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May 20, 2010

The Faces Behind the Numbers

Books showcase the side of farm animals the public rarely sees

All Animals magazine, May/June 2010

  • View a PDF of this story here. Bob Esposito

  • Libby and Louie met at Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary and adored each other. Joanna Lucas

  • Justice has made it his mission to ease the fears of all scared newcomers at Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary. Windi Wojdak

A New York City bus may seem like an odd place to start thinking about farm animals, but that’s where Amy Hatkoff was when she spied a sign depicting their suffering. It prompted an “aha moment,” she says, steering her to write about animal welfare for the first time. 

Across the country in California, a similar idea hatched as Diane Leigh watched her friend Marilee Geyer’s chickens frolic in a yard, strutting and scratching and clucking and cooing. Leigh commented that people would be amazed to see the animals in such a happy state.

From those epiphanies have emerged two books that show the beauty of farm animals, highlighting their intellectual and emotional complexities and subtly making a case against the inhumane practices of factory farms.

Hatkoff’s The Inner World of Farm Animals: Their Amazing Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Capacities, published last year, shares a similar format with Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farmed Animals in Stories and Photographs, edited by Geyer, Leigh, and Windi Wojdak and slated for publication this May. Both feature striking photos of pigs, sheep, cows, chickens, roosters, and other animals in natural settings, accompanied by stories of their rescues.

The authors chose to forgo graphic depictions of the horrors of factory farming in favor of focusing on how lovable and unique the animals are when they’re allowed to be themselves. This format has the effect of implicitly questioning the agribusiness system that denies the creatures’ individuality.

Hatkoff—who is also a lecturer and documentary filmmaker specializing in child welfare issues—says she was startled during her research by the growing body of scientific evidence indicating that farm animals have “complex thoughts, deep emotions, and social skills and rituals not unlike our own.” Leigh and Geyer, the authors of two previous books published by their nonprofit, No Voice Unheard, hope Ninety-Five helps personalize the staggering number of animals killed for food each year in factory farms.

“It’s hard to picture 10 billion animals a year being farmed in this country,” says Leigh. “And I think there’s a very special power in putting individual names and faces to those numbers. The animals in Ninety-Five are ambassadors for those 10 billion every year.”

In these excerpted interviews, Hatkoff, Geyer, and Leigh discuss their books with The HSUS’s James Hettinger. 

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your books?

AMY HATKOFF: My hope and dream is to make people think and to really touch people—to let the animals do the talking and to let people see the animals face to face. What I hoped to accomplish was to both move people [and] really to shift awareness. I found the research phenomenal—that chickens could count and use geometric principles, and pigs could play video games on the computer. And I thought that those facts spoke very loudly and would work along with the images and the moving quotes from people who have been advocating for animals throughout history.

DIANE LEIGH: We have a passion for issues about farmed animals, for all the reasons that you would expect: because the suffering is so immense and there are so many billions of animals that go through the farming system in this country. When we looked around, we realized there are a lot of wonderful, very recent books released that are very full, factual treatises on farming and animal agriculture in this country, and we wanted to do something really different that really focused on the animals themselves—that basically gave people a fun-to-look-at, inviting way of actually meeting these animals, and [showed] them for the intellectually complex and interesting and charming creatures that they are. The vast majority of people in this country—the vast majority—never get to meet farmed animals, and never get to realize these things about them.

Q: People tend to think of their pets as being clever and having emotions, but they don’t think of farm animals that way. Why do you think that is?

HATKOFF: Largely I think it’s probably conditioning, because there have been times throughout history where pigs have been pets, and they’ve been valued. I did a little research into the history of how our ideas about animals have been shaped. There was this thought that they couldn’t think, that they had no feeling, and different philosophers have argued [that] at different times. And I think religious views have shaped it, but I think it’s really cultural. In India, the cow is sacred, but here farm animals are to be farmed. And I don’t think that we generally go out of the box. That was the hope of the book—to interrupt that thinking, to interrupt what’s been handed down to us, and to make us think, because it’s so easy not to think about them.

MARILEE GEYER: I think it’s a deliberate tactic on the part of the agriculture industry. If you portray these animals as being dumb and unfeeling—the myth that turkeys will look up into the sky when it’s raining and drown is absurd—but if you perpetuate these myths, you can convince people that their feelings don’t matter [or that] they don’t have feelings. And it makes it that much easier to do what the agriculture industry does to them. But when I tell people that my hens, who were rescued from an egg farm, jump up on my lap when I’m sitting outdoors in a chair and look me in the eye—seemingly saying, “Hey, what’s going on?”—people are quite frankly shocked to hear that because they would never consider such a thing, because of what our culture teaches us about these animals.

Q: I would guess that, as you talk about animals falling in love and so on, you run the risk of people thinking that you’re anthropomorphizing?

GEYER: Oh, sure. It’s funny. You observe these animals, and to me there’s no question about some of their behavior. You can certainly tell when a pig or a cow is happy and content, and when they’re fearful, and when they’re scared, and when they’re in pain. Isn’t that the important point? I can tell by looking at my dog when he’s happy or anxious, and it’s not a leap to extend that to other animals.

Q: Do you think we’re at a point where the public is starting to become more attuned to these issues?

HATKOFF: I feel there’s a tipping point in awareness. It’s like going green now. It’s becoming very hip and cool to be very careful about what we’re eating. So I think the field has blown wide open.

GEYER: The response to Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals—I think that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago or even five years ago.

LEIGH: I’ve been an animal advocate all my lifetime, and I never really expected to see the kind of progress that we’ve seen in my lifetime. People, more than ever, want to know where their food comes from, and they’re showing a mainstream concern [about] the animals that end up on their plate, about how they’re treated. What we want to do is show them who those animals are.

Read the full story, including profiles of some of the animals»

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