BOOK REVIEW: The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals

The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity's Compassion for Animals

3.5 stars—The Friends We Keep is the type of book that is desperately needed to open the dialogue of animal welfare with people of the Christian faith. No movement has progressed without the assistance of the faithful, yet most animal welfare groups have neglected to speak directly to Christians in their outreach and educational materials.

Perhaps as a result of this failure, it is not uncommon to hear some Christians publicly making callous remarks about even basic concern for animal welfare. However, for every person of faith who totally disregards animals, there is an increasing number who are coming to their defense, as the author notes.

[Saddleback Church’s] Kay Warren wrote that she was “emotionally duped, then angered, by a heart-tugging television ad about suffering animals.” Why? She believed that animals are not worthy of such compassion. … I beg to differ. And so did the author of an opinion piece published in Christianity Today who suggested that it is not only appropriate but central to Christianity to acknowledge that “animals have worth and dignity.” … But I also wonder how many other Christians initially agree with [Warren’s] sentiment, thoughtlessly really, only to rethink their assessment when greeted by their dog after a long day at work or when pondering a world without polar bears or butterflies.

The author argues that our lives are enriched immeasurably by our companion animals, and the trust and love of these relationships reveal God in everyday life. Sadly, it’s taken a long period of time to get to the point where such is an acceptable viewpoint. Hobgood notes an early papal proclamation that doomed cats, especially black ones, for centuries:

[Pope Gregory IX’s pronouncement] is the first documented evidence of the cat being demonized, and sadly black cats in particular. … [it] began a series of mass slaughters of cats throughout Europe.

Of course, Europeans were returned the favor for their foolishness when they were slammed by the Bubonic Plague, what with no felines to control the multiplying rats whose fleas carried the disease.

Hobgood makes the interesting argument that Christians should care about the welfare of animals, particularly those used in “sport” and entertainment, because they suffered similar fates in the early days of the religion. Most people know that Christians and animals were slaughtered side-by-side in the ancient Roman arenas, but few make the connection between the sadistic mindset that drove both spectacles:

[B]lood sports are particularly appropriate ones for Christians to consider, as for three centuries Christians were objects of such sport themselves in the Roman empire. … [A]n announcement found at Pompeii that promised the crowds “crucifixions along with animal hunts and gladiator duels. …Watching those who are not “like us” fight to the death, die at the other end of a weapon we wield, or exert themselves to a point that leads to death is in many ways reminiscent of the lives of the early Christian martyrs.

Hobgood asks readers to consider horse racing, dog fighting, and sport hunting as problematic spectacles deserving of attention. The last two activities, relying as they do upon the death of animals, aren’t exactly surprising conclusions. However, many readers unfamiliar with the darker side of horse racing may be surprised to see the “sport of kings” characterized as a blood sport. Hobgood discusses the examples of two famed Kentucky Derby winners who ended up on the slaughterhouse floor, as well as the injuries and congenital disorders racing thoroughbreds frequently suffer from. Highly inbred, studies conducted on 50,000 thoroughbreds show that in “95% of these modern racehorses, the Y-chromosome can be traced back to a single stallion.” Hobgood concludes that breeding practices driven by greed rather than the desire to create a healthy, sound horse has been disastrous for the thoroughbred.

While millions of dollars are invested annually by veterinary schools and the horse racing industry to improve the physical characteristics of these horses, speed is always the primary factor in the selection of horses for breeding and racing. Is this selection process detrimental to the overall health of thoroughbred horses? Some evidence points to that possibility.

Speaking of animals who were bred for performance rather than health, temperament and safety, Hobgood next looks at the bloody and illegal world of dog fighting. Thankfully, Hobgood does not take the route of other authors with ridiculous talk of nanny dogs, nor does she engage in the revisionist history of Stefan Bechtel in his book DogTown. Hobgood is not afraid to talk to readers about who created the pit bull terrier and why:

[E]vidence suggests for at least the last two thousand years dogs have been used…to fight other animals, including other dogs. The mastiff breeds, likely emerging from the culture of the Greek and Roman empires, are still central to dog fighting, as is one of their remote descendants, the pit bull, that has become the victim of choice in the contemporary dog fighting world. … Starting in sixteenth-century England, dogs were used as part of a growing interest in “baiting” sports. Large animals, such as bulls or bears, would be chained and otherwise weakened, and powerful dogs would be loosed to attack them. Often these fights would take place ion a “pit,” a type of fighting ring for the animals. And from there was derived the name of the primary type of dog used for fighting in America, the “pit” bull terriers.

The pit bull and Staffordshire terriers are hapless animals molded by sadists over the course of hundreds of years. Through careful breeding for fighting purposes and merciless culling, dog fighters created a dog who deviates from the normal pack behavior of canines and instead attacks his own kind, who ignores his own self-preservation and is instead “game” to fight to severe injury, even death.

While many dog advocates are too afraid to speak the truth of this breed’s history, dog fighters, ironically, have no romantic notions of America’s dog and wiggle butts and the ATTS test. Hobgood quotes the Pit Bull Reporter, an underground publication serving the dog fighting industry:

The fact is that no other breed has the gameness or ability to consistently stand up to the APBT in an even weight fighting contest. (You may have heard of a pit bull losing an occasional street or backyard fight against this breed or that but we are talking about “professionally conducted” pit matches in this context. Poorly bred, amateurishly handled pit bulls may lose to another breed once in a while, just as a sorry horse may lose a race to a mule occasionally.

(Sort of deflates the common argument that if pit bull breeding was banned, dogfighters would just turn to another breed en masse, huh?) Hobgood continues:

Breeding operations for pit bulls are widespread, and the names of many of these operations leave little to the imagination about the violence inherent in their programs: Bad Newz Kennels, Dead Man Kennels, Short Fuse Bulldogs, Terminator Kennels, Armageddon Kennels, and Silent but Violent Kennels.

