Anna Krien, Us and them: On the importance of animals (Review)

Krien Us and them

Quarterly essay cover (Courtesy: Black Inc)

I’ll admit it right up front, I am not a vegetarian or a vegan. I like to eat meat. I wear leather shoes. I like to think, though, that the source of these products has had a comfortable life and a quick, stress-free death. But I’m kidding myself, I know. And Anna Krien’s essay, Us and them, about the relationship between humans and animals, doesn’t reassure me.

In roughly 25,000 words, Krien, whose Into the woods I reviewed a couple of years ago, explores the complex relationship we humans have with our living, breathing co-inhabitants on this earth of ours. She exposes the underbelly of this relationship but resists simplistically declaiming the abuses and proclaiming that there is an easy solution. We all know there isn’t. As she says in the first section:

I’m not weighing up whether our treatment of animals is just, because it isn’t. That age-old debate is a farce – deep down we all know it.

The real question is, just how much of this injustice are we prepared to live with.

To try to answer this question she confronts the tension that exists in our relationship with “them” which is, as she puts it, the tension between seeing them as “beings” versus “objects”. She asks:

How to ensure that the butcher, the scientist, the farmer recognise that the creature in their care is a being, even as all the while they [and, I would say, by extension we] continue to use it as an object?

This is a well-structured essay. After an introductory section in which she sets the scene and poses her question, Krien explores the issues thematically, through the sorts of “encounters we have with animals”: Killing; Testing; Hunting,

These are, obviously, the encounters which are the most problematic. She spends little time on our positive and generally more mutually beneficial* encounters, such as in their roles as pets, guide dogs, and companion animals. That’s fair enough, given the serious questions she wanted to confront, but it’s a bit of a shame, nonetheless.

I like Krien’s writing. It’s well-researched, informative, and presents unpleasant facts with a light touch. She’s neither didactic nor conclusive but rather writes as one going on a journey with us. And she asks hard questions, such as these ones in the killing section:

  • Should Australia remain in the live animal trade and by so doing help other countries improve their animal welfare practices?
  • What does it say about our priorities when we have a World Society for the Protection of Animals but not one to protect women?
  • How do we explain the fact that more Australians empathised with the cows (being sent to Indonesia) than with people (such as those Indonesians for whom the cattle trade  means work and food, let alone the asylum-seekers plying the same seas as the cows)?

She explores the complexities of testing and here again disabused me of my head-in-the-sand hopes. I was surprised to read that the number of animals being used in research and teaching is increasing not decreasing. And again, the difficult questions. Is some testing acceptable, necessary even, and others not? And if so, on what basis do we decide? Why is there a disjunction between what scientists do in animal testing and believe is ethical, and what laypeople think?

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book'dout - Shelleyrae)

In her section on hunting, the focus is not so much on recreational hunting but on the hunting of animal pests – some native, such as dingoes, and some feral. She talks about apex predators, and the environmental impact of removing them. When the top predator goes, the ecological balance is severely disturbed. The loss of dingoes, for example, can be directly related to the extinction of small mammals. One solution to protecting farm animals that doesn’t involve killing dingoes is to use guardian animals like maremmas and alpacas. Hmm, methinks, introduced species aren’t always a good option – think camels, think cane toads – but so far so good it seems.

Late in the essay, Anna Krien writes that many scientists describe our current geological era as the Anthropocene, recognising the significant (negative) impact human activities are having on the earth. She follows this with biologist Edward O. Wilson‘s suggestion that what comes next will be “the Age of Loneliness” typified by “a planet with us and not much else”. I don’t want to think about what that would be like. There’s no easy answer to all this but, as Krien says, we must “acknowledge the questions” and continue the discussion. To do anything else is to deny that not only are animals are “important” in themselves but, to put it selfishly, they are important in multitudinous ways to us.

Anna Krien
“Us and them: On the importance of animals”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 45
Collingwood: Black Inc, March 2012
ISBN: 9781863955607

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

* Though I’m aware I’m making a human-centric assumption here!

22 thoughts on “Anna Krien, Us and them: On the importance of animals (Review)

  1. Fabulous sounding essay. Do you think it will make you change any of your habits? Writing against the killing of animals is a hard thing to do because culturally it is an ok thing and we are taught to not pay attention to how that hamburger came to be on the plate. Plus, at least in the US, people tend to believe that one can’t be healthy unless the diet includes animal protein and those who believe this have a hard time imagining what a diet without animals could possibly be other than eating celery and carrots for every meal. Slowly though over the past decade people are becoming more aware of food production and the abuses in animal agriculture, but of course for me who has been vegan for 19 years, the slowness of the process can be frustrating. You might find a book called The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol Adams to be really interesting. It’s quite thought provoking. She looks at meat culture through the lens of gender, race and class.

