Review: Beasts

Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

I’ve long struggled with the language people use when discussing animals. The idea of Masson1-2getting your cat or dog “fixed,” for example, is simply moronic. There’s nothing broken with our animals’ reproductive systems. The problem is that they’re working too good!

That’s like removing the battery from a working clock and saying you’ve fixed it.

It’s not that controlling the reproductive habits of our companion animals is a bad idea. Of course I’m a proponent of spaying and neutering—particularly TNR outreach programs that are doing amazing work throughout the world.

But as a writer I’m also a supporter of the rhyme and reason—the simple logic, if you will—of language. I can accept the phrase “put to sleep” as a euphemism for mercy killing, but “fixed”?

A similar misnomer—and one deserving of far more vehemence—concerns the use of animal language to describe acts of human cruelty. Killers and rapists are commonly referred to as “beasts,” “brutes” or, in the parlance of Hollywood noir, “you filthy animal.”

True, the animal kingdom is a violent world, but even the worst behavior is driven by the need to sate appetites, not for the sake of sadism. At an animal shelter where I worked, we once took in more than two dozen Australian shepherds from a puppy mill in Nebraska. Most of the puppies could be rescued. We were able to socialize, rehabilitate and adopt them out to loving homes.

A handful of others were too sick, malnourished or traumatized to recover and didn’t respond to medical treatment or therapy. They were euthanized, and it was an act of kindness.

There were a few others dogs, however, who had been abused to the point of aggression—dogs with such an inbred fear of people that they couldn’t improve under the best behavior mod training we had to offer.

There was one dog in particular who broke my heart. His life was a perpetual state of fight, flight or freeze—he was unable to flee and freezing wasn’t in his nature. He filled with terrified rage anytime someone approached his kennel, even for feedings. He would fling his body from wall to wall and bash his head against the cage—climbing, jumping, snarling.

When it came time to euthanize him, it took four of us, a net and two vials of tranquilizer to get him sedated. The desperate, implacable fear in his eyes was disarming, and it still troubles me to think of the living conditions and daily abuse that had terrified him so. I hope I never again have to see a creature that afraid.

As we carried his unconscious body to the kill room, I wished that we were injecting toxins into the fucker who ran the puppy mill rather than the dog. It pained me to destroy that animal, but I would have had no guilt or second thoughts of putting that guy to sleep.

Like Dexter, I wanted him plastic-wrapped on my table.

I wiped my eyes after the dog died, and it’s not hyperbole when I say I wouldn’t have shed a single tear if I’d delivered the needle to the mill owner who did this to these dogs.

That’s why I find it odd that when someone commits a heinous act, it is referred to as “animalistic” or “inhumane.” I’ve never known a dog that would abuse people the way puppy mill workers mistreat and exploit animals for profit. Unlike the FBI, animal control doesn’t need a profiler to understand the brutality of its species.

And dog fighting? As far as I can tell, we humans are alone in training and forcing other species to fight to the death for our entertainment.

No, I would say the likes of Michael Vick aren’t “animals,” “beasts” or less than human. To borrow from Nietzsche, I would say they are human, all too human.

Which brings me to Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil, by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, a somewhat academic, somewhat philosophical and all-around interesting book about animals and morality.

Like his previous books, such as Dogs Never Lie About Love and When Elephants Weep, Masson studies the emotional behavior of animals (such as love, grief and contentment) and searches for lessons that can be applied to humans. In Beasts, he is looking at anger and aggression.

The centerpiece of his argument is concise as it is uncomfortable: Humans and orcas have the most complex brains in history, yet of these two, only humans kill members of their own species.

A poignant fact—and an excellent point of entry for a discussion on human behavior. Masson gives us much to think about as he lays out his argument; however, he oversteps from argument to advocacy in places, building off conclusions that seem far from settled.

I’m in agreement with Masson that humans are capable of and culpable for the greatest violence against our own species in the animal kingdom. We even get bonus marks for creativity. Predator drones, IEDs, beheadings, shoe bombs. Who would think to torture and kill other sentient beings in the absurdly original manner that we do?

However, Masson paints a pastoral of nature without humans, and this idyllic view makes it difficult to buy into the author’s argument. I’m reminded of the episode of Family Guy in which Death goes on a date with Amy, the Pollyannaish pet-shop girl whose Disney-fied view of nature causes Death to “terminate” their relationship.

Masson has a complex and sophisticated view of nature, but his conclusions appear to be based more on opinion than evidence. Still, it’s a compelling commentary, and I would recommend it for anyone interested in animals and nature.

I agree that we could learn much about social behavior from animals, but I would take Masson’s conclusions as part of an ongoing discussion and an invitation to further research.

And for further reading, I would also suggest the magnificent and thought-provoking article by James McWilliams, “Loving Animals to Death,” in the current American Scholar.

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