Watching the American Kennel Club/Eukanuba National Championship on TV two nights ago, my husband and I marveled at the beautiful dogs striding and sleeking around the stadium. "Look how happy that guy looks," my husband said of the Siberian husky. "He looks like he's laughing."
The standard poodle looked snooty. The Irish setter looked proud. But were they, really? Were what looked like smiles and smirks just functions of each species' particular anatomy -- or were we actually discerning the dogs' emotions in their eyes?
Not long ago, I interviewed Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson about animal emotions. He used to own dogs. But not anymore. And never again, he said.
In the late ‘90s, this noted ex-psychoanalyst, Sanskrit professor and author of nearly two dozen books adopted three mixed-breeds. He ran with them, took them on vacations, and wrote about them in his book Dogs Never Lie About Love. But in the years since, Masson -- whose 1981 dismissal from the directorship of the Freud Archives sparked volcanic intellectual debate -- has come to view dog ownership as a form of animal cruelty.
"I still love dogs," Masson told me. "I think they're amazing."
But we aren't fit to be their companions, because "I don't believe we can give them the ideal life. Living with us, they're not living the life they were meant to live, which among other things would mean our spending the whole day with them." Dogs are too social, too loyal, too energetic, too eager for physical attention and bonding to be confined in solitude for as long as we typically leave them while pursuing our own human priorities. Masson looks just as harshly at keeping cats indoors -- or, as he put it, "confined."
"To argue that a cat in an apartment is leading a happy life is to restrict our sense of the word ‘happy.'"
Allowing that cats and dogs have emotions is one thing. Masson's 2003 book The Pig Who Sang to the Moon goes one step farther, examining farm animals' feelings --- and exposing possibilities that a mostly carnivorous public would rather not see.
While researching that book, Masson stopped eating eggs. Eventually, he became a vegan. This led to his 2009 book The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food. He told me that upon hearing that Masson wanted to write a mainstream book on meatless diets, his publisher initially wanted him to interview celebrity vegans: "And I would have been perfectly happy to talk to Paul McCartney." But psychology and philosophy ultimately, as always, proved a much stronger lure.
"One of the things I took away from psychoanalysis is how much humans use denial to ward off stuff that we don't want to deal with," he declared. "And when people don't want to deal with what they're eating, they're in massive denial. ... My main concern is the deeper issue of how we fool ourselves into believing that animals want to die or want to be cooked or eaten. It's an old cliché of the mind that animals are happy to give their lives to us, that we've made a pact with domestic animals, that in exchange for giving them a good life and a quick death they will give themselves to us."
He scorns the idea of so-called "happy cows" and the notion that free-range hens and creatures destined to become grass-fed meat lead "better lives."
"If you take the concept of happiness seriously -- oh, humans are very concerned with human happiness, aren't we? -- and if we apply that even a little bit to farm animals, there's no way they've had a good life. It's never really free-range. It's not living the life they evolved to live. It's absurd to call them happy. You can't get away with saying, ‘This chicken has led a contented life and I feel okay taking that life.' The people saying this are not saying it in good faith. Or they don't care. Or they're ignorant. But it's a popular thing to say and it salves their consciensces.
"My publisher told me not to make anyone feel bad about what they eat." He scoffed. "But how do you not?"
Jack Norris agrees. The registered dietician heads Vegan Outreach, a national nonprofit that raises awareness about farm animals.
"Many breeding sows, especially, on factory farms, exhibit what is [diagnostically] called 'stereotyped behavior,' in which they do repetitive actions in order to deal with their extreme boredom and inability to move." Among sows, these actions include "banging their heads against the bars, swaying their heads back and forth for long periods of time, and gnawing on the bars of their cages. These animals are treated in ways that would be illegal were they done to a dog or cat, yet because the sows are being raised for food, farmers are allowed to do just about anything as long as it is considered a standard agricultural practice."
Vegan Outreach spreads its message by distributing free booklets; VO volunteers handed out over 7,000 in a single day last week on the University of Central Florida campus. Over two million copies of Why Vegan, Even If You Like Meat, and Compassionate Choices are distributed every year on campuses, at concerts and festivals and on the street. Other fundraising efforts include events such as a "vegan prom" and a vegan Valentine's Day dance set for this Friday night in Berkeley, California. In keeping with his principles, he hired the area's only vegan events planner to organize the dance.
The topic of animals' emotions -- and the AKC/Eukanuba dog show -- fill me with guilt. When I was thirteen, after a lifetime of pleading, I was given a small white short-haired mixed-breed puppy by my parents, neither of whom had never owned a dog before. I named him George. In the matter of George, as in all other matters, my parents were never to be challenged. We lived in a tract house with a large semi-fenced backyard. My dad, a skilled woodworker, built George a doghouse. Then he linked one end of an eight-foot steel chain to George's collar and the other to a tall steel pole. George spent the rest of his life affixed to that chain. For his daily walks, it was unclipped from the pole and became a heavy, clanking leash. George was not permitted inside our home. In other words, once we acquired him, George never ran free.
When I described this situation to my friend Steven, a dog lover and avid meditator, he was outraged at the thought of George's sufferings. I told him about how George always strained against his chain, often leaping into the air as if this would break its links or slip its clasp from the pole -- or as if he could simply fly away. Yet he always crashed down to the ground again amidst a steely clangor, his paws rejoining that colorless earth at the edge of the chain's span, worn smooth by years of his desperate clawing.
The quivering, whinnying joy with which George always greeted me -- even upon seeing me through the dining-room window: I, who never freed him -- haunts me still.