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Jeffrey Masson on learning from animals

News Icon 27/05/2015

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is a long standing friend of Compassion’s. We last saw him as a guest in our office in Godalming, Surrey in 2009, when he spoke about his book, The Face on Your Plate: The Truth about Food. His latest book, Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About Human Natures, is a fascinating read challenging us to question ourselves: ‘What makes us so violent to one another (never mind to other species), and is there anything to be done about it?’

I took a recent chance to catch up with Jeffrey to ask him to reflect on his work as a popular and prolific author about animals.

Philip: Your books about animals and our relationship with them are essential reading. What is the most important conclusion you have come to about how we should live with animals and what we should do about it?

Jeffrey: We should live with them with as little exploitation as possible, and ensuring that any animal in a relationship with us lives his or her life as nature intended:  this means we have to consider whether our dog companions are living as full a life as possible, and even with cats, we cannot simply ignore them.  We have to think of them as family members who need us to be constantly mindful of their happiness.

Philip: Your work means you are routinely exposed to reports on animal cruelty. How do you keep yourself positive in the face of such a constant stream of suffering?

Jeffrey: To be honest, I don’t watch horrific videos of animal suffering any longer. I feel I know already and do not need to be reminded. But somebody has to be willing to get the footage and make sure those who are not convinced see them.

Philip: Your last book, Beasts, is as much about people as it is about animals. What prompted you to write it? What are you seeking to achieve?

Jeffrey: I always wanted to write a book about the holocaust but I could not think of what lesson we could take away from it: Yes, people are unbelievably cruel. But we knew this already. What we did not know is that no other animal on the planet is as cruel as us. This needed to be shown, and I think I accomplished that.

Philip: What lessons can we learn from Beasts and your work generally for animals in putting a stop to factory farming?

Jeffrey: What we need to realise after recognising our own history of cruelty is how much of an outlier we are among other animal species, even other apex predators: So for example, while we have killed 200 million of our own species in the 20th century alone, during that same period, orcas (killer whales) have killed exactly none! So we need to look at other animals, like orcas, gorillas, orang-utans, giraffes, and other charismatic mega-fauna, and even wolves, to learn how to live in the world in a more peaceful and compassionate manner. Animals have a great deal to teach us about our own nature.


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