I’ve had the enormous pleasure, over the past few days, of reading anthropologist Barbara J. King’s most recent book, Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild .
King’s book takes up the question of how and why to engage in compassionate actions that help animals, whether by eliminating or reducing harms inflicted by humans or by shaping our own behaviors in ways that allow animals to live their own lives on their own terms. King opens with a discussion of why compassionate action on behalf of animals is so desperately needed and then takes readers into the world of animal advocates working to help animals in the wild, animals with whom we share our homes, animals held captive in zoos, animals who wind up on our plates, and animals used in biomedical research.
King’s ideas about compassionate action are driven by stories, and often by her own experiences.
I asked Dr. King if she would answer some questions about her new work. (My questions to her are in bold italics.)
Most of your scholarly work has been about animals. Why did you decide to write a book about people— albeit people who work on behalf of animals?
That’s an intriguing view, because in my mind, it’s completely a book about animals! The animals I feature, ranging from bears to spiders, dairy cows to housecats, and monkeys to rats, I hope take center stage in my science-based storytelling. It’s true that I interview, and admire, scientists and animal activists whose compassion is changing the world for animals in all five contexts I take up. For me, though, everything flows from seeing clearly animals for who they are. This book is the next logical step for me, after a pair of books that dealt with emotion and cognition in animals, because it asks all of us, me included, to do better and be better for animals on a daily basis.
One of the issues you raise early on, in your introductory chapter, is how sometimes the experience of witnessing animal suffering is so overwhelming and painful that compassionate people must look away. You write, “Can it be that caring deeply for animals may shut down our willingness to grasp that they are hurting?” Could you explain?
A few months ago, I was reviewing footage sent to me by PETA of an undercover investigation they’d undertaken at the biomedical laboratories of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. I spent time one particular day looking at horrific images of monkeys used in biomedical experiments. I tried to focus on individual monkeys rather than just the abstract horror, for example on a rhesus macaque called Cornelius who was born there in 2010, who has known no other life, and was caged alone and very clearly depressed . It was tough going; I thought I’d not share what I’d seen with my husband, who cares deeply for animals.
A few hours later, my husband showed me a live-stream from a cat rescue center he donates to, about a beautiful rescued cat who had received a prognosis of a terminal illness. The loving caretaker had tears in her eyes as she held and stroked the cat, promising that the animal would not suffer.
I snapped at my husband. I told him it was too much, that he should ask me before he shows me such a thing, and then I burst into tears. In that moment, I couldn’t bear to think about one more animal in trouble. It doesn’t escape me that I broke down about a cat who was in compassionate hands; in that moment it was emotionally safer for me to cry about that animal than about Cornelius and all the thousands and thousands of other monkeys, rats, mice, and other beings in laboratories.
Of course, I apologized and explained to my husband. Charlie was not only blameless but was also exhibiting the very compassion I love in him, compassion that has motivated him to care for homeless cats for decades. The stress that I experienced that day was mild. For some veterinarians, veterinary staff, animal rescuers, and animal activists the situation is far worse, because they must contend daily with animal neglect, abuse, and suffering. Data show clearly that compromised mental health is a great risk for them. As we have this conversation about compassion, we need to support each other and lobby at the same time for better access to mental health resources.
Why do you choose the phrase “compassionate action” as the centerpiece of your book?
Scientists over the last decades have done an outstanding job in describing for the public how deeply many animals think and feel as they go about their lives. And I mean here not just big-brained apes, elephants, and orcas, but also farm animals like pigs, cows and chickens, and invertebrates like octopus, squid, and a variety of insects and arachnids. But I think we, and I include myself here, aren’t as good as taking the next step, and laying out specifically what to do to help animals who need us so urgently.
There’s no question we’re in a time of planetary crisis, with anthropogenic global warming , habitat destruction, and animal and plant extinctions. Feeling empathy for any and all creatures caught up in this— whether those creatures are cognitive stars of the animal world or not, whether they feel their lives in ways we understand or not— is a good thing. But what use is empathy without action to make a difference? As I point out in the book, ‘empathy’ is used in such varied ways, and I wanted a phrase that immediately invites a call to action. I think ‘compassionate action’ is that phrase.
