BOOK REVIEW: Mark Twain’s Book of Animals

Mark Twain's Book of Animals

Early on, the author notes,

[Twain] became the best-known American author—and indeed, the most famous American celebrity in any field—to give outspoken, public support to agitation for animal welfare. This chapter of his life, however, has been largely neglected by biographers and critics.

Mark Twain’s Book of Animals hopes to rectify that slight. Twain, among many other things, was a noted anti-vivisection crusader and abhorred all manner of abuse of animals. He was not, however, a vegetarian, as one might assume:

Despite his disapproval of the wanton cruelty that hunting as a sport condoned, Twain did not object to killing animals for food…Neither Twain nor Jean avoided eating meat. But the issue Jean raised in this conversation of the cosmic justice underlying what—and who—becomes “supper” would trouble Twain well into his later years…

So, clearly Twain considered the fate of animals used for food, even if he didn’t remove himself from the practice. It is not difficult to imagine that if Twain were alive today, he would have something to say about the monstrous factory farms that have taken over the traditional, pasture-based ways of farming. It’s not hard to picture him as a vegetarian, or at the least someone who avoids factory-farmed meat in favor of the free-range variety.

Throughout Twain’s writing, we find not only animals but deep concern for their welfare. Huck Finn encounters and is repulsed by the hog-dogging and dog fighting “sports” he encounters in his travels. He offers up “first person” accounts of a dog whose puppy is stolen for a vivisection experiment and a once-proud horse reduced to abusive “sport” in the bullring. Ironically, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is the story of a grifter named Smiley who loves to bet on everything imaginable, and who owns not only the “jumping frog” but a fighting bull-pup famous for breaking his canine opponents’ legs. This suggests two things: one, that the use of bully breeds as fighting dogs is nothing new, and two, that Twain might not be thrilled with the frog jumping contests held in his honor today. Smiley was clearly not a person whose behavior Twain wished people would emulate.

Meanwhile, a wild turkey hunting story seems out of place, until the empty-handed young Twain stumbles upon an abandoned garden plot and finds the tomatoes growing there to be much more delicious than the turkey ever could have been.

Twain’s infamous razor wit was also put to good use in defense of animal welfare. Here we have a hilarious skewering of the religious edict that the Earth and all of its beings were created solely for use by man:

Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for.

Or, the popular, yet self-defeating government policy of paying bounties on the number of wild animals killed:

Any Government could have told her that the best way to increase wolves in America, rabbits in Australia, and snakes in India, is to pay a bounty on their scalps. Then every patriot goes to raising them.

Nearly as valuable as Twain’s collected works is the historical education we receive regarding animal welfare in Twain’s time. The author notes:

Some of Twain’s portrayals of animals that one might be tempted to call anthromorphic, actually reflected a major strand of scientific thought of his day—and our own day as well.

Twain befriended individuals who agitated for animal protection, such as

[Actress Minnie] Fiske…was a militant animal welfare activist who protested issues ranging from the steel traps used to capture animals for fur coats to the treatment of mules in oil fields. She forbade other actresses appearing with her onstage to wear furs or feather-decorated hats…

Clearly, Ms. Fiske was a PETA member long before PETA ever existed! Fiske’s story one of many indications that animal use industries are completely wrong when they claim that animal advocacy is nothing but a product of “soft” modern sensibilities. In reality, activism on behalf of animal protection has a long historical precedent.

Agitation for anticruelty legislation had begun in Britain in the early 1800s, and in the United States in the 1820s, but in both countries the movement for animal welfare did not pick up broad popular support into the last third of the nineteenth century….Activists had worked to get Parliament to pass the first animal welfare act as early as 1800 but did not succeed until 1822, when a law punishing excessive cruelty to cattle horses, sheep, and mules was passed. …During the next four decades the [RSPCA] lobbied to strengthen and extend protection to all domesticated animals (including dogs, chickens, pigs, and cats), distributed thousands of humane publications, and established veterinary hospitals and animal shelters for stray cats and dogs.

This information suggests that animal welfare groups never sought to exclude farm animals from their circle of concern, unlike some industry apologists who claim that animal welfare was originally about cats and dogs only, until it was “hijacked” by extremists who dared to suggest that cows and chickens feel pain. Nor were early activists afraid to tackle issues that even today remain highly contentious:

The most controversial issue that animal welfare activists tackled during the last third of the nineteenth century was vivisection. … The 1876 British law mandated the monitoring and licensing of all animal researchers, and outlawed some of the most repugnant forms of experimentation (such as “performing multiple experiments on the same, un-anesthetized animal”). But the legislation was so weakened by the medical establishment by the time Parliament passed it, that Cobbe dubbed it “the Vivisector’s charter.”

Sound familiar?

The animal welfare movement [in the 1890s], decentralized and divided as to priorities (as it always had been), ranged from those who simply wanted to extend humane education in schools and protect children from abuse to those who advocated the abolition of animal experimentation, hunting, meat-eating, and animals’ status as property.

Once again, sound familiar?

Of another great interest to me is that the undercover investigations that are a hallmark of new millennium activism are also nothing new. We read that in 1902, two anti-vivisectionists went undercover as psychology students at the University College London labs. The investigators took note of what they found over a period of months, and sent the troubling information to an animal welfare society. This style of activism continues today, with groups such as Mercy for Animals exposing hideous conditions on factory farms, and using this information to broker change for the animals.

One gets the feeling Mark Twain would be proud.

(review originally appeared at goodreads.com)

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

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