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Putting the Horse Before Descartes; The Bond
Temple University Press, 304 pp., 2011; $35.00; William Morrow, 448 pp., 2011; $26.99

When dealing with ethics and adults, one cannot teach — one can only remind,” says Professor Bernie Rollin in his new book, Putting the Horse before Descartes. In this book and HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle’s The Bond, two of the most influential “remind-ers” and animal welfare allies recount their battles for reform across the wide frontiers of controversy. Their victories are numerous, groundbreaking and far from complete; their predictions for the future are optimistic. I hope they’re right.

Bernie Rollin has invested his rich academic career building the ethical underpinnings of animal rights and welfare, steering generations of veterinary and other students in the direction of contemplating those issues and pursuing effective public advocacy based on that foundation. Here, he fools us into reading a philosophy tome, with a mix of often hilarious biography, condensed and readable expositions of his approach to animal rights, and (occasionally tedious) later accounts of his battles to improve animal welfare in venues as diverse as veterinary education, shelter practices, research, rodeos and industrial agriculture.

Central to Rollin’s ethical approach is the concept of telos, the fundamental animal nature of each species. Telos, the author states, means that “fish gotta swim; birds gotta fly.” Each species has the right to be treated by humans in ways that respect that essence. Indeed, the true animal husbandry practiced throughout most of agricultural history is an exchange that reflects that imperative; the farmer or rancher was only as good as the condition of his animals.

Decline of the husbandry principle is demonstrated in the recent rise of both factory farming and animal research. Food animals have become fungible commodities of inventory, and as research subjects, critters are means to the end of commercializing products that pass regulatory muster as “safe” (for humans). Rollin’s concern for lab animals deepens when he contemplates the unknown consequences of gene splicing, especially for the splicees.

In The Bond, Pacelle identifies and builds from the instinctive affinity that unites sentient lives across the boundaries of species. He believes that, in the intersection of our lives with those of other beings, we must honor that covenant, reminding readers of the violations that abound in mankind’s power over other animals. Pacelle skillfully describes his organization’s campaigns to redress those abuses: in factory farming, animal fighting, the fur trade and sheltering. Indeed, his ringing endorsement of “no-kill” would almost convince the new reader that HSUS invented the concept.

Both authors have devoted their lives to their missions as advocates and remind-ers. Both see the rise in public concern for animals as pointing the way to a better future. It’s not completely clear to me that it will: Is this trend a harbinger of a more humane age? Or does it simply indicate that we will palliate suffering and respect telos in the most intimate, immediate and convenient of bonds but continue to ignore, tolerate and tacitly enable the greater cruelties visited upon animals we don’t have to see every day? A first step in the direction of change is always transparency. Both these volumes ably raise our awareness, and push us toward lives that will require conscious choices between those contrasting futures.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 66: Sept/Oct 2011
Tom Cushing works to place stray animals and lawyers into new situations where they may prosper. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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