Book Review: Mercy for Animals

Mercy for Animals (MFA) – – is an international organisation dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies. MFA was featured in our 29 September, 2017 blog post as an effective animal charity. I first learned about MFA via its one-minute MTV videos dramatizing the horrors of factory farmed meat, such as The book reviewed here is a kind of autobiography of MFA and its founder, Nathan Runkle, born in 1984.

Nathan was only 15 years old when he and a few others founded MFA. He had grown up on a small farm in the U.S. state of Ohio, part of a family with a long history as farmers, and his father was a veterinarian. The book describes the massive changes from small family farms to today’s factory farms. For instance on the family farms where Nathan grew up:

The pigs were never confined indoors in tiny cages. There were allowed to roam along with the cattle, and piglets followed their mothers wherever they went. The pigs were give names, too. As my grandma recalls, “They loved to be rubbed and petted.”

Nathan recognised early on that he was different in a few ways from most other kids in his community. For instance, he did not like hunting. When Nathan was 6, an uncle and cousin took him on his first hunting trip. When his uncle shot a rabbit, she did not die immediately.  The uncle, cousin and Nathan went to look.

I will never forget that moment: three bullies hovering over this little brown rabbit who was just trying to lead her life in the wood. Even at six years old, I felt an enormous sense of injustice. … That was my first, and last, hunting trip.

         Such incidents made it clear that I always had it in my heart to be an advocate. I connected with animals. I understood them. I loved them. I was also a loud, outgoing, and inquisitive kid. I would talk to anyone and always stood up for whatever I felt was right.

Nathan also differed from other kids in the way his brain functioned.  This delayed his ability to speak and made reading and writing difficult, although he was quite intelligent. I seemed to be “intellectually gifted” and “learning disabled” all at once. … No doubt it was my unusual brain that made me an outsider in the world. And perhaps it was that outsider view that allowed me to develop such a close bond with animals—who couldn’t speak or write at all.

Being gay was a third way Nathan differed from normal. I can actually remember the exact moment I realized I liked men. I was eight years old… . A movie called ‘The Princess Bride’ was on TV. I don’t remember the plot, but I do remember that the pirate in the film was handsome and that I had a crush on him.

Not surprisingly, at that time, Nathan faced abuse due to his orientation. My neighbors, the kids in junior high, the hockey players on the rink—all of them called me a faggot … . It was soul crushing. Why, I wondered, did people to whom I have done nothing wrong hate me so much? I didn’t let them see me cry, but at night the tears flowed.

Fortunately, Nathan received acceptance and support from family members, including his grandmother. She is now my strongest advocate. But it took many pointed conversations with her for this evolution to take place. Watching her change instilled a deep optimism in me that the possibility of change resides in us all.

Despite often being threatened with violence for being gay, Nathan avoided any attack until in his mid-twenties, he was brutally attacked by a complete stranger, simply for being a gay man. His skull was fractured, two surgeries were needed to repair to damage to his skull and face. As a result, the pain of others became less of an abstract concept to me, and more palpable. Pain, whether experienced by a man, woman, child, dog, or pig, is head-pounding, teeth-grinding, please-make-it-stop real. In the aftermath of my attack, I found myself connecting on an even deeper level with physically and emotionally abused animals.

Back when Nathan was about eleven years old, he heard about an Earth Day fair in the nearest city and persuaded his mother to take him. The booths at the fair focused on the normal range of environmental topics, but the one that hooked me was run by the local animal-protection organization. I took some of their literature about factory farming, vivisection, and fur, and then spent the entire trip home reading. … By the time we arrived home, I’d made up my mind. I was now a vegetarian. … Then, …, when I was fifteen years old, I had a terrible nightmare. I dreamed I was a dairy cow. This wasn’t surprising, given that I had seen so many videos of what these poor creatures endured, as well as having spent so much time with the animals themselves. In the dream, I saw the world through the cow’s own eyes and felt the sensations of her body. I found myself confined to a tiny isolated stall, chained by the neck, unable to turn around, and hooked up to a milking machine. My newly born calf had just been yanked away from me. I felt nothing but panic, desolation, and helplessness. When I woke up the next morning, I had made up my mind. I was now vegan.

The story of the founding of MFA begins with an agricultural class at a high school in the town where Nathan lived. He was home schooled; so, he was not at the school when the class’ teacher, who was both a farmer and a teacher, brought in six piglets he had killed earlier to be used to teach dissection to the students. Except one of the piglets hadn’t died. One of the students in the class unsuccessfully attempted to kill the piglet by twice slamming her head onto the concrete floor.

