Dominion': The Most Compassionate Conservative
The New York Times October 27, 2002




Have you ever met a cat that was weaned too early and so developed

the disturbing habit of nuzzling and kneading compulsively in your

hair, your sweaters, your blankets, the crook of your elbow? Well,

pigs prematurely taken from their mothers also root incessantly for

something to chew or suck on; and if they are pigs spending their

abbreviated lives in a factory farm, where maybe 500 animals are

crowded into a space no bigger than a living room, the thing they try

to chew on is the tail of the hog in front of them. This is not a

happy habit for the industrial farmer: chewed tails can result in

infections, and pigs that die, in Matthew Scully's pitch-perfect

phrase, ''an unauthorized death.''


The factory farmer's solution? When the piglets are weaned, a good 12

to 16 weeks before nature had planned, their tails are docked, the

lower part amputated with a pliers-like instrument. That small

operation leaves the pigs with hypersensitive tails, which means the

animals will not get complaisant and will struggle ever after to keep

their clipped, throbbing appendages out of the mouths of their



Should you be inclined to pity the beasts for that or any other

detail of their treatment in today's giant meat-making plants,

however, the executives in charge of booming factory farms like

Smithfield Foods in Virginia, which kills 82,300 pigs a day -- a

quarter of the nation's total -- are eager to set your conscience at

ease. When Scully asked Sonny Faison, head of Smithfield's Carroll's

Foods division, in North Carolina, whether there isn't something

''just a little sad'' about confining millions of animals to cramped

concrete enclosures, where there is no sun, wind, rain or even so

much as a scattering of straw to sleep on, Faison declared au

contraire. ''They love it,'' he insisted. ''They're in state-of-the

art confinement facilities. The conditions that we keep these animals

in are much more humane than when they were out in the field.''

Another Smithfield supervisor seconded the notion, painting a bleak

picture of the life of free-ranging swine: ''I mean, you put 'em out,

they kind of scrounge around in the mud, and in the summer, around

here, animals that are outside risk getting mosquito bites and



''Dominion'' is a horrible, wonderful, important book. It is horrible

in its subject, a half-reportorial, half-philosophical examination of

some of the most repugnant things that human beings do to animals,

notably keeping them in the factory farms that have taken over the

business of supplying America's insatiable meat tooth; and hunting

them down on a new style of ''safaris,'' which are nothing more than

canned, risk-free opportunities to bag exotic species as easily as

one might drown a suckling kitten. The book is wonderful in its

eloquent, mordant clarity, and its hilarious fillets of sanctimonious

cant and hypocrisy. For example, Scully quotes from a book called

''In Defense of Hunting,'' by James A. Swan -- an authority favored

by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and other proud, manly-men hunters --

citing a passage that addresses the critics who weep over the animals

and asks, aren't they special, even sacred, too?


''A thing can become truly sacred only if a person knows in his or

her heart that the object or creature can somehow serve as a conduit

to a realm of existence that transcends the temporal,'' Swan argues.

''If hunting can be a path to spirit, unhindered by guilt, then

nature has a way of making sure that hunters feel compassion.'' To

which Mr. Scully retorts: ''Like, wow, is that deep or what? Things

are 'sacred' only when the hunter in his heart has made them so. . .

. The creature becomes a 'conduit' to the transcendent. Guilt now

becomes a hindrance to compassion, which is achieved in the very act

of killing.''


''Dominion'' is important in large measure because the author, an

avowed conservative Republican and former speechwriter for President

George W. Bush, is an unexpected defender of animals against the

depredations of profit-driven corporations, swaggering, gun-loving

hunters, proponents of renewed ''harvesting'' of whales and elephants

and others who insist that all of nature is humanity's romper room,

to play with, rearrange and plunder at will. Just as a presumed hawk

like Richard Nixon could open relations with China, and a presumed

liberal-softie like Bill Clinton could dismantle the welfare system,

so Scully may do much more from the right for the pro-animal movement

and the Endangered Species Act than any number of press releases and

reports from the World Wildlife Fund and the People for the Ethical

Treatment of Animals. Scully may also convert many readers to

vegetarianism, a practice that he has followed for 25 years and that

he realizes is rare among his political confreres. As his friend and

fellow political commentator, Joseph Sobran, said on hearing of

Scully's dietary preferences: ''A conservative, with a Catholic

upbringing, and a vegetarian? Boy, talk about aggrieved minorities!''

At the very least, ''Dominion'' will encourage patronage of the

small, independent organic farms, where the cattle are grass-fed and

treated humanely, an option that Scully calls ''a decent compromise.''


Scully's argument is, fundamentally, wholly a moral one. It is wrong

to be cruel to animals, he says, and when our cruelty expands and

mutates to the point where we no longer recognize the animals in a

factory farm as living creatures capable of feeling pain and fear, or

when we insist on an inalienable right to stalk and slaughter

intelligent, magnificent creatures like elephants or polar bears for

the sheer, bracing thrill of it -- and today's moneyed big-game

hunters do just that -- then we debase ourselves. As the earth's most

powerful species and the only one capable of meditating on our

actions, we have a moral responsibility to treat the animals in our

care with kindness, empathy and thoughtfulness, Scully says. When we

forfeit that responsibility, we forfeit the right to any of the

little self-congratulatory designations we have claimed: as God's

''chosen'' ones, or as Homo sapiens -- the wise ones -- or as

possessing humanity in the sweetest sense of the word.


As Scully sees it, we may be ''of'' nature but we are not in it. For

better or worse, we have dominion over the earth, and how we manage

that position, whether as bloodthirsty tyrants or as benign patrons,

is a core measure of our worth. ''Animals are more than ever a test

of our character, of mankind's capacity for empathy and for decent,

honorable conduct and faithful stewardship,'' he writes. ''We are

called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or

power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don't;

because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.''


The author takes a particular dislike toward those who argue that

animals, being incapable of dwelling on their mortality, therefore

don't really suffer the way neuronally well-endowed humans can

suffer. He also finds fault with those he considers moral

relativists, like the philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that

reason, rather than knee-jerk compassion or squeamishness, should

dictate what we deem the comparative worth of the lives of animals or

severely handicapped infants. Scully can wax self-righteous and

absolutist, and he considers the ''squeamishness factor'' to be a

handy indicator of something, like a factory farm, that is morally

wrong. ''It is usually a sign of crimes against nature that we cannot

bear to see them at all, that we recoil and hide our eyes,'' he

writes, ''and no one has ever cringed at the sight of a soybean



Maybe so, but I have a deep fondness for plants, and a respect for

the sophistication of the evolutionary path they have taken over

hundreds of millions of years; and when I see a truckload of

beautiful old redwood trees being toted off for lumber, I feel as

much sorrow as I do when I see a deer carcass strapped to a car hood.

It is a terrible, ineluctable thing, that we must kill to live -- if

not animals, then plants -- and the burden is one that the author

does not fully address. And when the author applauds his sometime

employer President George W. Bush as a ''rescuer of stray animals''

who ''would be appalled by the conditions of a typical American

factory farm or packing plant,'' but fails to mention the aggressive

efforts of the Bush administration to open to drilling the Arctic

National Wildlife Refuge -- where the caribou and the polar bear roam

-- it is obvious that moral flabbiness is a nonpartisan disease.


Still, this is a beautiful book, rich with thought, and a balm to the

scared, lonely animal in us all.


Natalie Angier writes about science for The Times and is the editor

of ''The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002.''