Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild

Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild
Barbara J. King

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2021
280 pp. Trade, $25 U.S.
ISBN: 978-0226601489.

Reviewed by: 
Gregory Tague
August 2021

Like great athletes, some scholars can notch a hat trick, and Barbara J. King scores with her latest book, Animals’ Best Friends, which closely follows How Animals Grieve (2013) and Personalities on the Plate (2017). This trilogy, complementing the many other books written by biological anthropologist King, offers a true understanding of animal lives, intelligence, feelings, and ethics. Readers with interests in animals of the natural world and in captivity will find this easy-to-read hybrid book, part scientific study and autobiography, engaging and rewarding. Self-discovery happens in remarkable writing about the natural world, and that’s the case here, where at times clinical observations are supplemented with lyricism. This book offers a fascinating glimpse into the intellectual and emotional lives of insects, mammals, sea creatures, and even humans. At times emotional, always insightful, Animals’ Best Friends is a provocative call for compassionate action in animal rights.

The book begins with a scene at a NY sanctuary and the story of Bonnie the cow who fled the slaughterhouse to live in the forest with deer for a year, helped by a woman who provided bedding and food in the winter. Bonnie’s story is but one of many where animal fate is tied to the whims, desires, and hands of humans who often leave them incarcerated, abused, injured, or dead. Fortunately, as King demonstrates, there are many people taking action to rescue farm and wild creatures, all of whom have distinct personalities and deserve the right to live in peace, especially in their natural habitats. As King notes, we often have a visceral response to animals in need or distress and automatically feel concern. We are all kin, in one way or another. We can choose to act or not, ethical issues. King explores compassion for animals in contexts like homes, the wild, zoos, dining rooms, and laboratories. Our humanly compassionate responses to the plights of other species, whether an injured animal by the side of the road or bears in cages in Asia whose bile is needlessly harvested, should prompt action.

Despite legislation like the U.S. Animal Welfare Act, many captive individuals in unaccredited zoos or road shows languish in poor conditions and lack mental stimulation. A linked theme for King, related to compassionate action, is the elimination of harms we often inflict on other species for profit or entertainment. King has a riff about empathy and why she chose not to use that term. Empathy, in contrast to compassion, does not focus specifically on individual personalities or differences. Empathy can be generalized across species and prompt us to have an immediate reaction and not a reasoned response. Even so, there are costs in compassionate action for animals, she says, since the physical and mental fatigue of rescuers and activists can lead to burnout. This weariness, however, should not prevent us from helping or advocating for animals.

In her chapter on animals at home, King relates how non-venomous spiders could actually belong indoors, safe, and temperature controlled ecosystems where they feed on truly unwanted house guests. Spiders have good eyesight, and some types are mathematically endowed (a point she brings up with other species). King goes on to detail the evolved intelligence and mating antics of insects, demonstrating their uniqueness, just as humans. More so, learning about other beings, from insects and mammals to sea creatures, helps us understand their perspective in a world we mostly share. Such comprehension can breed compassion for them, especially in their natural habitats. Humans can be careless and cruel in how animals, evolved to live in the wild, are often deliberately contained as pets or as part of an exhibit.

Using the standard of cognition is humanly-imposed; many creatures large and small, with or without “cognition,” contribute to the holism of ecosystem maintenance. King’s point is that humans should make an effort toward compassionate action for all species, perhaps excluding viruses and disease-bearing insects. Along with other personal narratives in the book, King turns to her rescue cats. Like dogs, cats will negotiate looks and gazes with their caretakers to comprehend an unfamiliar situation. Note how my words bear bias when I say “like dogs,” as if canines are the gold standard for human companionship. King weighs in on the free-roaming cat debate and, like other animal advocates, thinks the numbers of birds as prey is exaggerated and that poisoning or hunting feral cats to extinction is an unethical “solution.” Responsible awareness by cat owners would best serve everyone. Roaming cats are not the only threats to wildlife, anyway; there are other predatory animals as well as the inhospitable practices of humans. Research shows that removing feral cats from a locale only creates a vacuum which will become occupied by others to breed a new colony.

