BY JIM MASON
The November/December 2019 issue of The Animals Voice Magazine featured the cover story, “Three Wise Men,” profiling three animals activists making tremendous contributions toward the improvement of animals’ lives. The interviews were conducted by Animals Voice Associate Editor Susan Barzallo. This is the first of the three.
Jim Mason is an author and attorney who focuses on human/animal concerns. He is the author of several books, including The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter and An Unnatural Order: The Roots of Our Destruction of Nature. Mason is best known for his 1980 book, Animal Factories, written with philosopher Peter Singer. The book examined America’s brave new world of factory farming in which crowded, drugged animals mass-produce cheap meat, milk, and eggs. In the process, Mason and Singer say, animal factories also mass-produce environmental pollution and threats to human health while they destroy independent, diversified farming.
Mason’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, New Scientist, Newsday, Country Journal, Orion Nature Quarterly, and other publications. His 1993 story in Audubon about the growing trade in exotic pets was nominated for the National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.
In addition to writing, Jim Mason speaks about animals, nature, and the environment at conferences, churches, and universities. He has appeared on NBC’s Today, CBS This Morning, NPR’s All Things Considered, CNN, Midday Live, and other radio and television programs in major cities. His books have been reviewed in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, In These Times, The Chicago Sun Times, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Tell us about your experiences writing Animal Factories and how what you learned about animal agriculture changed the course of your life and work.
In the early 1970s, I was working part time researching and writing a pamphlet on factory farming for Friends of Animals in New York. At the time Peter Singer was there finishing his book, Animal Liberation. FoA Founder and President, Alice Herrington, suggested that we meet him. We did and Peter and I kept in touch. Some time later, Peter suggested that he and I write a book all about factory farming. Peter suggested that we include lots of photographs of the various factory farm systems—battery cages, gestation and farrowing crates, veal stalls, etc., because images would show what could be neither described nor believed.
I traveled over 10,000 miles in a van with a photographer—my friend, Joe Keller, to visit factory farms in the South and Midwest. In those days farmers were proud of their systems and they were not yet controversial, so we talked our way inside using industry jargon about “mechanized husbandry” and “intensive management” and so forth. That work became the book Animal Factories, published in 1980 by Crown Publishers. We got an op-ed piece in The New York Times, and the book was favorably reviewed in The Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Christian Science Monitor, and other major papers. I appeared on NBC’s Today and showed color slide images of animals in factory farm systems for the first time on national television. The book was updated, revised, and published by Crown again in 1990.
During those years of research and writing about animals in factory farms, I often reflected on the cows and pigs and chickens I knew from my childhood years on our family farm in Missouri. I became curious about the history of farmed animal breeds and how centuries of animal husbandry shaped animals for maximum human benefit. I read everything I could find on animal domestication.
Why did you found Animals Agenda magazine and what did it do for the animal rights movement?
In the course of writing Animal Factories, I was corresponding by letter with Kim Stallwood in the United Kingdom where he was working with the rapidly growing activism of the Hunt Saboteurs and the Animal Liberation Front. We believed that the writings of Peter Singer and Tom Regan and others were spurring a sense of urgency for animals that was not being addressed by the major old guard animal welfare groups—especially on farmed animal issues. None of the major organizations even knew about factory farming; none had programs and campaigns for farmed animals. The 99+ percent of animals most exploited were not yet on their radar screens.
At the time, I was involved in a resurgence of activism in the U.S. for animals in laboratories and the fur industry. Stallwood and I believed that an animal liberation movement was being born and that these developments should be reported widely to the activists whom we knew. With my fellow activist, Doug Moss, we began publishing the Animals Agenda as a monthly magazine / newsletter. Thanks to the activism of Henry Spira in New York, PETA in Washington, D.C., and other communities, animal rights campaigns were making news in mainstream media. Within a few years, The Animals Agenda was being mailed out to some 30,000 readers in the U.S. and a few other nations. I believe the magazine gave a voice to the AR Movement and helped local activist groups feel part of an international movement.
