Introduction from Matthew Scully’s “Dominion”

“Dominion” is a vital book. Peter Singer calls it “And eloquent polemic against human abuse of animals, culminating with a devastating description of factory farming” in the New York Review of Books. The Rocky Mountain News said “I was saddened, moved, and unsettled by this book. I no longer consider animal rights a fringe movement…In the end, Scully does a brilliant job of planting a very disturbing seed: If we can treat animals this cruelly, what are we capable of doing to ourselves?”

For my part, I’d like anyone who cares for me in the slightest to read this book. It is eloquent, accessible, logical, and wholly without the sort of radicalism that turns many people away from the animal-rights (or animal well-being) cause. Please, read this introduction and please, read the book. I will lend one of my two copies for anyone who asks.

In my view the most pertinent and powerful paragraphs are paragraph 6 (counting the epigraph as a paragraph), paragraphs 10-13, and the final two paragraphs.

Excerpt from Matthew Scully’s “Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy” (2001)

Introduction:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and it was so.
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Genesis 1:24-26

It began with one pig at a British slaughterhouse. Somewhere along the production line it was observed that the animal had blisters in his mouth and was salivating. The worst suspicions were confirmed, and within days borders had been sealed and a course of action determined. Soon all of England and the world watched as hundreds, and then hundreds of thousands, of pigs, cows, and sheep and their newborn lambs were taken outdoors, shot, thrown into burning pyres, and bulldozed into muddy graves. Reports described terrified cattle being chased by sharpshooters, clambering over one another to escape. Some were still stirring and blinking a day after being shot. The plague meanwhile had slipped into mainland Europe, where the same ritual followed until, when it was all over, more than ten million animals had been disposed of. Completing the story with the requisite happy ending was a calf heard calling from underneath the body of her mother in a mound of carcasses to be set aflame. Christened “Phoenix,” after the bird of myth that rose from the ashes, the calf was spared.

The journalist Andrew Sullivan discerned in these scenes a “horrifying nothingness,” something about it all that left us sick and sad and empty. More than a year has passed since the last ditch was covered over. But probably you can still recall your own reactions because it was one of those events that made us all pause and question basic assumptions. One knew that something had gone terribly wrong, something deep and serious and beyond the power of vaccines or borders or cullings to contain. We saw in all of their simplicity the facts of the case: Here were innocent, living creatures, and they deserved better, and we just can’t treat life that way. We realized, if only for an instant, that it wasn’t even necessary, that we had brought the whole thing upon them and upon ourselves. Foot-and-mouth disease is a form of flu, treatable by proper veterinary care, preventable by vaccination, lethal neither to humans nor to animals. These animals, millions of them not even infected, were all killed only because their market value had been diminished and because trade policies required it – because, in short, under the circumstances it was the quick and convenient thing to do. By the one measure we now apply to these creatures, they had all become worthless. For them, the difference between what happened and what awaited them anyway was one of timing. And for us the difference was visibility. This time, we had to watch.

Silent while all of this was unfolding in early 2001 were people usually quick to caution against “sentimentality” toward animals. Looking out upon those fields of burning pyres, no one could claim that mankind is going soft. The images bore witness, instead, to an incredible hardness and abandon. It was an “economic disease,” as one writer put it, revealing attitudes there all along and now, in desperation, grimly carried out to their logical conclusion.

The drama had a familiar feel to it, for in a strange way mankind does seem to be growing more sentimental about animals, and also more ruthless. No age has ever been more solicitous to animals, more curious and caring. Yet no age has ever inflicted upon animals such massive punishments with such complete disregard, as witness scenes to be found on any given day at any modern industrial farm. These places are hard to contemplate even without the crises that now and then capture our attention. Europe’s recurring “mad cow” scares have all come about from the once unthinkable practice of feeding cattle the ground-up remains of other cattle. Livestock farmers around the world are becoming “growers,” their barns “mass confinement facilities,” and slaughterhouses vast “processing plants” dispatching animals – “production units” – at a furious pace of hundreds per minute.

When a quarter million birds are stuffed into a single shed, unable even to flap their wings, when more than a million pigs inhabit a single farm, never once stepping into the light of day, when every year tens of millions of creatures go to their death without knowing the least measure of human kindness, it is time to question old assumptions, to ask what we are doing and what spirit drives us on. “Our inhumane treatment of livestock,” as Senator Robert C. Byrd warned in July 2001, in remarks without precedent in the Congress of the United States, “is becoming widespread and more and more barbaric. . . . Such insensitivity is insidious and can spread and be dangerous. Life must be respected and dealt with humanely in a civilized world.”

The attitude Senator Byrd describes has already spread into sport hunting, which is becoming colder and more systematic even as the ranks of hunters decline. In our day hunting has taken on an oddly agricultural aspect, with many wild animals born, bred, and held in captivity just to be shot, and even elephants confined within African game parks to be “harvested” by Western sportsmen in a manner more resembling execution. Wildlife across the world live in a state of perpetual retreat from human development, until for many species there is nowhere else to go, as we have seen for a generation in mankind’s long good-bye to the elephants, grizzlies, gorillas, tigers, wolves, pandas, and other creatures who simply do not have room to live and flourish anymore.

Even whales are still hunted, long after an international moratorium was declared and longer still after any credible claims of need have passed away. Employing weapons and methods ever more harsh and inescapable, the hunt goes on for many other animals one might have thought were also due a reprieve, as new substitutes are found for their fur and flesh. From Africa to the western United States to the storied rain forest of the Amazon, it is the fate of many wild creatures either to be unwanted by man or wanted too much, despised as a menace to progress or desired as a means to progress – beloved and brutalized all at once, like the elephant and whale and dolphin.