In her observations about animals in the wild, King relates the story of Tahlequah, an orca, who, evident in her behavior, carried in grief her dead calf for one thousand miles. Apparently, this post-mortem attention is not uncommon in whales and dolphins. As she correctly says, “Grief and love don’t belong to us” exclusively. Other orcas are starving to death mostly because of ecological problems caused by people or human indifference. While scientists report to each other about anthropogenic effects, how does the general public evaluate human-induced alterations of wildlife food chains and ecosystems? Human consumption of salmon could halt and thus provide a valuable food source to orcas. Dams in the Pacific Northwest are part of the problem of salmon deficiency, and those electric generating plants could be replaced with wind or solar energy sources.

Choose your species. Canadian caribou who migrate into unprotected lands in Alaska, ripe for oil and gas exploration, are doomed. King admits that people’s proclivities vary as to which species might be most admired. Indubitably, whatever the preference, humans have a need to connect with animals, as we ourselves are apes. Consider, she prompts, small creatures not often given a second thought but who cleanse and sustain our waterways: mussels, of which there are about 300 freshwater species in North America. King suggests that people, who have disconnected from nature via modern, industrial life and technology, could learn something about themselves if time were spent mindfully in nature. This practice could cultivate feelings of compassion for other species, whether mammals or insects, observing their evolved behaviors and culture. The challenge is not simply to observe but to experience the lives of other creatures. This is not to say we can truly understand insect emotions, but experiments reveal that bees dosed with sucrose express optimism. It’s much harder, King admits, to measure a subjective, emotional feeling in an insect. This leads into a discussion about the “ethics” of sport hunting. Are controlled hunts acceptable? Do hunters spare an animal’s otherwise painful demise from disease, predation, or accident? As in other parts of the book, King worries about negotiating nagging questions like these, not to force any simplistic, right/wrong position. She seems always to come out on the side of animals. Take the case of how beavers are killed off despite their true ecosystem engineering creativity that helps habitats flourish for many varieties of plants, trees, fish, insects, and mammals. The ultimate question, which carries ethical overtones, concerns what’s sustainable for all life forms.

Regarding zoos, King chronicles an octopus in Boston’s New England Aquarium – highly intelligent yet held captive. One tank, with a male, is adjacent to another, with a female, and the stupendous creatures demonstrated to King intense awareness of their surroundings, each other, and the humans present. What are the ethics of confining, separately no less, such sapient and sentient beings? Some might argue that these inmates act as “ambassadors” of learning. Seriously, do zoo visitors leave with any real, heightened preoccupation to advocate for animal or habitat causes? King is skeptical and notes how thorny, moral issues are raised by the mere existence of zoos in spite of their best intentions. Take, for example, the scimitar-horned oryx (an antelope) declared extinct in the wild but which lives in some zoos where breeding and select habitat reintroduction is occurring. Depending on the zoo and a particular program, there is good and bad. It’s true that most zoos are just entertainment factories with marginally passible living conditions. This is said with caution, though, as most zoo staff, from directors to volunteers, care for their charges, though captive against their will. The real question, echoed in other parts of King’s book, is how compassionate action for zooed animals can happen. Even more than physical wellbeing, zoos need to focus on the mental and emotional welfare of their inhabitants. Concern for animal welfare (care) irritates those who argue for animal rights (freedom).

King goes on to cite an array of “accidents” in zoos where many species, from gorillas and monkeys to horses, lions, and capybaras were crushed to death in mechanical doors operated by humans. This does not count escapes of tigers or apes, where the outcome can be death by gunshot. King spends some time on the recent and now infamous case of young gorilla Harambe who was shot dead by his caretakers when a young boy “fell” into his “enclosure.” Worse, take the case of the Copenhagen Zoo giraffe Marius who, at age two, was deemed surplus, shot dead in the head, publicly mutilated, and then fed to the zoo lions. The kill “culling” of healthy zoo animals in Europe is widespread, with estimates of thousands executed each year. Can one align this gruesome practice with the dubious claims of zoos as hospitable homes or genetic breeding grounds for animals, some endangered? King notes that all types of accidents and questionable mistreatment happen in accredited zoos.

