Book Review: Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farmed Animals in Stories and Photographs, ed. No Voice Unheard
Author’s Note: This is the third of three reviews of books published by the non-profit animal organization and book publisher No Voice Unheard, based in Santa Cruz, California. (For my previous reviews, see the posts on One at a Time and Thought to Exist in the Wild. No Voice Unheard provided me with free review copies of these books.)
Humans have been using animals for food, labor, and livelihood/profit for several millenia now, since that momentous occasion known as the Agricultural Revolution about 10,000 years ago. However, our relationship to animals goes back for millions and millions of years, well before any wise old hominid figured out that they could be domesticated, manipulated, bred, and befriended.
I find it poignantly ironic, then, that we have had to wait until early 2010 for a book like Ninety-Five: Meeting America’s Farmed Animals in Stories and Photographs. It is long, long overdue…yet coming at a crucial time in human history. After eons of interaction with, and utter dependence upon, animals, we modern hominids have, to a large extent, “evolved” ourselves right out of the natural world and away from other living creatures. Nowadays, “connection” for us means mobile internet connections, social networking, and online communities. Meanwhile, we consume, exploit, abuse, own, and feel superior to the “wild beasts” and “stupid animals” that live out in the dirty, smelly, uncomfortable world outdoors.
Simply put, in becoming largely a civilized species of animals, we humans have lost our relationship to the animals…
But we have not lost our dependence upon them. We just too often think we have.
Meeting the Animals–not “Farmed” but Freed
The beauty and power of Ninety-Five, a collection of writings by animal lovers and experts coupled with arresting, full-color photographs, is that it helps to re-introduce us to some of those animals we have so often forgotten. Edited by No Voice Unheard, this book shows us the personalities of some of America’s “farmed animals.” Note the terminology here: as the editors explain, these are not farm animals but farmed animals, since in modern industrial practice “farming is something that’s done to them” (6).
The book’s title refers to the estimated number of animals who are saved in a year by one person choosing a vegan lifestyle, free from any animal products whatsoever–meat, eggs, dairy, body parts, textiles and materials… This number is shocking. Think of it: 95 individual living creatures saved from death, unwilling death, by a single person’s choice to put compassion over their tastes, prevailing trends, and ages of tradition.
And in the book Ninety-Five, we get to meet a few of these farmed animals. We get to witness the fullness of life that each living being on this planet can have, should be guaranteed, if only given the opportunity to live without being sentenced to suffering and death by judges whom they will never meet, never know, never get to plead their cases before.
We meet Charley, a one-eyed ox found wandering half-blind in suburban Knoxville, whose “gentle and inquisitive personality touches you immediately and makes you wonder why anyone would think of such a character as a ‘food animal’” (49).
And we become friends with Amelia, turkey rescued from the fate of her forebears and not consigned to death and then our dinner plates. As writer Davida Gypsy Breier tells us, Amelia is more than a tasty meal but a happy bird whose “simple desire to be hugged is what punches me in the gut when I walk past the deli section at the grocery store” (71).
Discovering Relationships among Farmed Animals
But Ninety-Five shows us more than just animals who are waiting to befriend us. It also shows us how animals have their own powerful, sustaining relationships with each other. “Like humans,” Leanna Cronquist writes, “farm animals thrive on the companionship of good friends” (109). Crammed into cages, abused and poisoned, terrified to the point of insanity, modern farmed animals never have a chance to experience these types of relationships either. Having been rescued from the fate of other farmed animals, the animals in this book exhibit the importance of relationships to a happy life for animals living together. We meet friends like Linda and Tricia (cows), Libby and Louie (chickens), and the inter-species cohort of Justice (cow), Bumper (cow), Juliette (cow), and Laurel (swan). Industrial farming becomes even more tragic, more cruel, when we realize that animals in those situations are deprived of these relationships. On top of the pain and terror we inflict on them, en route to consuming their bodies or using their components for other purposes, this consequence of farming animals is just heartbreaking.
In the Afterword of Ninety-Five, the editors remark on the surprise any reader of their book surely will feel. “That surprise,” they reflect, “is testament to how deep our culture’s training goes–training that wants us to believe that the intelligence and feeling has been bred out of farmed animals, leaving them numb and empty, and that they somehow don’t value their own lives in the same way we value ours” (130).
But reading this book, I truly must wonder: Does this description apply better to us, not the animals? After all, we are the ones who cannot relate well to the creatures or to each other, who tune out and hide away the horrific facts about the foods and products we consume. Even those of us who have pets rarely extend our awareness to include farm/farmed animals, or wild animals, in our circle of valuable, meaningful beings. Instead, we blithely believe the meat in pretty cellophane packages, the milk in sanitary cartons, or the shiny leather on our feet has no history…has no trail of blood and tears leading up to it.
Going from Book to Life
Ninety-Five is a triumph because it reintroduces us to those living individual beings who, saved from the axe and from our dinner plates, are able to flourish…and shows us how every animal has a personality. Every animal, even after a life of abuse and suffering, can and will thrive, experience joy, and often even somehow come to trust us humans.
Though at times the writing in Ninety-Five drifts into sentimental meandering, falling victim (like so many other books on animals and nature) to semi-philosophical poetic prose mongering, by and large the book remains free from either vacuity, invective, or randomness. This results in a collection of character vignettes that are focused, yet visually and narratively rich. The book manages to speak to our heads and grab our hearts, proving the need for a new relationship to all animals and making us fall in love with the ones we meet here. Would that all farmed animals were true animals, true companions to us and each other. Would that all animals were allowed to be wild, free, and alive.
But each of us can help make that happen…for 95 of them each year, in fact. It all depends on the choices we make.