Book Review: The Modern Savage, by James McWilliams

Book Review of The Modern Savage
Fluffball and Arrow are our beloved pets. We would never eat them.

Their brothers, however… We always knew that their brothers, the roosters Cluck and Peck, were going to be eaten, if for no other reason than at the time, we lived in the city limits, where roosters were not allowed. When Cluck and Peck grew up (meaning that I was woken one morning by crowing, and realized in horror that our Grumpy Neighbor, who was already freaking out about the very existence of chickens in his chicken-phobic worldview, and was already making a giant fuss to the city, would now SERIOUSLY freak out and SERIOUSLY make a fuss that the city would actually have to listen to this time), we gave Cluck and Peck back to the small farming family who originally gave us all four of our chicks, and they hung out with that farming family’s flock for a few more months, and were harvested and eaten in the fall.

This, says James McWilliams, is the deep and disturbing problem inherent even in small, non-industrialized, backyard farms: living creatures are still killed, and that is cruel.

Whereas most of those who despise the factory farming of animals would be satisfied by eating meat that comes from small, non-industrial, family-operated farms, McWilliams, in The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals (a book that I received for free from a publicist in order that I might read and comment on it), claims that even the acceptance of non-industrialized farming alternatives is ethically unacceptable. Even raising your own animals and slaughtering them yourself for your own consumption is not okay.

McWilliams intends for his book to challenge the production of animals. Full stop.

For McWilliams, our guiding dictum should be to treat animals as living beings, not as “inanimate objects” (The Modern Savage p. 5-6). This requires a degree of anthropomorphism that, although it is decried by many, is what McWilliams claims is the only way to assess what an animal is undergoing emotionally, and how it feels about its current situation. McWilliams asserts that we should recognize the evolutionary bond that we share with other animals; if we, for instance, would feel distress at having an infant that we had birthed permanently removed from our care, then so must we assume the distress of a mother cow whose newly-born calf is permanently taken away from her so that we may have her milk. If we would assert our right to not be slaughtered, by any method or in any manner, at the end of our adolescence, then so must we assume that a pig has the right to not be slaughtered, by any method or in any manner, by a factory farm or an individual farmer. McWilliams states that the mother cow feels this distress, and the pig has this right, whether they are part of a factory farm or a small, non-industrialized farm, and therefore our response to that distress should be the same: we should not support it.

McWilliams’ real new ground here is his vocal disapproval of these non-industrialized farms, however small. After all, we all disapprove of factory farms, but small farms? Independent farms? Farms that send out a weekly newsletter talking about what all the animals did that week? Farms whose farmer hangs out at the farmer’s market and chats about her cows? McWilliams decries even these as the cause of animals suffering due to their existence in “seminatural condition,” and asserts that those who care about animal welfare should not support even these farms; the animals who live there are still slaughtered and harvested, either just the way they are in factory farms, or in ways that McWilliams claims are no more humane.

McWilliams supports this last claim anecdotally, extensively quoting some first-person narratives by bloggers who are probably horrified now to see their prose used this way, but who should have been more careful when publishing their misadventures in homesteading on the internet in the first place. McWilliams also uses extensive quotes and summary from the Backyard Chickens forum to support his stance against any form of farm animal stewardship, however small. Accidents, illness, careless mistakes made by humans, animal predation, choices made for the animal’s habitat without regard to its breeding or evolutionary ancestry (there are no jungles here in Indiana)–all are used as evidence that even the mainstreamed hobby of backyard chicken keeping is, to McWilliams, inhumane.

The question raised in The Modern Savage about where to draw the line in farm animal stewardship is a valid one for every person to consider, even if they do not, themselves, draw the line where McWilliams does, at zero. For me, personally, the decisions underlining my backyard chicken keeping are some of the most thoughtful decisions that I’ve made, ranging from how many chickens I can keep happy and happily (a maximum of six, for our family of four), to where their best habitat lies (free-ranging on our property), to how we obtain them (unsexed), to whether or not we slaughter (not), to what we plan to do with future roosters (give them to a local wildlife rescue organization, where they’re euthanized and then fed to raptors).

To be that thoughtful about everything that we put in our mouths, on our bodies, in our environments–that would be ideal. Exhausting, but ideal.

[I received a free copy of The Modern Savage, because I can’t review a book unless it’s made me rethink everything that I’ve ever posted on the BackyardChickens forum.]

Written by Julie Finn

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