Generally speaking, but for rare situations, zoos are not helping to save animals but are profiting from them, encouraging patrons to take a “selfie” with a nonhuman being. What is one to do? King suggests speaking out, as she has often done in person or by contacting zoo leadership via email. The main culprits are the roadside zoos, circuses, and other animal attractions where the quality of care for animals, whether exotic species or “barnyard” varieties, is minimal. Existing captive animals can’t simply be reintroduced into a forest habitat. Emphasis should be placed on the best management practices possible for zoos on behalf of the inhabitants and not for profitability. Better yet, animals can be homed to sanctuaries where they are permitted to roam freely on outdoor lands.

This brings us to animals on the plate where King nuances carefully without fronting an all-out attack against meat, seafood, and dairy consumption. One can accommodate traditions and cultures with plant-based alternatives in most modern, industrialized nations. Gobi desert dwellers, who rely on goats, and hunter-gatherers are, of course, a different story. Granted, veganism can be a difficult transition for many people and, at any rate, even most vegans are imperfect but strive to make an effort. Sure, animal products are in a long list of clothing, household products, and other items, not just food. The exertion should be made, though, by anyone who advocates for compassion toward animals. Like others, King recommends reducetarianism where farmed animals are lessened in but not eliminated from one’s diet. Does that mean only a meatless Monday? Certainly there’s no binary, and reducing consumption of animal products is good; but eliminating them is better. Meat eaters might offer reasons, such as gastro-intestinal issues. Fair enough, but King quotes a friend of hers who says, ‘“...there’s no way I could stop eating cheese...’” What’s negotiable? Health? The climate? Animal lives? King wisely suggests that vegans and non-vegans should drop the identity politics, not judge each other harshly or openly, and strive for common ground, bringing her back to reducetarianism.

One of the most painful chapters covers animals in research, biomedical, or experimental laboratories. Cows are experimented on invasively to find ways of reducing their nitrogen and methane emissions. King is right to question how the cows undergoing, for instance, rumen surgery, feel, especially after the operation. A gaping hole is left on the side of the cow where one can insert a device to import microbes to other cows. Apparently, there’s little long-term pain management for research animals, and all types of species are used, from rats and mice, to dogs and cats, and more. Before laws banning experimentation on them, our nearest living cousins, chimpanzees, were routine subjects of invasive procedures. Unfortunately, this experimental research continues with monkeys, so about 75,000 are in biomedical labs just in the U.S. Some countries actually breed monkeys, our more distant relatives, for sale to labs. As in other chapters, King shows how people speaking up, whether a Jane Goodall or an activist group, about real mistreatment of animals can achieve changes on their behalf. Some primate facilities have shut down because of outcries.

There’s little transparency in biomedical research on animals. Primate “care” is shrouded in falsehood. Experiments on mammals, from rats and mice up to primates, include but are not limited to, surgeries, substance addictions, obesity trials, induced trauma, Alzheimer’s research, brain injuries and strokes, brain exploration, pain exposure, HIV and many other drug and chemical testing, etc. Worse, much of this experimentation is needless, repetitive (perhaps to obtain funding), and often with little clinical benefit for humans. This animal cruelty is condoned by institutions and those seeking professional advancement. Nonetheless, King says that one need not be totally against research but could advocate on behalf of individual animal rescue, like rats, rather than seeing them euthanized. Consider the bizarre case of four baboons whose hearts were replaced with those of pigs. The lead researcher described the post-operative baboons as “enjoying life” but later killed them to conduct post-mortems. There’s no evidence this punishing treatment will advantage humans. Ethics boards protect the biomedical and university research labs over the animals, it seems. Most of this is fueled by taxpayer dollars, so King asks those who are concerned to speak up. The U.S. Navy used to take healthy goats and pigs as experimental surgical subjects so emergency medical personnel could examine real organs and blood flow. Then the animals were euthanized. This practice has been replaced by high tech alternatives.

Implied questions of Barbara King’s book include: Who are the friends of animals? Why do we care, for the most part, only about pets but not insects, zoo creatures, animals farmed for our meals, or those subject to unnecessary, invasive experiments? King’s book is a potent and valuable piece of advocacy for animals, and worth including in any library for students of animal studies or ethics.