BOOK REVIEW: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safron Foer


What most clearly sets Eating Animals apart from the bulk of animal rights literature is the perspective from which its written – not the firm, impassioned mindset of a longtime activist, but that of a lifelong omnivore engaged in his first thorough exploration of the vegetarian debate. The catalyst for the book’s writing was not any conviction as to the merit (or lack thereof) of a vegetarian lifestyle, but rather the birth of the author’s first son, and the necessity of making responsible dietary choices on his behalf and raising him with a consistent moral framework. As such, it is considerably more balanced than most books on the subject. As Foer explains early on, all of his statistics come from the most conservative sources available (he lists his citations at the end of the book), and have been verified by multiple third-party fact-checkers. Even these conservative numbers are often too high to be easily conceptualized, though, a problem Foer remedies by opening every chapter with an illustration. Chapter Five, for instance, opens with the words “influence” and “speechlessness” alternating, in small-font single-spaced print, for five pages on end, an apparent waste of space until I realized, with staggering horror, that every letter on those five pages – 21,000 in total – represents one of the animals the average American will consume in a lifetime.

Observing that facts take on meaning only when put into a larger ideological framework, the author also delves deeply into the scientific, emotional, and philosophical context that gives them relevance. For example, whereas an animal rights activist may cite studies on the intelligence of animals, and a meat-eater may observe that most domestic animals wouldn’t exist at all if not raised by humans for food, Foer frames these and other talking points in lengthy discussions of topics such as the value of suffering, the relationship between species and individual, and what it means to be a “human” as opposed to an “animal.” On nearly every issue, he ultimately comes out on the side of the activist, though the depth of his analysis – and ultimate rebuttal – of meat-eaters’ arguments shows that his desire for balance and fairness is sincere. He even allows farmers and industry executives to defend their positions directly, in their own words, on four separate occasions. Only one of the four is involved in factory farming – the other three are small, independent producers committed to high standards of animal welfare. That Foer gives such a prominent voice to these farmers, who represent such a tiny fraction of the industry – in his own words, “there isn’t enough nonfactory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island and not enough nonfactory pork to serve New York City, let alone the country” – is extremely important. On the one hand, it demonstrates that the issue is not as black-and-white as either vegetarians or factory farmers often like to portray it. On the other, it exposes the limitations of even the best forms of animal agriculture, showing that even the most humanely raised animals are subject to various torments: branding, castration without anesthesia, and eventual slaughter. That these cruelties pale when compared to industry standards only drives home how horrific factory farming really is.

The author covers an enormous body of material, including much that the average activist, if not the casual reader, will already be well familiar with. He also gives significant attention to many more obscure issues. Among these is the topic of seafood, so neglected by the animal rights movement that many self-proclaimed “vegetarians” still regularly consume fish and shellfish. Foer touches on the issue numerous times, both from the perspective of the consumed animals themselves, with reference to studies on the intelligence and social lives of fish, and within a larger environmental context. Regarding “bycatch,” the creatures caught accidentally in commercial fishing operations, he has this to say: “Imagine being served a plate of sushi. But this plate also holds all of the animals that were killed for your serving of sushi. The plate might have to be five feet across.” Other less often discussed topics include “selective omnivorism” of the sort advocated by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the do-it-yourself slaughter which has become increasingly popular in recent years. The former is treated with some respect, though its shortcomings – the scarcity of humanely raised meat, and the difficulty of accommodating it in restaurants or family gatherings – are made quite clear. The latter is soundly condemned as hypocrisy: “Killing an animal oneself is more often than not a way to forget the problem while pretending to remember. This is perhaps more harmful than ignorance. It’s always possible to wake someone from sleep, but no amount of noise will wake someone who is pretending to be asleep.”

Foer makes his most remarkable observations in addressing the least explored topic of all: why it is that well-meaning people, even after learning the facts of where meat comes from, continue to eat it. Many a vegetarian, myself included, have puzzled over this bizarre phenomenon, and in Eating Animals Foer finally offers a satisfying answer. He opens the book with an anecdote about his grandmother, who in his childhood would feed him chicken and carrots and tell him stories about her escape from the Holocaust during WWII. At the time, he believed her to be the greatest chef who ever lived, and even as an adult confesses that “her chicken and carrots probably was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. But that had little to do with how it was prepared, or even how it tasted. Her food was delicious because we believed it was delicious. … Her culinary prowess was one of our family’s primal stories.” Stories, he maintains, are what sustain us through life, and it is our ability to place events and facts into a narrative that gives meaning to our existence. Stories may even prove more important than life itself, as another story about his grandmother illustrates. While fleeing the Nazis, close to starvation, she was assisted by a Russian farmer, who gave her a piece of pork to eat. Because it was not kosher, she refused it. When Foer asked why she wouldn’t eat it to save her life, she replied, “If nothing matters, there’s nothing left to save.”

By exposing the profound significance that food can assume in our emotional lives, Foer offers a powerful insight into the psychology of meat-eating, which will hopefully equip activists in more effectively combating it. It helps to explain the persistence of traditions such as the Thanksgiving turkey, and why even some vegetarians are compelled to partake of meat on that holiday. Potentially, it could be applied to other forms of animal cruelty besides meat consumption, such as bullfighting, sport hunting, and animal sacrifice. In recognizing the full symbolic importance of meat, the task of changing human attitudes towards animals may appear even more daunting than ever, but Foer believes that change is possible. We are not just characters in a story, we are its authors as well. Near the end of the book, he writes, “If we are not given the option to live without violence, we are given the choice to center our meals around harvest or slaughter, husbandry or war. We have chosen slaughter. We have chosen war. That’s the truest version of our story of eating animals.” He closes the chapter with a challenge: “Can we tell a new story?”

Although much of its content is highly distressing, as is inevitably the case with serious animal rights literature, Eating Animals is nonetheless an immense pleasure to read. It is an exquisitely written, highly comprehensive, relatively balanced, and incredibly compelling work, and among the most nearly perfect books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. I wholly and enthusiastically recommend it, both to vegetarians and, far more importantly, to omnivores struggling with the ethical ramifications of their diet.

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About Author

Born and raised within the animal rights movement, Wolf Gordon Clifton has always felt strongly connected to other creatures and concerned for their well-being. Beginning in childhood he contributed drawings of animals for publication in Animal People News, and traveled with his parents to attend conferences and visit animal projects all over the world. During high school he began writing for the newspaper and contributing in various additional ways around the Animal People office. His first solo trip overseas, to film a promotional video for the Bali Street Dog Foundation in Indonesia, led him to create the animated film Yudisthira's Dog, retelling the story of an ancient Hindu king famed for his loyalty to a street dog. It also inspired lifelong interests in animation and world religion, which he went on to study for college at Vanderbilt University. Wolf graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and minors in Film Studies and Astronomy. In 2015, he received a Master of Arts in Museology and Graduate Certificate in Astrobiology from the University of Washington. His thesis project, the online exhibit Beyond Human: Animals, Aliens, and Artificial Intelligence, brings together animal rights, astrobiology, and AI research to explore the ethics of humans' relationships with other sentient beings, and can be viewed on the Animal People Forum. His diverse training and life experiences enable him to research and write about a wide variety of animal-related issues, in a global context and across the humanities, arts, and sciences. In his spare time, he does paleontological work for the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, and writes for the community blog Neon Observatory. Click to see author's profile.

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