Practical Issues > Factory Farming - Index > Farming Index

August 15, 2005
"If Pigs Could Swim"

The Book section of the September edition of the prestigious "Atlantic Monthly" has a wonderful article headed, "If Pigs Could Swim. Why our farm animals would be better off on the other side of the Atlantic" by B.R. Myers. (Page 134.)

Myers looks at two recent books dealing with animal issues: "Animal Rights" by Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum, editors, and "Animals in Translation" by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. The first few paragraphs are available on line at and I will paste them below.

The segment ends with one of my favorite lines in the piece -- a reference to the Ringling Brothers "miserable menagerie."

Here are the opening paragraphs: "George Orwell once wrote that the Spanish are cruel to animals, but he added, "such things don't matter." Over the years the second generalization has probably startled more readers than the first.

Whether or not Kant was right that hardness to animals causes hardness to people, we tend to think the two go together, and no one wants a matador for a babysitter. But among the eloquent essays compiled by Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum in the new book Animal Rights is one by Richard A. Posner, an advocate of "humancentricity," who asks, "Are the Spanish, who watch bullfights in which the bull is killed, more violent toward each other . than Americans, who do not watch bullfights at all? I don't think so."

"I don't think so either, but Posner's point rests on the assumption that because we don't watch bullfights, we are kinder to animals than the Spanish, and this is nonsense; the number of Americans who kill animals for pleasure would fill every bullring in Spain several times over. The 25 million or so people in question prefer to describe themselves as hunting, but there is often little of that involved. As the Los Angeles Times wrote with approval last summer, Californians who enjoy decimating flocks of doves "simply park the pickup or SUV next to a field, unfold a chair, pop the ice chest and let it rip."

Then there's baiting bears and shooting them at close range, frequently in the back, a custom that the citizens of Maine recently voted to preserve. It is obvious that the real attraction of these "sports" is the thrill of the kill, and the more honest devotees come right out and say so. ("An excitement just rushes through your body," a high school homecoming queen in Louisiana told a reporter last year, "when you see a squirrel and you say, 'I've got to shoot it.'")

If one adds the many fans of circuses, rodeos, cockfights, dogfights, and other American spectacles in which animals are tormented or killed, the total would probably fill Spain itself. Judging from the T-shirts and postcards sold at highway rest stops, some of us are even tickled by the sight of wildlife hit by cars. (For a while there, Kraft was selling "road kill" candy animals, complete with tread marks.) Anyone who thinks this is all just redneck culture should look around the bleachers the next time Ringling Brothers drags its miserable menagerie into New York City."

The article discusses with appreciation much of Grandin's work, particularly its main thrust, "that life cannot be classified in terms of a simple neurological ladder, with human beings at the top; it is more accurate to talk of different forms of intelligence, each with its strengths and weaknesses."

Myers writes, "This point was well demonstrated in the minutes before last December's tsunami, when tourists grabbed their digital cameras and ran after the ebbing surf, and all the 'dumb' animals made for the hills." But Myers slams Grandin for her acceptance of various factory farming practices, and the use of euphemisms such as "ranchers" to describe those who own factory farms.

The article is rich and compelling. It compares the abuse of power at Pilgrims' Pride, where workers threw live chickens against walls, to that at Abu Ghraib. (Note: Peter Singer and I wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which we made that comparison. You can read it on my website at:

And Myers's pieces discusses the treatment of livestock in the US, as compared to other nations, and tells us that "America is no place to be born an animal." The whole piece is not available on line except to subscribers. You have to buy the magazine, at the newsstand or on line, to read it. I recommend it. And I urge people to send supportive letters to the editor. The Atlantic takes letters at:

Yours and the animals', Karen Dawn