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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 24.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Karen Dawn busts stereotypes as wisecracking vegan ambassador
Animal rights, and wrongs
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Karen Dawn, with her dog, Paula Pitbull: 'I hope to dispel
the myth that animal rights activism is radical and unreasonable.'
Karen Dawn, with her dog, Paula Pitbull: 'I hope to dispel the myth that animal rights activism is radical and unreasonable.'
Credit:Monty Marsh

The other day I was telling a friend, a fellow journalist, about Karen Dawn's 2008 book, Thanking the Monkey. My friend has a deep sense of personal as well as social morality, an encompassing sense of curiosity and an active sense of humor. I felt sure he'd like it.

But as soon as I said it's a treatise on animal rights, he rolled his eyes and mentally erased it from his to-read list. He needed only one sense - common - to grasp the truth: Oh, those people.

Yes, Karen Dawn is one of those people: a vegan and an animal rights activist. A transplant from Australia who now lives in New York and Los Angeles ("I'm bicoastal, baby"), Dawn is the founder of the e-newsletter/website DawnWatch, which tracks animal issues in the media. She's snagged book blurbs from folks like Bill Maher and David Duchovny, and testimonials from dozens of other celebs. She's the animal rights activist to the stars.

Thanking the Monkey, subtitled "Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals," is an eye-opening dissection (pardon the pun) of the astounding varieties of abuse inflicted by humans on other species. The book is comprehensive and well researched, heavily footnoted and corroborated by authoritative sources. But it deals with things most people prefer to look at with eyes wide shut.

There is good reason for this. Modern America clings to its old ways of testing medicines, cosmetics and household products (one still-common method, LD50, determines the toxicity of a substance by finding what level must be given to a group of animals to kill half of them) and has new ways of maximizing meat, egg and milk production on factory farms. It has embraced cruelty to animals on a scale unmatched in human history.

Virtually every member of our society, Karen Dawn included, assists in perpetuating this cruelty. It's just a matter of degree. Dawn's message is that people can easily reduce the amount of animal cruelty they support.

Though hardly an incendiary message, it's one that people like my friend are eager to close their minds and hearts to. They feel they have enough other things to worry about, and perhaps they do. But many of these are less within their ability to change than the ones Dawn identifies.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to getting people to care about how animals are treated is their belief, wholly unfounded, that we as a society already do.

There is currently a great hue and cry over a group of three young Wisconsin men who used their snowmobiles as weapons against deer, killing at least five of them. The young men are facing serious criminal charges - although, ironically, the maximum penalty for ripping out a terrified deer's guts with a snowmobile is about half that of taking this snowmobile without permission.

If you Google stories about this case, you'll find reams of furious reaction. ("The three of these, whatever they are, should never get out of prison," writes one. "EVER!") That anyone could do this to helpless animals has folks enraged.

Yet far worse things happen to helpless animals all the time. At least these deer didn't suffer for long. It's not like they were born into cages, separated from body parts without anesthetic, stuffed into tiny spaces their entire lives, injected with drugs and fattened with food they were never meant to eat, then led to gruesome slaughter. (Thousands of cattle, about 5% of those processed by slaughterhouses, are still alive and conscious when they are hoisted by one leg onto a trolley to the bleeding area.)

Still, the knee-jerk response toward anyone who would dare disrupt dinner with such observations is scorn: Oh, those people.

"They're so self-righteous and insufferable," another friend recently assured me. But of course. If it wasn't for that, they might even be right.

Now and then, a writer comes along who confounds people's ability to maintain popular stereotypes about animal advocates. Matthew Scully did it with his seminal 2002 work, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, the Call to Mercy, which drew its moral imperative from another well-received book, the Bible.

Scully, a conservative Republican who was at the time a senior speechwriter for President George W. Bush, disclaims a belief in animal rights but argues that humankind was commanded by God to treat animals with compassion. He blends in original reporting - on wild game hunting, international whaling and factory farming. His anger, well masked in the early chapters, eventually spills forth, like when Billy Jack gets pushed too far.

