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Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy

Mark Newton

26th May, 2011

Matthew Scully’s thoughtful look at the issues surrounding animal welfare is a triumph of lucid prose and cleverly marshalled argument, says Mark Newton

Something has gone wrong with the way the world treats animals, Matthew Scully reflects in Dominion, his cerebral investigation into mankind's treatment of animals. Published a decade ago in the USA, it has now been released in the UK with a new introduction and maintains, a decade later, contemporary relevance. ‘Animals are more than ever a test of our character, of mankind’s capacity for empathy and for decent, honourable conduct and faithful stewardship. We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they stand unequal and powerless before us.’ These early sentiments are characteristic of Scully’s thoughtful approach to animal welfare. It comes from a conservative perspective, not a liberal one; and is not, strictly speaking, about rights at all, but conscience.

This is an important stance as well as an unusual one. Thousands of treatises on welfare or ecology are written from the perspective of the sympathetic liberal but Scully conducts his investigations from the perspective of a proponent of the free market. That a great many environmental problems are a result of market failures isn’t in question but you can’t help admiring American conservative Scully’s chutzpah in acknowledging it.

This valuable conservative perspective on the debate opens doors in unusual locations. Take the Safari Club, a billion dollar business that seeks to ‘conserve’ animals by privatising great tracts of land and flying tourists in to shoot them. It is a weirdly cultish, albeit deeply libertarian entity and worryingly influential as a lobbying network. The bewilderingly contradictory mentality of those who wish to hunt big game is curious at first. Observing the desire to kill for the sake of killing is difficult for many of us to understand. As Scully points out, many of us mention food or clothing as reasons for animal slaughter. By contrast, Safari Club members give moral reasons for their activities. Scully, however, sees things differently: when white men head out into Africa and buy a chieftain’s favour so that they can loot a forest with a shotgun, he suggests that this isn’t so much conservation as colonialism.

From safari shoots to factory farming, Scully’s arguments are sharp and witty. His prose is delightfully accessible, his arguments convincing and he draws widely on both religious and secular literature to back his case up. At times he is nothing short of scathing in his attacks on fellow conservatives and his colleagues. Yet despite all this, he maintains his dignity and respect for differing opinion that has been long lost in the polarised and passionate debate on animal welfare. ‘When a man’s love of finery clouds his moral judgements, that is vanity,’ he says of one commentator.

While Scully doesn’t apply the forensic rigour to the mechanisms of the meat industry as does, for example, Simon Fairlie’s Meat; it’s perhaps because that’s not strictly the point of Dominion. This is a thoughtful, journalistic enquiry and an exposé as well, but mostly, it’s an appeal to our consciences. It doesn’t try to bamboozle with clever rhetoric about ethics (though Scully does nicely skewer the arguments of those who seek to justify their reasons for killing for spurious purposes). Ethics and religious attitudes are discussed at length, as are animals’ capabilities of understanding suffering and pain. From here Scully touches on the complex issues of animal rights but doesn’t dwell on them. He’s not asking us to contemplate such hazy philosophical territory but to think about our own reaction to such questions. ‘There are moments when you do not need doctrines, when even rights become irrelevant, when life demands some basic response of fellow-feeling and mercy and love.’

Above all, Scully asks difficult questions of us, which is precisely what a book like this should do. In the chapter on whaling, Japanese dignitaries point out that killing whales is simply to support their diet: while difficult for us to understand, is it any different to us eating a meat that they might find abhorrent? Are these things a matter of perspective and culture? Why do we find the skinning of cats and dogs for fur disgusting in other cultures, yet permit the farming of mink or fox for their fur?

Ultimately, what Scully is doing is making us question what we do with our stewardship of animals. It comes back, as if so often does, to the title Dominion. We have dominion over animals. Humans are in a position of power over them and it is, ultimately, a test of our character and moral architecture that we seek to use such power for good and a more humane approach to animal welfare. And that is a deeply admirable aim, no matter what your political persuasion.

Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully (£15, Souvenir Press) is available at Amazon

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