Book Review: The Lucky Ones
by Jenny Brown and Gretchen Primack
Avery Publishing Group, 2012
Jenny Brown was born again into animal activism when she made the mental leap from contemplating the personhood of her beloved childhood pet cat (who helped her through a harrowing childhood encounter with bone cancer) to contemplating the personhood of the countless farm animals whose lives were sacrificed in order to provide her and everybody else with cheap meat. Step by step, the enormity and depraved cruelty of the world’s ‘processing’ of commodity-animals became real to her, and she moved from a career in film production to clandestine assignments filming the animal industry undercover. The things she saw in that world appalled her, and she writes about them with a blunt and winning passion in her astounding book The Lucky Ones.
While on one of her undercover assignments, she sees a newborn calf (they’re often taken from their mothers on the same day they’re born, then pumped full of drugs to counter the physiological stress of the separation) stumbling around on a leg that’s been dislocated as the animal was hauled from pen to truck:
I wanted to climb the fence, gather him into my arms, lay him gently in the backseat of my rental, and drive him to safety. I wanted to deliver him to the most competent veterinarian in the country … I wanted to visit him yearly at Farm Sanctuary, watching him thrive and grown confident and huge. But I couldn’t. All I could do was stand there and listen to the workers behind me, joking and laughing as they pulled more calves off the truck. I kept the camera trained on the calf while I repeated under my breath, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry …”
The ground was opening underneath me.
“Farm Sanctuary” is the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, “a happy-ending place where animals are given a second chance.” Located in the Catskill Mountains of New York, it’s now home to scores of animals who’ve been saved from the animal-meat industry, cured of the often scarring damages done by that industry, and given “food, shelter, medicine, and love.” Brown is co-founder and director of the Farm Sanctuary, and her book is full of anecdotes about the many creatures who’ve made almost miraculous recoveries there – goats and pigs and cows and turkeys and chickens who will never experience the squalid, horrific tortures inflicted on millions of their kind every year (over 300 million hens crammed into ghoulish factory farms every year, 85 million hogs slaughtered every year without “ever once in their time on earth feeling sod or sunshine,” as former George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully put it).
As each of these rescued animals recovers from the shocks of their early lives – as each one realizes that a place of unconditional safety has been reached against all odds, a familiar and disturbing process takes place: they stop behaving as creatures of raw, terrified instinct and start growing into their own people, full of quirks and opinions and humors and wisdoms. As has been noted by far more weighty tomes than Brown’s, this process – and the awareness that it will happen if given half a chance – is both the heart of all ‘animal rights’ thinking but is also one of the hardest things for the great majority of humans on Earth to credit. Brown is certainly right when she writes that most people in the modern Western world today have never spent any time around a pig or had a chance to know a goat. This makes it an easy thing for those people to dis-associate the meat they eat with anything that had to live, suffer, and die to provide it for them.
Instead, as evidenced by the still-thriving market for ‘novelty pets’ like newborn chicks painted in festive Easter colors and given to children as living toys, quite a different mind-frame is established:
As these realities dawn, people often dump these confused, ill-prepared, and frightened creatures in a parking lot, city playground, or, if they’re “responsible,” a shelter. Not only is this a trauma for the animal and a headache for the municipality, it doesn’t serve a child well to see that kind of behavior as a model. Parents are teaching their kids that when they make a bad decision, they can dump it off on someone else and forget about it. Bringing home these Easter “pets” also sends the message that animals are here for our enjoyment and whim, that they are mere trinkets or toys, not feeling individuals. This drives me nuts.
That “This drives me nuts” is exactly the kind of frank and unpretentious tone Brown adopts throughout The Lucky Ones, and that tone – sometimes forcedly colloquial, sometimes laced with cliches, can occasionally work against the book’s fervor, as when we’re told, “If you learn nothing else from this book, learn this: PIGS HATE TO BE TETHERED” – when it’s extremely likely Brown would prefer you learn more important things from her book.
The foremost of which would certainly be a change of mind, as Brown outlines when talking about making the switch to a vegan lifestyle (the book’s back pages have several vegan recipes provided by co-author Primack):
It feels empowering to fight the good fight just by making compassionate choices at the table. When most people are honest with themselves, I believe they feel the same. I think once they understand what’s going on, most people would rather please their palates with kind foods, form more humane habits, and choose compassion over killing.
This is the sound of a true believer, and it’s charming, moving, even tragic, precisely in proportion to how wrong it is. Those of her readers ready to be converted will read such passages with nods of agreement. But the huge majority of meat-gulping Americans (to say nothing of the rest of the world) wouldn’t read The Lucky Ones if it as the only thing in a doctor’s waiting room – that majority believes all other animals (especially what we call “farm animals”) are here on Earth explicitly in the capacity Brown denies: as fodder and playthings for mankind. Take the average American on a tour of a slaughterhouse and he’ll become a vegan – for a month, two tops. The disconnect Brown fumes over – people willing to spent thousands of dollars on care for their pets who spare not a single thought to the savage suffering and death of millions of animals every bit as smart and friendly as those pets – runs deeper than she seems to suspect: it resists being informed, and – with very rare exceptions – it cannot be converted. It can only be out-waited and then generationally replaced by a younger and, one hopes, more enlightened age.
That age will have a shelf of stirring, uncompromising books to show them the way. Jenny Brown and Gretchen Primack have written one such book, and we can only hope it moves things along. A world in which there are 300 Farm Animal Sanctuaries would be a wonderful place. A world in which there’s no need for any such sanctuaries would be even better.