, American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the US, and the Pet Food Institute—each with a special interest in the surplus dog and cat problem.

It struck me that that was probably the last time those guys were even in the same room together. Today, the AKC seems to deny that there even is a surplus pet problem, discussing pet overpopulation only in belittling quotation marks and actively opposing any governmental resolutions to do anything about it.

McCoy continues with one of his many head-scratching passages:

Not all puppy mills are guilty of abuse and neglect of their dogs; the National Pet Dealers and Breeders Association estimates that perhaps 20% of the puppy mills are involved in operating inhumane enterprises.

OK, first off, most modern readers would recognize any operation that earns the nickname “puppy mill” as by definition, inhumane. If you’re churning out companion animals like a mill, you’re not looking out for their individual comfort or welfare, and you’re not carefully screening the people who buy them. Secondly, J.J., don’t you think you should take any information about puppy mills from a group called “The National Pet Dealers and Breeders Association” with a grain of salt? That there might not be some money and jobs there riding on the public belief that most puppy mills are A-OK places to patronize?

And then there’s the chapter on animals in entertainment. McCoy gives a lot of leeway to rodeos, which many animal rights advocates aren’t going to be thrilled about. The author claims,

Rodeos conducted under the aegis of the rodeo associations enforce these rules and regulations. It is the small, unsupervised and unsponsored rodeos…which often permit cruelty to animals.

Unfortunately, the cameras show otherwise.

The caretakers of thousands of retired racing greyhounds will stare agape at this book’s summary of the dog racing issue. But this is what the greyhound industry believed in 1978. How wrongheaded they were, and consider how many dogs met the wrong end of a pistol or needle as a result:

[R]acing dogs are not house pets. They are bred to perform a specific function: chase after a real or mechanical rabbit. …[W]hen the dogs can no longer perform the work for which they were bred, the animals are destroyed. But why can’t the poor quality or slow-running dogs be sold or given away as pets?

When I was a member of the Gaines Dog Research Center staff, I asked this question to a number of racing dog breeders and trainers. They told me that greyhounds are bred and trained to chase motion, anything that moves. They will chase and kill smaller dogs, cats, and might even attack a small child. Their nature and training would make them dangerous in the home and community. Granted, many greyhounds are kept as pets, but these dogs have not been trained as racers. As for the unwanted racing dogs, all that can be done is to destroy them.

Approximately 50 percent of the greyhounds produced for racing are destroyed before they ever run on a professional track. Even racing dogs that have won races are destroyed after three or four years of racing, unless they have great value as breeding animals.

Another example of how concentrated animal advocacy can change an industry. Today, greyhound adoption is something even the racing industry gets behind.

There’s another little eye-rolling tidbit in the chapter on the plight of wild horses:

The pet food industry justified the equine roundups and deaths by pointing out that America’s dogs and cats, as well as ranch mink, had to be fed.

Ok, pet food industry, presumably Americans weren’t eating enough beef, pork, fish, and poultry in the 1960s that you couldn’t use the surplus and unwanted cuttings in your Kal-Kan and Alpo? Really, what a bunch of crap.

Speaking of meat, McCoy devotes a chapter to the battle for more humane methods of slaughter. Predictably, it was an uphill one:

In 1955, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota introduced a [humane slaughter] bill into Congress. There was immediate and strong opposition from the meat packing industry. The American Meat institute dubbed Senator Humphrey’s bill “premature.” Since the United States was 82 years behind Switzerland in enacting a humane slaughter law, many humanitarians found this statement puzzling.

Congress also hosted hearings on humane slaughter bills in 1957. Among the opposition: the USDA, American Meat Institute (them again!), Farm Bureau, and National Cattlemen’s Association. I find it hilarious that while these organizations now proudly proclaim their support for “humane” slaughter and handling, they sure sang a different tune when the regulations were first proposed. (Same thing with the animal research industry.)

The experience of some young 4-H members taking their steers to slaughter is discussed. One states,

“Watching our calves naturally made us cry, but if we wouldn’t cry for the animals that we have cared for and loved for so many months, we wouldn’t be human. Just before my steer entered the chute to be stunned, I was petting him, and as he looked up at me, he wasn’t saying, ‘Help me, get me out of here,’ he was saying, ‘Thank you, because this is a better place you are sending me to.’”

/facepalm/ Oh, for Pete’s sake.

The author has this to add:

[P]eople can accept the realities of slaughtering animals when the necessity for such slaughter is explained and when the handling of animals is humane in every stage of the process.

Honestly, is slaughter a necessity?  Of note is that vegetarianism is not even mentioned at all in the chapter on animal slaughter. Indeed, the chapter on “food” animals is quite lacking; the discussion is entirely about improving the welfare of large mammals at the slaughterhouse. A decent goal, but the author doesn’t even mention the factory farming that by 1978 was already well entrenched—especially in the poultry and egg industries. Improving the final hours of an animal’s life is well and good, but it certainly must work in tandem with improving all of the months leading up to slaughter, which are often painful, distressing, and cruel.

