By Jonathan Safran Foer

Review by Scott Keith

When you think of primitive urges, you think food, sleep, sex and self preservation. The birth of his son inspired a Brooklyn, New York author to explore one of these life-long urges, the need to eat. Jonathan Safran Foer, in his newest book, “Eating Animals,” explores a dilemma a great many of us face. We love animals, yet we consume them for dinner.

In this electric book, Foer examines his life, from early childhood, and how he became a vegetarian. One of Foer’s earliest recollections is a visit from a babysitter when he was not quite ten years of age. The baby sitter declined to eat chicken with Jonathan and his older brother. When asked, the baby sitter replied, “I don’t want to hurt anything.” Foer writes, “What our babysitter said made sense to me, not only because it seemed true, but because it was the extension to food of everything my parents had taught me. We don’t hurt family members. We don’t hurt friends or strangers. We don’t even hurt upholstered furniture. My not having thought to include animals in that list didn’t make them the exceptions to it. It just made me a child, ignorant of the world’s workings.”

Foer introduces his family. His grandmother, who survived World War II Europe, was nicknamed “The greatest chef who ever lived,” despite her all-too-familiar recipe, chicken with carrots. His father, who “raised us on exotics,” was the primary cook in his home. Even George, a tiny black puppy that Foer and his wife adopted. Foer recalls, “And then one day I became a person who loved dogs. I became a dog person.”

The birth of his child was a turning point. Writes Foer, “Fatherhood was the immediate impetus for the journey that would become this book.” It’s a journey that took Foer throughout the United States, documenting how animals, birds and fish make it to our dinner tables. The journey is presented in graphic, often haunting detail.

Throughout this 341-page book, Foer is critical of factory farming, noting that “upwards of 99 percent”of all animals eaten in this country come from factory farms. About factory farming, Foer says, “In a narrow sense it is a system of industrialized and intensive agriculture in which animals – often housed by the tens or even hundreds of thousands – are genetically engineered, restricted in mobility, and fed unnatural diets (which almost always include various drugs, like antimicrobials).”  Foer adds, “More than any set of practices, factory farming is a mind-set: reduce production costs to the absolute minimum and systematically ignore or “externalize” such costs as environmental degradation, human disease, and animal suffering.”

Foer describes a scary middle-of-the-night visit to a factory farm, accompanied by an animal activist by the name “C.” Under the blackness of the sky, the duo encounter a series of seven sheds. Entering a shed after fighting barbed wire, they notice tens of thousands of turkey chicks on a sawdust floor. Says Foer, “There is a mathematical orchestration to the density. I pull my eyes from the birds for a moment and take in the building itself: lights, feeders, fans, and heat lamps evenly spaced in a perfectly calibrated artificial day.” Noticing a chick who is suffering, “C” takes a knife and puts the young turkey out of its misery.

This riveting book not only documents some atrocious treatment of animals at the slaughterhouse, but looks back at an earlier time in America, when farmers actually got to know their turkeys and pigs. Foer introduces Frank Reese, described as a “truly independent poultry farmer.” Reese appreciates the beauty of turkeys.  Says Reese, “I can sit in the house at night, and I can hear them, and I can tell if they’re in trouble or not. Having been around turkeys for almost sixty years, I know their vocabulary.” Reese continues, “All my animals get as much pasture as they want, and I never mutilate or drug them. I don’t manipulate lighting or starve them to cycle unnaturally. I don’t allow my turkeys to be moved if it’s too cold or too hot.”

As we sit down at the dinner table and prepare to pepper and slice our meat or fish, consider this food for thought: “The average shrimp-trawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures overboard, dead or dying, as bycatch,”says Foer. Are pigs intelligent? According to Foer, “Dr. Stanley Curtis, an animal scientist friendly to the industry, empirically evaluated the cognitive abilities of pigs by training them to play a video game with a joystick modified for snouts. They not only learned the games, but did so as fast as champanzees, demonstrating a surprising capacity for abstract representation.”

Foer’s third book may or may not turn you into a vegetarian, but the journey animals take to the dinner table, brilliantly examined by the Brooklyn author, will open your eyes and make you ponder the primitive urge of eating.

(Little, Brown and Company, Hardcover, $25.99)

Available at Amazon.com and all major book stores

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