How and when did you meet Animals Voice Founder and President, Laura Moretti, and what were you able to accomplish together for the animal rights movement?
I think—and check with her—that Laura saw the early issues of Animals Agenda and contacted me about it. She had skills in writing, graphics, and—in those days—typesetting. Soon, Laura joined Moss and me in producing the magazine. She worked with me for several years as co-editor and she added much to the look of the magazine.
What do you see as the biggest changes in the animal rights movement now versus a decade or two ago?
Back in the day—especially in the early 1980s—we had more activism on the streets, mass protests, and marches at the sites of animal exploitation: fur stores, laboratories, stockyards, and so on. Today, it seems more like the decades leading up the birth of the AR movement in the late 1970s with the big national organizations doing their programs and campaigns by paid staff sitting in offices.
How has technology helped (or not) the movement?
[It has helped] in the sense that it is easier and quicker for AR activists widely dispersed across continents and time zones to communicate with each other. All of that networking gives us a bigger, stronger sense of ourselves as a world-wide movement.
Are you surprised at how the factory farming industry continues to grow while the information is out there, more than ever, about the impact it has on animals? And why do you think it is that most people choose to ignore this information?
Not surprised, really. I recall that Peter and I warned the AR movement about this in the course of our publicity appearances for Animal Factories. We saw that factory farming interests—especially the poultry, dairy, and hog industries—were exporting their mass production methods and systems to the developing world to exploit the rising demand for animal products in those countries. China has built some of the largest hog factories yet. Saudi Arabia has built some of the largest factory dairy facilities—in the desert. While demand for pork and dairy products may decline in the U.S., American industries export their products abroad, so the numbers of animals exploited in US factories grows.
I think people ignore it all because it is so easy to do so. Farmed animal exploitation is well hidden. The industries keep it so and blanket the public with slick and misleading advertising showing images of cows and chickens playing on green fields. Centuries-old beliefs about animals and diet keep peoples’ food choices entrenched. People are so distracted—anesthetized really—by the constant noise of entertainment via smart phone, cable TV, streaming, social media, major league sports, etc., that they can barely think at all, let alone look very closely at something as unpleasant and disturbing as factory farms and slaughterhouses.
How did humans decide they had a “divine right” to use animals as they see fit? What is the root of dominionism?
Domestication of farmed animals begins around 8,000 B.C. with sheep and goats and some millennia later cattle came under human control. The domesticators had long been forager/nomadic societies whose worldview regarded animals with awe and a sense of kinship. Domestication brought settled farming and animal husbandry, which is the deliberate control of animal breeding to produce offspring with desirable characteristics—thicker wool, docility, more milk, etc. Plant farmers learned to do the same with native grains. After centuries of controlling and altering animals and plants the farming societies gradually came to see the living world differently. They had learned to control living beings and processes formerly regarded as mysterious, powerful—sacred in a way. Animals—formerly regarded as kindred and having powers—came to be inferior tools to be used for human benefit. Animals were reduced from souls to slaves.
Humans, of course, came to see themselves and their farming societies as powerful and superior to the living world and the animals and lands under their control. They needed license—permission—to have dominion over what had been seen as mysterious and full of spirits and powers. They invented an all-powerful god to give them that license. This process is discussed in more detail in my book, An Unnatural Order. I found a reference to the Lenskis’ textbook on macrosociology which discusses ethnographic studies of various kinds of early farming societies and their differences. The herding societies tend to be patriarchal, domineering, and warlike with slavery and monotheism in common. It seems that their dominion over their flocks, herds and grazing lands gave them the idea of a world in which humans are a flock tended by an all-powerful shepherd/god.
How does it affect how we see animals today? Where does religion fit in? How does it affect our human relationships?
