Two BOOK REVIEWS: Farm Animals and Understanding Farm Animals

Farm Animals (Award Animal Series)

Farm Animals by David Gibbon

The publication date is 1980 and the photos look even older than that. However, Farm Animals is proof positive that progressive views can be found in the most surprising places.

Despite being an easy-reader picture book, Farm Animals doesn’t placate like most books with verdant fantasy farms advanced as the source of the food on our plates. The authors no doubt have an anthropocentric view, evidenced from lines such as “Pigs are valuable meat-producing animals,” however, they make an eloquent argument on behalf of rearing animals the traditional way, instead of the factory farming way.

The opening page, geared toward parents and teachers, boldly states:

“Of course, even farming has now become highly mechanized; milking is usually carried out by machine, there are fewer and fewer horses to be seen working in the fields and free-range farm animals are the exception rather than the rule. Nevertheless, there are still small farms where such things, or at least some of them, may be seen. … It is good that things should still be so, to however small a degree, for it would be a sad day indeed if our children knew of nothing but mechanized, battery farming methods.

Many would agree, and unfortunately for the vast majority of the Western world, this ugly system is indeed all we know.

Remarkably, the stand taken against factory farming also extends into the youngsters’ part of the text:

On most farms, modern, mechanical milking machines have now taken over from old methods of hand milking. [next to a picture of a cow surrounded by stainless-steel milking equipment]

Free range birds such as the geese and chickens on these pages are less frequently seen these days because battery farming methods have made them obsolete.

Those who read my reviews of children’s farm animals books know I am frequently condemning them for their dishonesty; for example, showing pictures of plump, happy hens scratching in the barnyard or pigs lazing about in the sunshine as the story behind the eggs and bacon on kids’ breakfast plates. I have long maintained that if authors insist on showing idealized images such as this, they should make clear that they do not reflect the reality of modern agriculture. How sad we have to reach back this far to find a book that does just that!

This book does contain one especially unusual element, however. The last page states that “the countryside supports a considerable variety of wildlife”, with a photograph that shows an obviously stuffed and mounted fox placed in a field!

Understanding Farm Animals (Animals around us)

Understanding Farm Animals by Ruth Thomson

When it comes to industrial farming, children’s authors normally take one of two routes: they either pretend it does not exist at all (common) or they condemn the factory farm in favor of more natural farming methods (very rare). Understanding Farm Animals takes a different stance altogether; it acknowledges the factory farm, but refuses to make any statements about it one way or another.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising, though—as we see from the title page, this book was produced with the assistance of a battalion of livestock and meat industry groups. Unfortunate facts about farm animal production–“calves of dairy cows are taken away from their mothers”– is interspersed with the usual anthropocentric talk–“the lambs fatten quickly for meat”– and the occasional passage praising a species’ fastidiousness or intelligence. The illustrations are paintings of sleek, healthy animals in ideal settings; they are rarely in shown cages.

Chicken farming was among the first to rapidly adopt the inhumane factory –style methods, and the text in this 30+ year old book acknowledges this. It shows chicks hatching in incubator drawers (not under a mother’s wings) and the author states the following:

Broiler (meat) chickens are kept in windowless sheds with a controlled amount of light. As many as 20,000 chicks will be put together in one shed. They are given plenty of rich food and are killed at about nine weeks old.

Today, these unfortunate, rapidly-growing birds are slaughtered at 6 weeks old; poultry scientists are no doubt hard at work making it even sooner.

Three methods of keeping hens are shown: free range, deep litter, and industrial battery farming. “Deep litter” housing systems are what Americans might identify as “cage free” egg farming:

Deep litter houses are windowless and lights are left on for about 17 hours each day. … Hundreds of hens are put together in one house. Like battery hens, they never go out of doors. The tips of their beaks may be cut to prevent them from pecking one another.

I have to give the author credit for even mentioning the battery cage system; this especially ugly aspect of factory farming produces the vast amount of eggs sold commercially. Unfortunately, although battery cage farming represents the lion’s share of the egg industry, Thomson relegates discussion of it to a miniscule section that covers not even 1/4th of the page. Not only is it very easy to miss, the focus of the illustration is on the egg and food collection troughs. The caged hens barely even in the picture–just some heads and necks poking toward the trough. The text gives us this bland description:

In a battery, several hens are kept in each cage. Cages have wire floors so when the eggs are laid they roll down into a tray ready for collection. The hens eat from a trough in front of them.

The section on pigs is also notable, as hogs represent another species kept in highly intensive conditions on factory farms. At first, I was prepared to roll my eyes upon seeing the illustrations of pigs rooting in a large pigsty with mud wallows and straw.

Pigs kept for their meat (pork, bacon and ham) are usually kept in pens. They are fed controlled amounts of food, such as wheat, barley, potatoes, corn, fish meal and skimmed milk. The pigs do not use much energy and become fat. Their bristles can be made into brushes.

However, it struck me that perhaps the illustrations did reflect the time and place when this book was written (1978 Britain), and could serve as a model of pig farming methods that could be used to replace the horrific factory system.

A few days before a sow is due to farrow, she is put in a farrowing pen. The farmer puts down straw, which the sow paws into a heap.

Today’s breeding sow lives in a crate, gets no straw, and must be in perpetual misery from her inability to engage in her nesting instincts before giving birth.

Amazingly, one of the illustrations actually shows a sow inside a farrowing crate—albeit one a large, straw-filled stall.

Farmers keep the sow in a farrowing crate like the one above for about four days, until the piglets are nimble enough to keep out of her way as she lies down.

Certainly better than keeping her locked in gestation and farrowing crates her entire, sad life.

We also learn that traditional farmers had a way of dealing with tail-biting that didn’t involve chopping off piglets’ tails:

If pigs are bored or overcrowded in pens, they may bite one another’s tails. Farmers often hang up a tyre or a chain for them to play with instead.

Despite some truthfulness about industrial farming, as well as some unwitting promotion of less cruel methods, Understanding Farm Animals remains the sum of its parts and bows to the points of view of its agribusiness contributors. For example, the neurotic weaving motions of a horse kept locked in a stall without exercise or stimulation is called a “bad habit” in the text.

The end of the book are fairly interesting guides to traditional farm animal breeds (many which are rapidly disappearing under the weight of factory farming’s demands for homogeny, but the text does not note this.)

(Both reviews originally appeared at


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