My favorite chapter—which will be no surprise given the focus on my own research and writing—was on animals in our home. I expected this chapter to be about dogs and cats and other animals commonly kept as pets . So, I was surprised and delighted that you opened this chapter with a discussion of spiders in the home, sharing your own journey from fearing spiders to being fascinated by them. I love how you emphasize that humans and spiders can peacefully co-exist within a home and that our home may also be a spider’s home. This section of the book is perhaps one of the clearest examples of one of your main themes: that by getting to know the natural history and biology of animals we nurture and expand our own capacity for compassion. There is one point that I’d like to press you on a bit. I was surprised that you embrace the idea that spiders make great pets and can be kept in captivity without undue harm. Wouldn’t the more compassionate path be simply to forego pet-keeping if it means holding another being captive?
You might be right, Jessica; I’ve learned a lot from your writing about the ethics of pet-keeping over the years. For me, with certain types of pet-keeping, a lot of the discussion is contextual, in a way qualitatively different from the situation with animals who endure captivity in many zoos or in biomedical laboratories. In those environments, I have no doubt that captivity itself is a harm. And by ‘certain types of pet-keeping’ I nod here to the fact that wild animals like monkeys, apes, big cats, and other exotic animals should never be kept as pets, full stop.
I’ve had cats as indoor companions, pretty much my whole life. And I know that cats and dogs can enjoy highly satisfactory, even joyful lives, with humans. Can the same be true with small invertebrates like spiders, who aren’t domesticated as cats and dogs are? Here’s where context comes in, because when I look at the spacious habitats pet spiders are often kept in, and the love with which they become members of a family, I think the answer may not be black and white.
Let’s talk about food choices and vocabulary. Are labels such as “vegan” and “vegetarian” and “plant-based” useful? I’m interested that you use these terms, yet don’t have a parallel term for “carnivorous” or “flesh-based.” Why is that?
In the book, I write about why I identify as ‘reducetarian’ which is a label that I like. I’m nestled right up against the vegan end of the reducetarian continuum, to be sure. But anyone seriously committed to eating less meat, seafood, and dairy fits under that term. The science is completely clear that in responding to our Earth crisis–the global warming and animal and plant extinctions I mentioned earlier–it’s urgent that we collectively eat less meat, seafood, and dairy. For some, this will be a commitment to a vegan life or to a plant-based diet , which I admire tremendously. For others, that may not be possible.
As an anthropologist who has lived in both West Africa and East Africa, I understand that calls for global veganism don’t yet match with millions of people’s need to feed their families by raising pigs or chickens or by fishing. Thinking systemically about food justice requires big ideas about how to scale up plant-based eating that fits with small-farm practices around the world. I’d add that, as a species, we didn’t evolve to be carnivorous or flesh-based, or vegan, either; we evolved as omnivores through the millennia, taking advantage of what made sense to seek, process, and consume in that environment. The goal now, in our time and in our environment, is to make it possible through local and global initiatives for more and more people to eat healthily with plants. And I think with cell-based or cultured meat, too, that is, meat produced cellularly and without animal slaughter.
Towards the end of the chapter called “Animals on Our Plates,” you talk about plants and begin to enter into very interesting terrain, suggesting that the sharp binary between plant and animal is actually not so sharp and that plants have “feelings” and social relationships. Is compassionate action on behalf of plants a next step for you? Could you talk a bit about what compassionate action towards plants might look like?
I do take that step. If you’ll allow me to quote myself, here is a passage from the concluding pages of the ‘Animals on our Plates’ chapter. I’ve just written about some of the fascinating science showing that plants like sunflowers and mustard plants recognize and treat their relatives differently than they do non-kin. ‘As plants come alive for us in new ways, questions about how we should treat them have gained traction….We can consider not only basic biology but also concern for all life: excluding plants from our care means we have missed t he very point of endeavoring to live with compassion.’
I am very interested in the notion of micro-ecosystems in our yards, in small local parks, and similar spaces. This involves caring for, especially, native plants that will revitalize patches of land, making them inviting homes for pollinator insects and birds and all kinds of small wildlife. Beyond this, fighting to protect our forests and woodlands is critical, and not only for the ecological roles the trees play, but also because trees are living beings with worth on their own terms.
Thank you so much for this interview. For more discussion on these and related topics, I’d invite your readers to find me on Twitter https://twitter.com/bjkingape .