In our laboratories, meanwhile, we see the strange new beings of mankind’s own creation, genetically engineered, cloned, and now even patented like any other products ready for mass production. Even with all its possibilities for good, this new science of genetic engineering carries the darkest implications of all for the animals, conferring on us the power not only to use them as we will but to remake them as we will. It comes at an inconvenient moment, too, just as research of a very different kind has revealed beyond reasonable doubt the intelligence of many animals, their emotional sensitivity, their capacities for happiness and suffering alike.

The care of animals brings with it often complicated problems of economics, ecology, and science. But above all it confronts us with questions of conscience. Many of us seem to have lost all sense of restraint toward animals, an understanding of natural boundaries, a respect for them as beings with needs and wants and a place and purpose of their own. Too often, too casually, we assume that our interests always come first, and if it’s profitable or expedient that is all we need to know. We assume that all these other creatures with whom we share the earth are hear for us, and only for us. We assume, in effect, that we are everything and they are nothing.

Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they are overlooked, their interests so easily brushed aside. Whenever we humans enter their world, from our farms to the local animal shelter to the African savanna, we enter as lords of the earth bearing strange powers of terror and mercy alike.

Dominion, as we call this power in the Western tradition, today requires our concentrated moral consideration, and I have tried in the pages that follow to give it mine. I hope also to convey a sense of fellowship that I know many readers will share – a sense that all of these creatures in our midst are here with us, not just for us. Though reason must guide us in laying down standards and laws regarding animals, and in examining the arguments of those who reject such standards, it is usually best in any moral inquiry to start with the original motivation, which in the case of animals we may without embarrassment call love. Human beings love animals as only the higher love the lower, the knowing love the innocent, and the strong love the vulnerable. When we wince at the suffering of animals, that feeling speaks well of us even when we ignore it, and those who dismiss love for our fellow creatures as mere sentimentality overlook a good and important part of our humanity.

It is true, as we are often reminded, that kindness to animals is among the humbler duties of human charity – though for just that reason among the more easily neglected. And it is true that there will always be enough injustice and human suffering in the world to make the wrongs done to animals seem small and secondary. The answer is that justice is not a finite commodity, nor are kindness and love. Where we find wrongs done to animals, it is no excuse to say that more important wrongs are done to human beings, and let us concentrate on those. A wrong is a wrong, and often the little ones, when they are shrugged off as nothing, spread and do the gravest harm to ourselves and others. I believe this is happening in our treatment of animals. The burning pyres of Europe were either a sign to us, demanding an accounting for humanity’s treatment of animals, or else they were just a hint of things to come.

After the foot-and-mouth crisis, Matthew Parris, a former member of Parliament writing in the conservative Spectator, observed that “ a tide of moral sentiment is slowly turning. It turns first in the unconscious mind. We feel – not opposed to something, but vaguely uncomfortable about it.” I hope he is right. I hope that more of us might pass from moral discomfort to moral conviction. I hope that animal welfare will receive more of the public concern it warrants, leading over time to legal reforms not only in our treatment of the creatures now raised and slaughtered by the billions, but of all within the reach of human recklessness, greed, cowardice, and cruelty. If Mr. Parris is correct, and a spirit of kindness and clemency toward animals is stirring in the world, I hope with this book to encourage it.

Chapter One: The Things that Are

Whether of natural or supernatural origin, the moment that humanity acquired reason and language we were set apart forever from the natural world, and nothing was ever the same. How amazing that for all of our boundless power over the animals, so many of us still care about them, delighting in their companionship, admiring them from afar, and feeling their hurts whenever one of them is actually before us stricken and needful.

I am not, I confess, a particularly pious or devout person. But animals have always awakened something in me – their little joys and travails alike – that, try as I might, I find impossible to express except in the language of devotion. Maybe it is the Lord’s way of getting through to the particularly slow and obstinate, but if you care about animals you must figure out why you care. From a certain angle it defies all logic, often involving, as in the case of pets or the strays who find our doors, all sorts of inconveniences and extra worries one could do without. And the only good reason I know to care for them is that they are my fellow creatures, sharing with you and me the breath of life, each in their own way bearing His unmistakable mark.

I know that they do not have reason comparable to ours. I know that their lives and place and purpose in the world are different from ours. I know that theirs is an often violent world, “nature red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson described it. But I also know that whatever their place and purpose among us might be, it is a mysterious one beyond any man’s power to know. Whatever measure of happiness their Creator intended for them, it is not something to be taken lightly by us, not to be withdrawn from them wantonly or capriciously.


That kinship is to me reason enough to go about my own way in the world showing each one as much courtesy as I can, refraining from things that bring animals needless harm. They all seem to have enough dangers coming at them as it is. Whenever human beings with our loftier gifts and grander calling in the world can stop to think on their well-being, if only by withdrawing to let them be, it need not be a recognition of “rights.” It is just a gracious thing, an act of clemency only more to our credit because the animals themselves cannot ask for it, or rebuke us when we transgress against them, or even repay our kindness. We are going to need a little mercy ourselves one day. The way I figure it, I cannot expect mercy if I am unwilling to give it.

Bibliographic information:
Scully, Matthew. “Introduction.” Dominion: the Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin’s, 2002. ii-4.

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