When Karen Dawn told me she was writing a book, I knew it wouldn’t exactly be a predictable primer on animal advocacy. I knew she’d have some surprises in store for us, and also knew that she’d make a valuable contribution to the literature on animal protection and provide us with a practical guide of getting people involved. Karen is known for her irreverent sense of humor, and “Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals” doesn’t disappoint.
Rather than simply trying to shock or shame readers into making animal-friendly changes in their lives, Karen offers a more light-hearted view, mixing serious subjects with jokes, cartoons, and pop culture icons. (For example, when discussing the possibility of insect sentience, Karen quips, “I’ve heard that if a woman in New York wants to get the cockroaches out of her apartment, all she has to do is ask them for a commitment.”)
But this isn’t a flip treatment of the issues. Karen paints a vivid picture of the cruelty we routinely inflict upon animals, and she unhesitatingly wades into discussion about contested issues in the humane movement.
Addressing the abolition-reform schism that is a fault line within most social movements, Karen argues that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good in our campaigns, and that we should welcome incremental gains for animals. She refutes the view that we should accept nothing less than perfection by citing the human rights movement. Karen asks, “Can you imagine Amnesty International campaigning against laws that forbid the torture of political prisoners because the prisoners shouldn’t be in jail at all, and because their case will be stronger if the torture continues?”
I’m also impressed by Karen’s cogent arguments in favor of the animal movement becoming more politically engaged—a conviction I’ve held for two decades now and done my best to put into practice here at The HSUS. Indeed, winning the argument does not necessarily translate into the protection of animals. We must prevail in the political domain, and translate our ideals into public policy if we are to have a real-world effect for animals. Karen is correct to note that the movement has become increasingly effective in the public policy arena and that this has been the pathway for many of the most significant advances for animals. And, it’s obvious, there’s much more to be done in this arena.
Perhaps her most powerful commentary is on the subject of factory farming, and her passion and outrage stand out. Karen examines each sector of the animal agribusiness industry, giving a brief glimpse into the institutionalized abuses that have become routine practices. In these industries, we’ve come to treat sentient animals as little more than meat-, milk-, and egg-producing machines.
She offers a very pragmatic view of how each of us can help reduce farm animal suffering, whether by taking animals off our plates altogether, reducing our animal consumption, or avoiding the products that cause the most cruelty, such as battery cage eggs. At a time when we have learned about many innovations in animal cruelty—such as animal cloning and Internet hunting—she offers a hopeful embrace of in vitro meat production, which, she says, offers the promise of feeding people yet moving us past the factory farming of animals.
Karen has served the movement through the years with her outstanding and timely DawnWatch, which offers analytical accounts of press coverage on animal protection. Now, she’s given us yet another valuable contribution in the form of "Thanking the Monkey," and I recommend it especially for those inquiring about the emerging debate in society about our treatment of animals.
A footnote: You can meet Karen at this year’s Taking Action for Animals conference in the D.C. area, where she’ll lead a session about taking animal issues to the mainstream media. If you are free the weekend of July 19-21 I hope you’ll join us—registration just opened and you can also see the complete schedule.