Hobgood profiles Sheba, a one-eyed, heavily scarred female pit bull. She speculates that Sheba “obviously had been used for breeding and likely, also used as a bait dog.” Please pass the *facepalm*. Why would Sheba be bred if she was a “bait dog”? Bait animals—which may be unwanted pit bulls who don’t fight, or weaker breeds like beagles—are used by dog fighters to increase their dogs’ prey drive and killing skills. They rarely survive because they are supposed to be killed by design. Why on earth would a bait animal—considered nothing but trash by dog fighters—be bred? She certainly would not have the traits they want to see propagated. In all likelihood, Sheba is just another example of some groups dishonestly labeling former fighters as “bait dogs” in order to increase their chances of adoption.

And just as race horses who don’t run can be sold at auction to “killer buyers,” pit bulls who don’t show the proper amount of aggression are “removed” from the gene pool:

[D]ogs who lose the fight or who refuse to fight are condemned and often killed by their owners if they have not already been killed in the pit. As one dogfighter stated, “If the dog is capable of standing on his feet, he should keep fighting and never quit, I would condemn any dog that chooses to quit. …[On Vick’s property, dogs were] killed by “hanging, drowning, and/or slamming” them to the ground if they did not perform well in testing sessions. They were coldly executed, forced to breed in order to protect the fighting drive, and made to fight to the death.

And yet, after all of this, the author condemns breed specific legislation because it “unfairly burdens [pit bulls]” and talks negatively of cities that have passed BSL. Now wait, wouldn’t it make sense to have some way of stemming the tide of overbreeding these dogs and breeding for aggression? Wouldn’t it be good to have some sort of legal recourse when the next “Dead Man Kennels” moves into your neighborhood? Not all BSL involves seizing family pets from responsible homes—in fact, in practice, few laws actually go this far, despite what some claim. BSL that simply requires pit bulls to be sterilized, and bans the selling of new litters within a community, can help everyone, especially already existing pit bulls, and indeed it has.

Later, in the endnotes, the author gets even more confused:

[M]any of these dogs end up in shelters because people do not understand their personalities. They are disproportionately represented because they are overbred. … Educate yourself on this type of dog and help create networks for them in your area. One of the best sites to find accurate information is BAD RAP.

They’re overbred. They’re filling our shelters. Wouldn’t it make sense to put a crimp on this endless tide of unwanted pit bulls, dying long before their time? Readers should indeed “educate themselves on this type of dog.” (I sure did, and was forced to reevaluate my whole outlook.) But that means going to sources that tell you the pros and cons of the breeds, rather than those who will only give you the spit-shined version of the story. If you want to help pit bulls, history suggests the best thing you can do for them is have them spayed and neutered. And BAD RAP? Hardly without its controversies– particularly after Darla Napora, a pregnant BAD RAP supporter, was mauled to death by her unaltered male pit bull in August 2011. I’ll take the painful truth of this Animal People News editorial over BAD RAP any day.

Perhaps the only animal issue that inspires more wars of words than pit bull breeding is sport hunting. While only a minority of modern Americans hunt, those who do are often quick to defend their choice of recreation—even going as far as to promote hunting as a Bible-centered sport. Hobgood discusses a “Christian hunting ministry” whose website is peppered with photos of the leaders and members holding up dead deer by their antlers, as well as their hunting stories:

In the descriptions of the “harvests,” they graphically describe the deaths of the deer: how long they survived, which way they ran after being shot or hit with an arrow. …[To these groups, hunting] is a sacred expression of the mastery that we have over the world.

While the number of sport hunters in America is falling, the same cannot be said of the number who support cruel factory farming practices by purchasing commercially-produced meat. Hobgood’s descriptions of conventional factory farming practices will be grim news for newbies but nothing new to seasoned animal welfare advocates. Her statistics, however, may still surprise: Since 1960, hog farms have decreased by 92%, dairy farms by 93%, poultry farms by 71%, and beef farms by 55%. Some states bear the brunt of this concentration. For example, in Arkansas an average poultry farm has 274,839 birds.

Still, an astonishing 80 percent of Americans think that animals lead happy lives before they become meat.

I call shenanigans. There is no possible way a majority of American omnivores think Big Macs and buckets of KFC come from Old MacDonald’s Farm. The debate over factory farming has reached sources as diverse as USA Today to American Conservative magazine; from the Washington Post to TMZ. When factory farming practices are placed on the ballot, such as California’s Proposition 2, the extreme confinement of farm animals gets even more exposure. In addition, we now live in an era where instant access to information is literally at our fingertips; anyone wishing to learn more about how eggs or veal get to their plates can do so without delay. If the eighty percent figure is correct, it shows only how much denial people can engage in.

So, how did we get to this point? Hobgood doesn’t shy away from the fact that sentiments of violence toward animals can indeed be found in the Bible. She contrasts humans’ relationship with animals before and after the great flood:

What a drastic change in the human-animal relationship in just eight chapters! And a bizarre conclusion to a story that included all of these animals rescued from the deluge. After the flood, humans are “feared” and “dreaded”– quite a different picture that the one of peace and harmony portrayed at the beginning of creation.

Nonetheless, the author believes that the overarching theme of Christianity is one of peace, and believers can and should extend that mindset to their fellow members of Creation. The Friends We Keep is essential reading for not only Christians, but animal welfare advocates of all faiths who wish to more meaningfully discuss the issues with Christian friends.

(Review originally appeared at goodreads.com)

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Darron Portier
    Jan 08, 2012 @ 05:23:09

    I like this site very much so much great info.

    Reply

  2. Shari Umbach
    Jan 18, 2012 @ 23:21:20

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