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March 2003
Widening the Debate About Animals: An Argument For Mercy

Book Review by Karen Davis, Ph.D.



Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002). $27.95 hardcover. 464 pages.

In Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, Matthew Scully, a former senior speechwriter for George W. Bush, says that he seeks above all to reach religious people whose spirit of kindness and mercy has not yet been extended to animals. However, Dominion is not just for religious believers and “dominionists.” It combines strong investigative journalism with polemical rigor, droll humor, searing images, and a call to action, complete with a set of recommended legal reforms to protect animals against the most extreme forms of institutionalized abuse.

Some might fear that a book about “mercy” would be mushy. This one isn’t. Scully exposes the cynical sentimentality of phony realists who accuse people who care about animals of being “weak” and “soft.” Rather, he says, it’s the animal person who’s the realist, “someone who wants to know the facts of the case, what is actually taking place and how it feels to the victim.”

His chapters on his visits to the Safari Club International’s 27th annual convention, the International Whaling Commission’s 52nd annual meeting, and a Smithfield industrial pig complex in North Carolina take us into these harrowing places. With him, we meet the people, hear the talk, feel the ambiance. Here we are, for example, in a Smithfield gestation barn filled with crated pregnant sows; Scully is with a young animal scientist named Gay—“Loves her career. Loves animals.”

It takes an extra moment for the eyes and ears to register a single clear perception. But you can just tell by their immediate reactions which sows have been here the longest. Some of them are still defiant, roaring and rattling violently as we approach. Some of them are defeated, motionless even at the touch. Some of them are dead.

“They don’t get a lot of exercise,” says Gay. “But at the same time, that’s good because they can carry more fetuses. We get rid of them after eight litters.”

Further on:
What’s that on the thigh of NPD 45-051? I ask. “That’s a tumor,” says Gay. The tumor, I observe, is the size of half a soccer ball. “Yeah, and she’s just one year old,” says Gay. “Getting thin, too. So, she’s not desirable any more.”…. NPD 40-602 appears to have a tumor as well. I tell Gay. “That’s just a pus pocket. They all get those.”

While Scully makes a point of rejecting the concept of animal rights, and his insistence on the “lowliness” of animals is galling, his goal (for which he apparently considers such belittling concessions needful) is to reach that huge audience for whom animals have so far counted morally for nothing at all, to whom the idea of the “lowly” chicken, or cow, or pig might actually be a peg up from the bottomless gulf of nothingness occupied by the rest of creation in the minds of so many.

But there’s more. Scully’s literary skills make Dominion a book to reckon with. If he starts off saying that animals have no rights, which legally of course they don’t, he develops powerful arguments on behalf of animals’ “moral claims” and humankind’s corresponding responsibility to animals. “Laws protecting animals from mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation are not a moral luxury or sentimental afterthought to be shrugged off,” he says. “They are a serious moral obligation.” Refuting the idea that morality is a mere matter of “culture,” “opinion,” and “choice,” castigating the caprice that allows us to treat animals whom we know with some decency while condemning animals in farms and laboratories to “lives of ceaseless misery,” he declares that “the moral claims of other creatures are facts about those creatures, regardless of when or where or whether it pleases us to recognize them.”

The Moral Claim of Animals
As does Norm Phelps in The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights and the Bible, Scully observes that the idea of human rights, like that of animal rights, is not a given but rather “a practical response to the most fundamental of all moral problems: Human evil.” Thus, he says, “[b]efore you dismiss vegetarianism as radical animal rights nonsense, contradicted by ages of custom and habit the world over, reflect for a moment on our own human experience, on all the violence and brutality and ceaseless subjugation from which our own concepts of human rights arise.”

Scully emphasizes the morality of substitution, a theme that I stress in my book More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality. I argue that in the religious realm, for example, if we can substitute animal flesh for human flesh and bread and wine for “all flesh” and the shedding of innocent blood, and view these changes as advances of civilization and not as inferior substitutes for genuine religious experience, we are ready to go forward in our everyday lives on ground that is already laid. Regarding the consumption of animal products and all other forms of animal exploitation, Scully, who is a vegan, similarly writes that “[w]hen substitute products are found, with each creature in turn, responsible dominion calls for a reprieve… What were once ‘necessary evils’ become just evils.”

Though I do not share Scully’s theological outlook and disdain his tributes to certain public figures who practice what he had declared just a few pages earlier to be “just evils,” I do think that his book makes an important contribution to the effort to try to awaken the public’s conscience and mitigate the cruelty of our species to other species. There’s a kind of ironic hope when Scully says, without meaning to sound hopeful, “In a strange way the more insistent human beings are of our singularity among creatures, the more aggressive and vocal in denigrating animals, the more indistinct and small we ourselves come to seem.” Seen in this perspective, the human species might well be in a process of dwindling away to just dots, then a dot, and then nothing. If this literally happened to us, it would be no loss for the animals. They don’t need us, we are not their keepers, and we have abused our privilege of sharing the earth with them.

Karen Davis, Ph.D. is President and Director of United Poultry Concerns, a non-profit organization which promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry. Her most recent book is More Than A Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001). For information, call (757) 678-7875 or visit



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