Don't have a cow!

Famous animal lover Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the author of "The Face on Your Plate," talks about why you should consider giving up the burgers -- and the fromage.

Published April 18, 2009 10:31AM (EDT)

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, 68, is a former psychoanalyst, known for his popular books about the emotional lives not of humans, but of animals. As scientists continue to debate which species have feelings, Masson has written bestsellers celebrating their emotions, such as "Dogs Never Lie About Love" and "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals," which he co-authored with frequent Salon contributor Susan McCarthy.

In his new book (which is his 24th), "The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food," Masson brings his heartfelt take on the feathered and four-legged to the dinner table. Five years ago, the prolific author, who was already a vegetarian, went vegan, giving up not just animal meat but also animal products, such as dairy, eggs and even honey. To be precise, Masson describes himself as "veganish," since he occasionally slips up when he's not at home and accidentally eats, say, a cookie prepared with milk; this vegan's not the sort of purist who would make a scene in public by spitting out an offending morsel.

Masson changed his diet because he's an animal lover, and he wants to tempt readers to do the same, whether we're motivated by environmental, health or animal-welfare rationales. As a polemicist, he marshals an impressive litany of mainstream sources to make his case that eating less flesh is a worthy goal, from the Meatless Mondays campaign, advocated by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, to the 2006 United Nations report on the environmental impacts of raising meat called "Livestock's Long Shadow."

As a former analyst, Masson is keenly interested in the many ways that meat eaters, like me, use denial to avoid having to think about the actual lives of the animals that they eat. Yet, in his estimation, even the most humanely raised farm chicken, goat, pig or cow cannot be said to have a good life, much less a good death, when it ultimately goes to slaughter. But his overall tone is a gentle one, as he tries to demystify his diet by devoting a chapter to "A Day in the Life of a Vegan," in which he characterizes himself as "cooking-challenged," while waxing about the nutty flavor of organic avocadoes.

No stranger to the media spotlight, Masson famously sued New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm for libel after she wrote an unflattering profile of him back in his psychoanalyst days. The author has spent the last eight years in New Zealand with his wife, a pediatrician, and their two children, ages 7 and 12, because he couldn't stand to live in the United States while George Bush was in power. With the Obamas in the White House, the family is now moving to Berkeley, Calif.

I spoke with Masson at Salon's offices in San Francisco, where he enthused about the new White House vegetable garden, and challenged Michael Pollan, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," to a friendly public debate.

How did you become vegan?

I was raised, actually, vegetarian, but when I went off to college, I just didn't know how to eat as a vegetarian, and pretty soon I was eating meat.

I didn't give it all that much thought, to be honest, until I started doing the research for "When Elephants Weep," and I realized that animals felt things as deeply as did humans. It occurred to me: How can I go on eating animals, when I feel that they're capable of love and gratitude and boredom and loneliness, and can experience traumas, very much like a human?

So I stopped eating meat for the second time and became a vegetarian, but I still felt it was fine to drink milk and eat eggs. They don't have the same visual impact. You have a piece of chocolate, and you don't see animal suffering written on it, not like a hamburger where you can imagine that this was a piece of living flesh.

I then wrote a far less popular book called "The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional Lives of Farm Animals." So I started doing research on cows and pigs and chickens and goats and ducks. What might they feel? And I discovered, not surprisingly, really, that they had feelings every bit as deep as dogs and cats and wild animals.

So then the question became: How could I participate in the suffering involved in taking their eggs and taking their milk? And when I went to these farms -- especially the mega farms, but even the family farms -- I saw that these animals did not live what I would consider a good life.

To me, there's no such thing as a good death. That's a kind of a bizarre euphemism. It's one thing to say that about a human who is 90 years old, but how can a 6-week-old chicken have a good death?

Is the aversion to milk or eggs about taking it from the animals, or how it is taken from them?

It's a combination. I feel that it's not ours to take. The milk is there for a calf, not for a human. We're the only species that drinks the milk of another species.

Think about it: You couldn't get within 100 yards of a wild cow to take milk. The bull would gore you to death. The cow herself would run away. They don't want to be milked. It's really a false conceit to say, "Well, they don't really mind." Of course they mind. It's just that we breed them to be docile, and we put them in stalls, and we make them artificially pregnant. It's totally unnatural.

Plus, it's not a good life for the cow. All they do is give milk. And when they're "spent," which is a terrible phrase, that means when they're not giving milk to their full capacity, we slaughter them.

