A Plea for the Animals

Matthieu Ricard / Shambala Publications, Inc / 341 pages

A Plea for the Animals is largely a compendium, providing summary descriptions of the horrible sufferings imposed upon animals resulting from factory farming, animal experimentation, trafficking in wildlife, and “animals in entertainment”—everything from shooting animals for trophies to bull fighting to circuses. Adeptly sprinkled throughout the text are thoughtful comments explaining why these abuses are wrong: biologically, environmentally, philosophically, and morally.

Author Matthieu Ricard, though a biologist himself, has a penchant for emphasizing the ethical and philosophical. Shortly after earning his doctorate, he stepped out of the laboratory and journeyed to the Himalayas, where he embraced Buddhist benevolence and became a monk. Curiously, however, his arguments are not Buddhist, but rather firmly ensconced in Western traditions—perhaps knowing he is writing largely for a Western readership. Thus, he quotes the Roman poet Ovid who 20 centuries ago wrote “The earth … offers you food without killing or shedding blood. … Oh, how wrong it is for flesh to be made from flesh … for one creature to live by the death of another.” The thread of argument is traced through the ages—from Thomas Aquinas to Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, and many others, up to contemporary thinkers such as Tom Regan and Peter Singer. This is a rich survey of important sages who focused on human relations with animals and grappled with matters of rights and responsibilities.

Ricard gets precise and graphic in his descriptions of what goes on inside a slaughterhouse today. Thus, detached philosophical discussion of abstract rights is often accompanied by upsetting reports of the anguish being endured by billions of sentient animals. Along the way, the reader is exposed to other considerations: Why should society devote so many millions of acres to raising livestock when the same amount of vegetable nutrition could be grown on a small fraction of that land? What right do humans have to enslave animals with whom we share DNA and a long evolutionary journey?

Ricard does not hesitate to criticize humanist chauvinism, a philosophy that leads us to love ourselves best of all. And then there is the matter of “human supremacy” and all of the pain, injustice, and evil contained within that concept. The fascist notion of “master race” was hateful. But when the idea is extended so that the entire human race becomes the master, Ricard argues, those relegated to subordinate status are doomed.