    • It’s an excellent essay and is clearly a topic of interest to you, Stefanie. Will it change my habits? Probably not significantly or dramatically but, since watching a BBC film called Down on the factory farm about 30 years ago, I’ve tried to be aware and to buy ethically where I can. I like vegetarian food a lot, and we eat less meat than we used to, but as I think I’ve said before I already follow a limited diet for health reasons and am not really willing to limit it even further. That’s selfish of me I know but I suppose we all have our lines don’t we.

      I’m not sure, anyhow, that I’m against the killing of animals for food per se but I don’t at all like the idea of their mistreatment and I don’t believe we need as much of it as we think (or have been told) we do. And then there’s shoes. I think leather is better for the feet than synthetic products but I don’t buy lots of shoes and, in fact, except for a pair of walking shoes (to replace worn out ones) I haven’t bought a pair in about 3 years.

      Krien raises the issue of Meat marketing and how we’ve created a market, making people think they must have meat, like western nations do, to be healthy and successful. That’s pretty scurrilous. I don’t think we have any right to impose our values on someone else … the issue is surely not that their food is bad but that for various reasons they can’t produce enough of it.

      That book sounds really interesting though I’m not sure I’ll have the time to get to it any time soon.

  2. Vegan here. I always was uncomfortable with eating meat, but reading Making a Killing by Bob Torres sealed it for me. I think that people have to come to a decision on their own and at their own pace since moral considerations are involved. Society, generally, isn’t much help and the advertising world tends to promote food porn on the public as a way of life.

    I don’t “miss” anything–although cheese was the most difficult thing to drop.

    • Good for you and Stefanie. I bet you are both very healthy. The ethics around animals certainly are complicated … as Klein shows very well. I would miss meat less now than I would have when I was in my 20s and 30s but I would miss eggs and the dishes I can make from them, for example … Cheese would not be a big one for me as I gave that up years ago for intolerance reasons. A big issue would be that I love the whole social thing of food – eating out at restaurants and with friends and I would hate to make those occasions even more difficult than it is now.

  3. Did she talk at all about zoos? I’ve recently become aware that a lot of vegans have big problems with zoos, and not just horrible little ones where animals are kept in tiny cages. The comment about the society to protect animals and not women also reminded me that there’s quite a big movement around vegetarian/veganism being linked with feminism. And not just limited to, say, many feminists being opposed to PETA for its constant use of naked women and sexualisation to talk about animal rights. Great discussion, Ma.

    • Thanks Hannah … it’s complex isn’t it? So many interrelationships and criss-crossings of ethical issues and decisions. Zoos are only mentioned in passing. Thanks for reminding me of that PETA and feminist issue … it’s pretty ethically corrupt but it happens again and again, women’s rights being subsumed under the name of some apparently higher goal?

  4. Very interesting post. I’ve always been uneasy with meat and dropped it for five years when I was young but then was living in East Africa where refusing home-cooked baby goat was extremely rude. Also skinny, pregnant and worried about protein intake so I ate anything I could. Having said that in the countries where I lived over there treatment of animals was shocking, abattoirs were ghoulish reeking places within cities. And yet as you say society often worries more about maltreated cows than children who are malnourished and constantly ill through lack of safe drinking water.

    It’s so complicated. I ran a bar in Ghana and really grew mad at rich NY vegan kids who dictated what they wouldn’t eat and never tried local food and were painfully dogmatic. I do eat meat but can’t stand in a butcher shop I makes me think of warming living cows!

  5. This sort of essay is always very interesting to me Sue, but I always hesitate to read them. Too squeamish. I eat less meat now than I used to too, and worry about overfishing, and haven’t really eaten tuna in a few years. But I do really like salmon, and cheese, and yoghurt. We do all have to make our own decisions.

    • We do, I agree, Louise – and thanks for sharing your ideas. I’m loving people’s comments on this one. The essay is pretty raw so you have to have a pretty strong stomach but I’m glad I read it because I realised that even (says she snobbishly) in our own country things aren’t as good as I thought they were. It’s disappointing but good to have my eyes opened again. I’m also interested in the gender and class politics behind the issue too.

  6. Last night I read Krien’s short story ‘Turning off the Lights’ and found her prose mesmerising. A search for more of Krien’s work brought me here. I’m not usually interested in political writing (if this can be called such), but the ethical treatment of animals is near and dear to me so this could be worth a read.

      • Well, I’ve been following your blog since our conversation about Barbara Baynton, but was pleasantly surprised to find you’ve covered Krien too. (Shouldn’t be that surprising, really; you’re something of an authority of Australian literary writers, it seems!)

        The story was in Best Australian Stories ’08 (there’s another good one in ’10, and probably others, too). Yes, she’s definitely known for her nonfiction work. I’ve only read these two stories, though I did look on with interest as people reacted to her football/rape culture book.

        • Yes, I remember our conversation. I like short stories but don’t often get the Best Australian Stories editions. Will try to check these out.

          I followed your blog, too after that, but don’t get email notifications. I guess they just go to the reader. I tend not to find time to check the reader, but always check my emails! I guess you use the reader?

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