Thursday, 4 November 2010

[book review] thanking the monkey

I came to Thanking the Monkey with some skepticism. Karen Dawn was recently in Melbourne giving a talk as a fundraiser for Edgar's Mission, and at the last minute I decided to go, prompted by some enthusiasm from J. I liked the talk well enough; I wasn't blown away by it, but I decided to pick up a copy anyway (all the profits for the copies sold on the night went to Edgar's Mission, too!).

I like to think I know a lot about animal issues, but some of the stuff I was reading totally astounded me. I had to start bookmarking, and now my copy is filled with post it notes and little sticky bits (which I'm going to remove as I type this, so I can lend the book out).

Dawn has an interesting, conversational writing style. She talks up her book as an accessible gift book, and certainly it is very accessible. The book is illustrated with pictures and comics, on the premise that even if you give the book to someone who can't bring themselves to read it, they might flip through and see some of the comics, and take away at least a part of the message.

Thanking the Monkey was written as an all-around animal rights book: at some times it's an introduction, covering the basics, and at other times it's quite in depth and confronting.

There are lots of suggestions of other books to read, as well as video and other online links. The book is heavily (though inconsistently) referenced, which I always enjoy. It's also very easy to pick up and put down, as it's filled with lots of separate sections. This means I felt comfortable putting it down for a week and a half and then coming back to it again.

The chapters are set out in a nice way, too: there's an introductory chapter, one on pets, animal entertainment, clothing, as food, animal testing, green/conservation groups, and 'compassion in action.'

One big thing for me was that, it led to me revising my opinion on zoos. I've always struggled with zoos, not liking the voyeristic/trapped components of it for animals, but recognising the need for conservation. Halfway through the section on zoos, I changed my mind. I'm still there for the conservation efforts, but why do we need zoos to fit in to urban areas? Anyway, me and zoos are definitely over.

The book does have some problems. Like many vegan / animal rights texts, there's some fatphobia. At some points there's an undertone of cultural cluelessness. There's also a sort of something, for certain people. "And some human mothers will hand over a baby for a vial of crack," (pg 254) for example, is a statement that I would like to challenge. The book frequently uses terms like 'normal,' which regular readers of this blog will know I dislike, as it positions some of us as not-normal.

However, I learnt a lot of things that I didn't know. I don't know if it was naiveness or overlooking or what, but as the book went on I was blown away by how much I was bookmarking. A small sampling:
  • "...unlike other mammals, dolphins are not automatic breathers; every breath is a conscious choice, and when life becomes unbearable they can choose to take no more. They commit suicide. He says that much of the early mortality rate of dolphins in captivity is a result of suicide: "We literally bore them to death."" (pg 84)
  • There's type of fur (from lambs - not sure why it's not wool), where the baby lambs are killed at a few days of age, and sometimes even the skin of unborn lambs is used. I'm not sure why unborn lambs horrifies me more than born lambs - maybe because the mother has to be killed too? (pg 107) In the USA (not sure if this extends beyond the USA) coats with less than $150 worth of fur don't have to be labelled as having fur (pg 110).
  • Farmed salmon requires about 2.5 times the same amount of wild fish as food.
  • The WWF, as a conservation society, sometimes positions itself squarely against animal rights (pg 295) - this was cool to read because then, when I was talking to the Wilderness Society people at World Vegan Day, I was able to ask so many questions I'd never previously have considered.
Another thing: Stephen Colbert has an adopted turtle daughter: her name is Stephanie Colburtle. Adorable name!

One final benefit of reading the book, for me, was being able to quote from it for my recent talk at the Animals Australia Forum. I gave a talk on intersectionality, and I had wanted to give examples of why intersectionality is needed in AR. Advised against this, I went the other way: I used Dawn's 2005 article ' Best Friends Need Shelter Too,' reproduced in the book, as an example of how intersectionality takes things in to account. So that was nice.

I recommend the book. It's an interesting read, and I learnt a lot, but I recommend reading it with caution. I'm not sure I would give it as a gift book to people who weren't already interested in AR/AW.


Funny Face said...

I read this book at the start of the year. I really enjoyed it, learnt so much.

The extract about dolphins always makes me sad. The whole book does. But it is an amazing book.

Julie said...

Farmed salmon requires about 2.5 times the same amount of wild fish as food.

Farmed salmon requires about 2.5 times the same amount of food as wild fish?

steph said...

@Julie farmed salmon requires 2.5 times the amount of wild fish, ground up in to fish food, to produce 1 proportion of farmed salmon. So 1 kg of farmed salmon requires 2.5 kg of wild fish ground up in to food to eat.

@Funny Face yeah I learnt a lot! So much I didn't know.