Our sense of mastery over animals and nature has had a terrible cost. We have disconnected ourselves from the living world. We are not of it. We are not animals. We have no sense of biological kinship with our closest kindred species. In fact, most people don’t even believe in Darwinian evolution and cling to origin myths put to writing centuries ago. Consequently, we have false and flawed relations with the life around us. We have a false and flawed sense of who we are in the world. We are not at home with our animal cousins because we have turned the world into a storehouse of resources. The living world is a Thing, a tool, a shopping mall for humans only.
When and how did humans begin altering the very DNA of animals to suit farming needs?
Dogs are believed to be the first animal to be domesticated, more or less by accident. Wolves probably became familiar with humans by hanging around and following the moves of a human band, or extended family. Then sheep and goats became domesticated in the mountains of what is now northern Iraq and Iran around 8,000 BC. The process began perhaps with selective hunting, that is, following a herd and picking out certain animals—maybe younger males, older females—for their meat. In time, people learned about the role of males in reproduction and soon learned selective breeding, that is, controlling animals’ sexuality to produce a line of animals to give more meat, milk, or wool. This is animal husbandry and it has been altering the DNA of farmed animals for almost 10,000 years.
Is there any way to reverse this “human superiority” way of thinking now? Are humans too desensitized to animal suffering to change? What do you think it will take?
Yes, our proprietary world view is the problem; it is the main root of all our problems, especially environmental ones. “Our environment” is too human-centered for me. I prefer to call it the living world—the world alive with many kinds of plants and animals. And we are some of those animals and some of those animals are our next of kin. Drop the mysticism and the phony irrelevant stories and recognize reality. Biology. We are animals who evolved from other animals who evolved into our animal cousins. Science. Biology. Reality please.
Given the goal is animal rights, not vegan options, how do you feel about the surge of plant-based meats? Overall helpful or not?
Overall, helpful. More and more people know about factory farming and the cruel realities of killing animals for food. Lots of them will try plant based burgers now. Many will keep choosing them for the same taste and satisfaction without the guilt.
What do you say to people who think animal rights activists should worry about human rights before animal rights?
As politely as is possible, tell them they are ignorant. Ignorant not in the pejorative sense, but meaning “you are ignoring” some important matters and just making excuses to avoid those matters. I tell them to quit judging the issues because of the behavior of AR activists, to quit dodging the issues. And to consider that our animal cousins may be more important than they think—and not as resources and tools. And to think about ending alienation by embracing kinship with the living world. And to remind them that they, like all humans, are animals and related to other kinds of animals.
It has been a number of years since your research for The Ethics of What We Eat. Has anything changed since? Is it possible to be sure if we buy something labeled organic or natural, it actually is?
Yes, there is a growing awareness of what’s not good about how we get our food. It’s more popular now to want to know where and how your tomatoes were grown. It is the same with animal products. And more and more people are aware that they have choices at supermarkets and restaurants. Witness the “farm-to-table” trend now all over. Food awareness must be nearly global because the book has been published in Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Catalan, and some others. There are still some issues with credibility on practices, standards, labeling, etc., but the trend is that consumers want to know more about what they put into their mouths daily. They will make choices based on what they know. We’re all “foodies” now. And generally I think that consumers’ demand for choices drives producers and the rest to supply the goods.
What do you do to decompress or rejuvenate when the weight of the plight of animals gets to heavy a burden?
Make stuff. Fix stuff. Do some physical work outdoors. Build a stool or bench. Anything manual that produces a little something to stand back and look upon. Now the door shuts and latches. Now the window opens. Now the birds have a classy feeder with a copper roof.
Is there anything else you want our readers to know about you or your work that I have not asked?
My publisher and I are going to try to re-release An Unnatural Order in another year. The book came out from Simon and Schuster in 1993, went paper in 2007 with Lantern Books. We would like to give it a good edit—reduce, condense, summarize, and produce a slimmed-down tighter text.
Do you have any advice for our readers who want to make a difference for animals?
Think about ways to build a better, more effective animal rights movement. Discuss that in your activist circles. Spread the discussion.