Thursday, May 02, 2013

Rory Freedman's "Beg"

Caveat Lector

A little over a month ago, I received a press release about Rory Freedman's soon-to-be-published book Beg. A review copy was offered up and as much as the book's description intrigued me, I spent several days mulling over whether or not I wanted to commit myself to writing up an assessment of it. I feared that I would be doing so with a bias unrelated to the book itself. Around 7-8 years ago, its author Rory Freedman had co-authored a book called Skinny Bitch whose goal, it seemed, had been to hone in on women's body image issues and obsession with thinness to win them over to adopting a plant-based diet. I won a second-hand copy of it given away on a fellow vegan's blog and gave it a read. Twelve pages in, she was dropping expressions like "fat pig" to describe overweight women, assuring them that nobody wants to socialize with a "fat pig". As a vegan who fights against speciesism, as a woman who's spent her life dealing with the self-consciousness that comes from constantly dealing with societal expectations of what physical beauty is or isn't -- as a woman who's watched loves ones, friends and family both, struggle with eating disorders, Skinny Bitch disgusted me thoroughly. So it was while grappling with this that I allowed my curiosity to overcome me and I replied to the publisher to agree to accept a free copy to review for My Face Is on Fire.

Beg -- Animals We Call "Pets"

The book begins by identifying itself as a "love letter" to all animals and a "battle cry" for them. Freedman makes it clear from the start that her intention is to get her readers doing some serious thinking. In the same sort of snappy writing style used for Skinny Bitch (albeit minus the harsh and hostile words used therein to shame women about their bodies), Freedman grabs your attention immediately with personal anecdotes about her own experience in life as a  caregiver for felines and canines, including the experience as a self-described "foster failure" that opened her eyes to the plight of the 3-4 million cats and dogs killed in US shelters each and every year. (She uses the term "euthanized" for it, with which I take issue. Killing perfectly healthy -- but merely unwanted -- animals is not euthanasia.) But she sets down the brutal facts and identifies the unfortunate misinformation surrounding shelters, the "pet" industry, puppy farms and so on and does so incredibly effectively.

What resonated with me because of my own recent adoption experience, was when Freedman pointed out that two of the main reasons people don't adopt from shelters are based in fear. On one hand, people are afraid that they won't get the certain look and temperament that they associate with a  certain breed of dog they desire. Along those same lines, I'll throw in that people assume the same when it comes to choosing the adults cats and dogs left to languish in shelters versus the incredibly young kittens and puppies they can obtain from a breeder to "train" from scratch. (Freedman also addresses later in the book how pet shops cater to impulse buyers who melt at the site of big sad eyes and clumsy kitten or puppy hijinks. Freedman dismisses the breed-need fears by pointing out that 25% of dogs entering shelters are, in fact, purebreds. She also later brings up the multitude of health issues that arise from the years of deliberate breeding -- in-breeding, often -- for specific traits.

What really resonated, though, was the second fear-based reason Freedman gives concerning people's aversion to visiting shelters. We don't want to see those animals languishing. We don't want to feel awful. Years ago when I worked as a tech writer, I used to organize Xmas drives for one of the local shelters, raising money through various sales and collecting donations of toys, collars, blankets and so on. I always had the hardest time talking a coworker into coming with me to drop off the stuff. I'd invariably be told that it made them "too sad" to go to the shelter without springing someone loose. Freedman points out that for those who are looking to adopt, though, it's precisely that opportunity to spring someone free from his or her cage that ends up being so joy-filled for human and animal refugees, both.

Freedman does a good job covering the issues of puppy mills and other breeders. Those places are just awful, period. Filth, sickness, in-breeding and loneliness prevail in puppy mills. As for "reputable" breeders? They treat dogs and cats -- puppies and kittens -- as commodities. They're no more than money-making things to breeders. Then there are breed specific practices -- heinous procedures banned in so many places in the world -- involving mutilation, such as tail docking, ear cropping and debarking. All of these practices go hand-in-hand with dog shows, as well. While people get swept up in their love affair with the image of a "perfect" dog or cat, millions of dogs or cats -- individuals -- are killed for the sole reason that someone stopped wanting them. Freedman point out, though, that as indignant as we may get over puppy mills, the truth is that most of the dogs and cats we bring into our homes actually come from friends, family, coworkers and others who've not spayed and neutered the animals in their own care. We wag our fingers at breeders who profit from sales, then turn around and contribute to the problem ourselves as a society.

Covering All Possible Bases

Almost a third of the book is devoted to exposing all of the issues inherent in exploiting cats and dogs in the "pet" industry and Freedman does it with the passion of someone who's lived with and loved both cats and dogs. Freedman then announces in letter format to her readers that the rest of the book will go further and expand to cover the plight of animals in the rest of the "real" world, and expand she does indeed. Freedman goes on to present facts about animal experimentation -- everything from tobacco industry testing to vivisection, spelling out how ineffective animal testing actually is and holding out for hope that recently increasing shifts towards non-animal models are boding well for those who are currently exploited in the name of science.