From the author’s chapter on hunting, one gets the idea he generally supports it, but with caveats. At the time this book was written, bowhunting wasn’t nearly as popular among the hunting community as it is today, but it was still raising ire.

An expert archer once stated: “An arrow has virtually no shocking power. It makes an ugly, cutting wound like a knife. An animal struck by a well-placed arrow bleeds to death.”

However, I was surprised to learn this about a more familiar weapon, the buckshot-loaded shotgun:

Buckshot is equally ineffective as far as shocking an animal is concerned. Buckshot produces an irregular pattern of wounds in an animal. When buckshot fails to kill a bird or mammal, the pellets remain imbedded in the animal. The retained pellets ultimately cause infection, and since many animals wounded by buckshot move into dense grass or shrubbery they are lost.

At one time, animal welfarists pushed for arrows with sedative agents attached to the heads, to reduce the suffering of shot animals. If you know anything about hunting, you know that little plan went nowhere. McCoy’s chapter on trapping depicts a large photo of a leghold trap with a tranquilizer tab attached. That, too, has gotten nowhere outside of the occasional field research project.

The campaign against leghold trapping is perhaps matched only by the campaign against sealing in its exhaustive length.

A campaign to ban the leghold trap has been going on since the early 1920s. The American Humane Association magazine, the National Humane Review, carried articles on the cruelty of the steel leghold trap as early as 1916.

The AHA’s search for a more humane trap continues today; the Association offers a reward of $10,000 to a person who develops a practical and truly humane trap.

Frank Conibear, inventor of the scissors-like Conibear trap, was a trapper who was convinced of the barbarity of the leghold. Interestingly,

Although his trap was not the perfect humane trap, [Frank] Conibear received an award from the American Humane Association.

Despite the common sense notion of what this  must feel like, McCoy gives entirely too much airtime to the arguments of trapping apologists. To wit:

Despite the lack of scientific proof that the leghold trap is a cruel instrument, despite the fact that trapping is an important wildlife management tool, many people believe that the leghold trap is a diabolic and cruel device.

There is no scientific evidence to prove that leghold traps are inhumane. Similarly, the charge that leghold traps cause great pain is unsubstantiated. Trappers and wildlife managers stress that no research has been conducted on the pain threshold of wild animals or on how much pain the leghold trap causes a victim.
In the experience of some trappers, when a trapped animal realizes it cannot escape from a leghold trap, it will lie quiet or even go to sleep.

I’d like to note at this point that until the early 1980s, surgical procedures were conducted on human infants with no anesthesia. Belief held that infants could not experience pain in the same manner as older children or adults. Today, such information horrifies most people. Common sense and observation holds the same for nondomestic animals who are physiologically nearly identical to our domestic cats and dogs. Could you imagine if a trap slammed shut on your pet’s delicate paw? Do you think she would experience pain?

As for the latter phenomenon, it’s called “learned helplessness” and has been firmly established in realm of animal research. It doesn’t mean the animal is no longer experiencing pain. It just means that a helpless animal will eventually “give up”. People sleep when they’re in pain, too.

Yet the author advises:

But more facts should be obtained by careful and impartial research. And all concerned with the trap controversy—humanitarians, trappers, wildlife managers, and furriers—should support such research.

Research that would no doubt involve leghold trapping more animals, possibly in a laboratory situation with various sensor devices attached to the animal to monitor its brain activity, heart rate, etc. All this extra pain just to continue the fur fashion industry? Is that something “humanitarians” should get behind?

Later, McCoy names the National Wildlife Federation and National Audubon Society, along with some classical animal welfare groups, as interests “crusading for the abolition of cruelty to these animals and to obtain maximum protection for them.” The NWF serves as the umbrella group for a variety of state hunting clubs and Audubon has long supported hunting, as well as the extermination of non-native animals. These groups do indeed work to protect endangered species and habitats. But they are not animal welfare groups by any means. A humanitarian who wishes to see the end of leghold traps or the Canadian seal hunt is well advised that if he’s donating to these groups, he’s giving money to these practices’ supporters.

Modern readers should note that some of the information advanced as fact, such as the supposed unadoptability of ex-racing greyhounds, is now woefully out-of-date. Trapping was more popular and was even cited by the author as a growing sport, whereas today less than 1 percent of Americans trap. Greyhound racing was basking in popularity, whereas today tracks are closing left and right. The fur industry, too, has not regained the popularity and acceptance it once enjoyed. Perhaps these pursuits at least will in coming decades go the way of bear-baiting as popular entertainment.

(This review originally appeared at


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Cialis
    Jul 15, 2014 @ 20:57:47

    I really like what you guys tend to be up too. Such clever work and reporting!
    Keep up the wonderful works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll.


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