Dominion is a serious manifesto, at times dense and philosophical. Thanking the Monkey, as its title suggests, is a more whimsical book, with clever headlines and colored fonts, cartoons and celebrity photos on nearly every page. Dawn confounds stereotypes of animal rights activists.

"I hope to dispel the myth that animal rights activism is radical and unreasonable," she writes on page 1. "In fact, as you read of the cruelty we offer animals as thanks for what we take from them you may see radical departures from your own standards of reasonable decency."

The first issue she tackles is the notion, reiterated constantly by mainstream commentators, that people who care about animals don't give a hoot about human beings. The operative assumption is that people have finite quantities of compassion, and those who devote theirs to animals will be fresh out when it comes to children, old people, the disabled, crime victims, political prisoners and such.

In fact, any fair assessment of human nature would lead to the opposite conclusion. It's easier to imagine an animal rights activist volunteering in a soup kitchen, as Dawn did for years, than it is to imagine the proprietor of a factory farm writing letters for Amnesty International.

"The compassion shutdown switch that allows us to chew pieces of veal while blocking out thoughts of baby calves alone in crates is the same switch that allows us to change TV channels away from news of starving children in Darfur," writes Dawn. "When we disengage that switch, when we get out of the habit of closing our hearts, the world will be better for the calves and the kids."

I agree with Dawn on this point, and many others. Yet my professed love of animals has not stopped me from participating in their victimization, as when I dispatched the main course for a Thanksgiving meal ("To Kill a Turkey," 11/22/07). I still eat meat and wear leather and use household products that animals have died for. I often feel bad about that.

But honestly, I feel less bad about it than I did before reading Dawn's book. She's not out to scold others into orthodox veganism - she herself is a "cheatin' vegan" who'll occasionally eat foods that contain animal products because it's easier to adhere to a more relaxed standard. She mentions people she knows who "went vegan for a while and then gave it up because it was too hard. Now they eat absolutely anything - even bacon double-cheeseburgers made with factory-farmed pork. That's crazy."

Every choice we make that reduces the overall amount of animal misery is one we ought to feel good about, Dawn stresses. And every choice can help not just in the difference it makes to individual animals but in the market it creates. If we buy it, they will make it available.

One of the best things about Thanking the Monkey is Dawn's refusal to let the seriousness of her subject squelch her sense of humor. She peppers her text with one-liners, like: "An estimated seven million reptiles live in U.S. households - and that's not including lawyers."

Why have billions of bees all over the nation stopped returning to their hives, devastating the U.S. honey industry? Dawn notes that honeybees are routinely killed - usually burned to death - because it's cheaper to start anew each spring than to winterize their dwellings. And they are excellent communicators, known to transmit 10,000 distinct messages.

"Is it therefore so far-fetched to wonder if perhaps rumor got around the bee world that returning to the hives meant being exterminated at the end of the season?" she asks. Accompanying this section of the book is a drawing of a yellow jacket with a protest sign: "BEE WARE!"

Thanking the Monkey is thoughtful and measured. For instance, while Dawn exposes the folly of some forms of animal testing, she affirms that some level of speciesism is inevitable and appropriate.

Yes, she thinks it's wrong to put rabbits in stocks and dump chemicals into their eyes to test cosmetics, subjecting them to pain so excruciating that some break their necks trying to escape, when there are alternative methods that happen to be more reliable. But Dawn believes that using animals for nonlethal medical research could be seen as morally acceptable if it is indeed essential - admittedly, in her view, a big if.

In such cases, Dawn proposes a humane improvement on the status quo. If monkeys and other animals are used in research, cut them a break. After a time, let them retire to animal sanctuaries, at the expense of those who have benefited from their pain and confinement. Dawn even admits her ulterior motive: "Under such circumstances, we could predict...that animal research would dry up as profitable alternatives were discovered."

How insufferable is that?

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