Since your concern is really with animal welfare, wouldn't you do more to reduce animal suffering by advocating ending the worst factory farms than arguing that we should all go vegan?

Reform has never been my strong point. I really like to think along the edges -- a more radical approach.

Yes, it's of course much better to have animals living under better conditions. Barbara Kingsolver has written about this, Michael Pollan has. There are literally 20 or 30 books now of high quality all advocating the same thing, and I think that the general public is beginning to get the message.

Plus, so many more people now want to eat organic and local and fresh, and that's all to the good. However, I notice, and what I find wonderful is in these organic farmers markets sprouting up all over the country, you rarely see animals.

I think part of the reason for that is people don't want to see it. It's not like a market in France where you can go and choose a chicken, and they kill it for you right there. We do not like to be reminded of where our meat comes from. "Thank you very much. I'll get it from the supermarket."

We can live so well without eating these products. Sure, the animals might have a good life, but their life is going to be over long before their natural life span is over.

There is no animal domesticated today who gets to live out his or her full life span. It just doesn't happen, because there is no money in that, and they are there to answer our needs. It's an economic deal that we make with ourselves, not with them. It's not a contract with the animals. John Coetzee, the Nobel Prize winner, wrote to me and said: "Well, Jeff, I still eat eggs and cheese, because I feel we've made a contract with them, and it's like they're paying rent." Well, I really strongly disagree with that.

Because they can't consent?

That's exactly the issue. They're not consenting. They have no choice in it. Look around you in a farm. There are fences everywhere. There are cages. These animals are not free. They can't come and go. They don't say: "Hey, that's not a bad deal. We'll go there for five years, and then they'll slit our throat. That's fair enough."

What are some of the common myths about farmed animals?

The major myth is that they can "lead a good life."

I meet people all the time who say: "I just don't understand why you don't eat eggs. What's the problem with eggs? I only eat free-range eggs. So, these chickens are out there free." But "free-range" is not regulated by the government. So "free-range" could mean they're outside for half a minute on 5 inches of grass.

If they were really free, and the chickens were living the lives that chickens evolved to live, they'd have four or five acres. They'd be sleeping in trees, and making babies maybe three times a year. If we didn't breed them to lay an egg a day, we'd never get their eggs, because they'd hide them. It wouldn't work, because it's not a good economic pact.

It's a misuse of language to say that these chickens are free.

It seems like we really identify more with our pets, and even wildlife, than with farmed animals. How do you think that comes about?

Through denial.

What is the difference between a pig and a dog in terms of cognitive abilities, ability to be clean and affectionate?

Pigs would sleep at the foot of your bed if you allowed them. They're very clean. They love to be stroked. They're affectionate. The difference between a pig and a dog in terms of their emotion, not at all. In terms of their willingness to accept us as a kind of co-species, also nothing. In fact, they're closer to us in a way than cats. You can call the pig, and the pig will come.

The only difference is that we have decided, in our great wisdom, that we are going to eat them, and we're not going to treat them as pets. We're not going to name them. They're going to grow on farms. They're a commodity for us. They're not a living, sentient being. We don't see them, we don't look into the eye of a pig and see another being there.

Where do you think that this denial comes from?

I think that every society has always had a certain amount of guilt when it comes to killing an animal. Look at indigenous Americans. They used to do ceremonies. They took it very seriously. It was not something that they engaged in lightly. And I think that the explanation for that is not a religious explanation. It's because they felt bad about killing them.

Anybody with any kind of feelings, with any kinds of sentiment, goes out and if they have to kill an animal, they feel bad about it.

For most of us, the experience of eating meat is pretty sanitized. We don't have to kill the animal, and as you say we don't have to call it what it is when we eat it.

We change the name. We call it "hamburger." What kind or resonance does the word "hamburger" have for you? None. They don't say: "Give me the cow." They don't say: "Pass the pig." They say: "Give me bacon." "Veal," even.

These are words that don't have any resonance for us. Now, that's not true of "lamb" and of "chicken." I've always wondered why that would be different, but with the three main meats that we eat we don't like to use the real word. We want it disguised.


I have a feeling it comes from childhood, with a kind of identification. Imagine if children know that animals are being killed, and if they, God forbid, hear a pig being killed, it sounds like a child being killed.

They think, "Well, they're willing to kill this animal, why wouldn't they kill me?" There is nothing more terrifying in life than the thought of annihilation. That is the first and largest and last denial of all human beings: the denial of our own death, and to be reminded of that...

