Why do we treat dogs as people but prefer pigs as bacon?
- Credit: James Bass
It’s a good question, and asked by veteran environmental writer Richard Girling of Cley-next-the-sea in his latest book The Longest Story.
The particular longest story that he is telling is the history of our relationship with animals. It takes in farming, medicine, pets, philosophy and more as it charts our course from the beginning of evolution to humans taming wolves into dogs and oxen into cows, and on to the animals we love and the animals we experiment on.
Richard said: “Looking back over forty years of environmental journalism, first as a section editor and then specialist writer for The Sunday Times, one issue that stood out was the confusion and inconsistency of our attitudes to other species and the extreme unhelpfulness of the labels – wildlife, vermin, pets, working animals, livestock – that we attach to them. It occurred to me that a key element in all this was anthropomorphism. The way we treat animals is determined in large part by the human characteristics we project on to them.
"These have little connection with reality. Rather, they spring from ignorance, prejudice and misapprehensions that have distorted our thinking ever since the earliest hominids swung down from the trees, stood up and started to kill.
The aim of the book therefore was to look back to the very beginning and track forward through the millennia to record the cumulative influence of hunters, farmers, religions, scientists, artists, writers, film-makers and campaigners.”
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The book, subtitled How Humans Have Loved, Hated and Misunderstood Other Species is a wide-ranging journey through the subject, taking in Bambi and vivisection labs, fairy stories and factory farming.
Richard has written several critically acclaimed books including The Hunt for the Golden Mole about a quest to track down an animal known to science only by a tiny jaw bone in an owl pellet, and The Man Who Ate the Zoo which told the extraordinary story of 19th century naturalist Frank Buckland - surgeon, naturalist, vet, curator and conservationist who spent his life looking for new means of feeding the hungry and along the way ate animals ranging from mice to elephants.
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This latest book was begun while Richard was having radiotherapy at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and ends with the pandemic, and explores issues around medical research using animals, including visiting laboratories.
Richard said: “The original aim of the book was to be strictly non-judgmental – to leave readers to make up their own minds on the basis of historical evidence – but this resolve does weaken in the latter stages where it comes down strongly on the side of animal welfare.”
But he said the book is not a moral tract. “It is a story,” he said. The story begins at the very beginning and ends with an assessment of how vulnerable species are to human harm – and how much they reveal if we take the time to wonder.
The Longest Story, by Richard Girling is published by Oneworld.