Fortunately, another student grabbed the piglet and brought her to the class of another teacher, Molly Fearing, who was known to be an animal lover. Molly rushed the piglet to an animal hospital, but it was too late, and the piglet was euthanized. Like Nathan, Molly was an activist at heart; she took photos of the piglet and filed a complaint against her fellow teacher with the local sheriff. However, the judge in the case dismissed the charges, and Molly, instead of being praised for her compassion, was forced to resign from her job. Not soon afterwards, Nathan and Molly formed MFA.

The summary in the above paragraphs takes us to page 42 of the book’s approximately 300 pages. The rest of the book focuses on MFA’s development from a tiny, two volunteer organisation in a small town to the organization it is today, operating in many different countries with at least 35 staff, an impressive website and social media presence, and a long list of achievements that have made a difference in the lives of farmed animals.

Part of MFA’s achievements grow out of their efforts to study how to effectively advocate for farmed animals. For instance, Nathan worked for a while with PETA and learned some of the ways that PETA attracts attention from the media. MFA also works with sanctuaries for farmed animals, just as Animal Allies Singapore is attempting to do with a sanctuary in Johor Bahru.

While the lives of farmed animals remain MFA’s focus, MFA also publicizes the terrible conditions of the humans who work in the meat industry. For example, the book quotes a 2016 Oxfam report,

Big Poultry treats workers as replaceable cogs in the machine…. To find workers willing to do these jobs, the poultry industry exploits vulnerable people who have few other options: minorities, immigrants, and refugees—even prisoners. … As a result, labor turnover in meat and poultry plants is quite high, and in some worksites can exceed 100 percent in a year. It is not only the nonhuman animals who are abused; it is also the workers, who Nathan points out, are not the enemies of animal activists, but our potential allies.

The book also details what actually takes place on factory farms, how increased mechanization has made matters worse and that the industry’s claims about “happy” meat, milk, and eggs are lies. Along with reporting on the horrors of factory farming, Nathan also shares stories on the animals’ intelligence and kindness.

[O]ne particular sow … figured out how to escape from her gestation crate … she wiggled her rear end under the gate and then casually lifted it up over the latch. But more remarkably, each time she escaped, she would begin unlatching every gestation crate around her until there were half a dozen pigs running around trying to make a break for it.

Along the way, Nathan introduces us to many of his past and present MFA colleagues. Among them is Vandhana Bala, MRA’s general counsel:

To those who know her, Vandhana is gentle, funny, and kind. The gloves come off when it comes to fighting for animals in a courtroom, where she is known for being intelligent, articulate, relentless, and incredibly shrewd. She had begun her law career at a huge law firm defending corporations against law suits. (Tyson Foods was a former client.) But Vandhana’s heart was always with animals. She started as a volunteer with MFA, before we had the means to hire legal counsel. As we grew, Vandhana came on board full-time, landing, as she says, her “dream job.”

         The book’s next to last chapter, The Future of Food, begins by recounting how long ago, a main means of transport was the cruel practice of use of using horses, such as horse-drawn carriages. Fortunately, now that form of cruelty has largely been replaced, as humans are now using cars, bicycles, etc. instead. Will another such change away from the use of animals lead to the steep decline of animal agriculture, as we develop alternatives to meat, eggs and dairy, such as plant based foods that imitate the taste, smell, look and texture of animal based foods. The chapter concludes:

Critical to the success of these products will be the fact that they are created in an open, transparent system. This is so unlike the system of factory farms and slaughterhouses where the owners seek to prevent the public from the cruelty which is an inescapable feature of the enterprises. With these new foods, transparency will be a key component of our nation’s food system, and ethical food choices will become the default choice instead of the difficult one.

         The book’s final chapter, The Power of One, gives us advice on what we can do, after reading the book and being inspired by Nathan, his MFA colleagues and the other animal activists chronicled in the book. This simple advice includes how to move towards a vegan diet, how to become an activist, how to donate to animal charities and how to use the internet to spread the message. While MFA and animal activism generally have come a long way since the days when Nathan was a 15 year old, we still have a very long way to go. The experiences and information shared in this book can guide us towards a better future for our fellow animals, including our fellow human animals.

Review by: George Jacobs