It's interesting that at slaughterhouses in America, apart from being horrendous places for these poor, immigrant workers, it's also the only industry in the world where the turnover is 100 percent per year. People can't take it. They don't like working there. They quit within a year.

There are many people who won't eat cows or pigs or chickens, but they will eat fish. What are some of the problems you found with the growing aquaculture industry?

I got interested in that because I realized that we knew very little about fish emotions, of course, and I think that we still know very little, but even such a simple thing as do fish feel pain? Well, for years and years and years the common wisdom was: "No they don't. They're coldblooded."

Well, guess what? Scientists have discovered that they definitely feel pain. Of course they feel pain. They have pain receptors like every other animal.

So that's why I wrote this chapter on aquaculture, especially looking at farmed salmon, and it's just an absolute disaster from an ecological point of view, and even from the psychology of the fish.

Salmon evolved to wander for hundreds, even thousands of miles, remarkable animals in their own right, and here they are kept in these cages in the water, and just going around and around in circles, again, no life for the fish.

Is it a question of how far do you allow your empathy to extend? Is that what is really at issue?

Yes, that's very much what is at issue. The question for me is: Where should we stop it? Should there be any natural boundary to our empathy? I'm beginning to feel that there shouldn't.

People love to make fun of vegans, so the honey issue comes up. That's an easy one, but of course bees are very important to our entire existence, so now with colony collapse disorder they're not making so much fun of bees anymore.

But certainly if somebody says: "Well, you're going to be careful about killing an ant?" Well, why not? Of course, we care more for some than for others, and all of us have our preferences, but I don't think that it means that one can be killed easily.

You mention that people love to make fun of vegans. Why do you think that is?

I think partly it's because of a bad conscience. I think to some extent people think: "You know, they're probably right, but, boy, would it be inconvenient for me."

What do you think about the tactics of groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals? Do you think that those are effective in changing people's views? What do you consider your approach?

For me, it's all a question of information. I'm not an activist, in the sense that I don't go out and march. My way of being active is to actively do research, and publish it, or have conversations like we're having.

I don't like people who harm animals, and hurt them in animal testing, but I wouldn't threaten them, and I certainly wouldn't threaten their families, who have nothing to do with it. I find it deeply offensive when somebody threatens somebody else. I'm totally against any kind of violence, even physical violence to property. I don't think it is right to do that.

Right now there is a lot of attention to the question of where our food comes from. But there have been exposés about slaughterhouses going back to Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle," published in 1906. Why isn't there more change?

But there is.

I just heard a fantastic statistic that at Stanford University, a quarter of the undergraduate student body is vegetarian. That is amazing to me. It means young people are thinking about this.

People are more aware than ever before of these questions, not in the vast numbers that we may hope for, but I would say that more today than at any other point in our history.

But there's a huge gulf between the cultural conversation about food that's going on right now and the actual, average American diet. How do you see bridging that divide?

I've never seen so much attention paid to a single garden in my life as the Obama's vegetable garden. What a wonderful thing! Here you have, for $200, you plant 55 different vegetables on 1,000 square feet instead of a dead-end land. I think Alice Waters was responsible for that. She wants to see kids getting really wonderful, fresh vegetables from their own school gardens, and I think that over the next 10 or 15 years that will happen.

Awareness is changing. I've very optimistic. Now, is Obama going to read "The Face on Your Plate" and say, well, that did it, I'm becoming a vegan tomorrow? No, that's not going to happen.

Do you think that we hear less about the environmental impacts of livestock than, say, driving an SUV, because it's easier to ask people to change what they drive than what they eat?

If there is a law that you can't drive a car that's more than 10 years old, OK, people accept it. But you could never pass a law that you can't eat cheese. Never, ever. That will never happen.

Because it's too central a part of the culture.

That's right. It feels like, I think falsely so, but it feels like it's my God-given privilege to eat whatever I goddamn please.

You acknowledge in the book that food is so central to daily life that asking someone to give up a certain food can be like asking them to give up sex or caffeine.

Or religion.

I would love to have a serious and polite debate with Michael Pollan [who shot a wild pig in pursuit of what he dubs "the perfect meal" in "The Omnivore's Dilemma"]. I've read all his books. If he would just read "The Face on Your Plate," and sit down with me, we're both now part of the journalism school at U.C. Berkeley, if we could have a public debate in a really nice, friendly environment, where we just raised these issues. But I'll pretty much assure you that he won't want to do it, because he's made up his mind.

Maybe, you're calling him out.

Michael, do you hear me?

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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