She discusses animals used in the entertainment industry, covering everything from how they're often sourced, the heinousness of the "training" process for most and of their casualties on the set and behind the scenes -- all of the sake of frivolous human entertainment. She moves on to discuss the problems inherent in circuses and in zoos and rodeos. with horse-drawn carriages and in bullfighting and then in racing -- whether horses, greyhounds or dog sleds are used. She punctuates this about halfway through the book to ask that her readers consider that animals exist for their own reasons and have an interest in living their own lives -- that this interest lies outside of their existing for the sake of human pleasure.

She covers hunting and the deer overpopulation myth and how human's interference with natural predators is often to blame. She highlights how "conservation" groups are often pro-hunting and how the so-called conservation efforts inevitably involved keeping other animals around to raise revenue in parks through hunting licenses and how government at both the state and federal levels works hard to indoctrinate children into hunting at a young age. She discusses the barbarism inherent in sport fishing and the sentience of these animals we don't factor in as "cute" enough to avoid killing for pleasure. Fur, leather, down and wool? She covers it all. She raises the point that so many humans get indignant over the Japanese whale hunts and dolphin slaughtering (thanks to SICs) when maybe 30, 000 whales and dolphins are killed annually through these methods when ten time as many die as "bycatch" of the food fishing industry.

Our indignation is selective -- so very selective. Pigs, cows, chickens are all subjected to atrocities both behind the scenes and publicized. Freedman does focus a bit on factory farming practices, unfortunately, but then goes on to state that animals on organic farms fare no better since they all end up in the same slaughterhouses. She explains how descriptors like "free range" or "cage free" are meaningless to those chickens enslaved on these so-called happy farms. She wraps things up with a brief section on the health issues linked to the consumption of animal products, making reference to T. Colin Campbell's best-seller The China Study.

And So?

Much of Freedman's book dredges up facts familiar to most serious animal advocates who are ethical vegans. Thanks to mainstream media coverage and the internet, those facts are often made plainly available to anyone and everyone else. Too often, though, they're presented in chunks as part of problematic easy-sell single-issue campaigns. Freedman gathers them all together and I'll admit that there was some information in the book with which I wasn't familiar -- and there were at least 4-5 sections in the book that left me, sitting outside in the warm spring sun of my local coffee shop -- actually tearing up and feeling heavy-hearted. It's almost at the end of the book that Freedman "outs" herself as a vegan and calls upon her readers to join the "vegan tribe". It's at this point, though, that I wish the book had proceeded with a clear and unequivocal message about veganism. I'm sad to say that it doesn't.

Freedman goes on to say that "going vegetarian, and then vegan" were two of the best decisions she'd ever made. From that point on, she encourages her readers to try going "vegetarian or vegan" for a short period. She refers her readers to PETA's online vegetarian starter kit and starts using the words "veg" and "vegan" almost interchangeably, as if both options are equally valid. She raises the stereotype of oh-so-nasty vegans and insists that most vegans are just like most non-vegans except that "we've made the decision to align our actions with our beliefs" which is something with which I certainly agree, but the Freedman chooses to offer up engaging in SICs as rightful solutions to animal exploitation, including everything from encouraging her readers to write to various embassies of countries in which bullfighting is practiced, to encouraging them to confront people wearing fur when they encounter them.

She lists off resources that include books by people like the anti-abolitionist promoter of "happy meat" farms, Jonathan Safran Foer. She lists off the most welfarist of non-profits -- HSUS, PETA, Sea Shepherd and so on and asks her readers to visit their sites to sign petitions, subscribe to action alerts for SICs, et al. Then she writes what left me shaking my head at what I felt was an summation that was a missed opportunity for a clear vegan message, saying that if her book changes anyone's life that all her readers would need to do to thank her would be to donate to one of these welfarist non-profits. She writes: "It's all the thanks I want or need."

She ties it all together at the end calling on her readers to go "vegan" but after the preceding pages with their confusing mixed-messages, I was left disappointed. Freedman's book could have been a great opportunity to put forth how all animal use is wrong and how the only effective and earnest response in light of this is to reject all exploitation. She touches upon that, but her promotion of groups that dodge doing so themselves, her own back-tracking here and there in promoting vegetarianism as ethically significant and her encouraging her readers to waste their time participating in welfarist campaigns or doing nothing other than forking over money to groups that initiate these campaigns? It took what could have actually been a great book and made it a book that appears to bow down to the power of large profitable animal advocacy groups. Most of these groups  help maintain the status quo (and profit from their doing so!) rather than striking at the roots and fighting against speciesism in ways to trigger serious and permanent changes in how we regard these other animals around us.

This book could have been great. Instead, it's a reminder of the work those of us who take other animals seriously need to keep doing to ensure that there is a loud and clear message being disseminated to the public.

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