Review: The Pig Who Sang to the Moon

Jeffrey Masson’s The Pig Who Sang to the Moon was handed to me by a vegan colleague of mine. I’d promised to read it: I know that the meat industry is a monstrous thing; I believe that most Western people should be trying to eat less, and higher-quality, meat, for the sake of the planet, the animals involved, and our own health; and I’m very ready to believe Masson’s basic argument, that farm animals have emotional lives that are far more complex than we like to admit.

I am very probably the ideal audience for this book.

I was not convinced.

That’s partly because of mismatched expectations. I wanted to read about scientific studies and research by zoologists and similar experts. Or I would have been quite happy with a well-thought-out, well-supported ethical argument.

The Pig Who Sang to the Moon is not that kind of book. Each chapter discusses the emotional life of a different farm animal – pigs, chickens, sheep, cows and ducks. I say “discusses”. What I actually mean is “speculates”.

Because what this book is, mainly, is a collection of anecdotes. Many of them are nice anecdotes, the sort you read about in the kinder parts of Twitter or that get shared endlessly on Facebook. Pigs running for help to save their owners, chickens following their humans around, and so on. These are spliced with information about what goes on in factory farms, and with some brief evolutionary background – the idea being that going back to these animals’ ancestors will tell us something about how they are “meant” to live.

What’s frustrating is that none of this tells us anything new. It’s obvious to anyone who has a pet that animals have fascinating and private emotional lives. Information on the undoubted evils of factory farming is available to anyone with an internet connection. And I’m not even sure why Masson included the evolutionary stuff, since the only solid conclusions he manages to draw from it are common-sense ones.

The real problem with the book, though, is its partiality. Masson’s mind is made up from the beginning. That’s true of any book, of course; but the purpose of an argument, surely, is to walk a reader through the steps the author took in coming to their conclusion. A good non-fiction book or essay replays the decision-making process; a really persuasive one convinces us that the author is discovering things at the same pace as we are. Whereas Masson’s bias is manifest in the way he chooses his sources. Most of his anecdotes come from sanctuary owners and animal rights activists. Where he quotes farmers he does so dismissively (because their opinions that their animals don’t have emotions don’t support his argument). In one case he outright ignores someone whose opinion he’s canvassed – and says so.

But Masson’s conclusions aren’t just obviously biased; they’re also largely completely unfounded. He leaps too easily from “animals suffer in factory farms” (a claim I think few people would dispute) to “animals’ emotional lives are just like ours”. He anthropomorphises constantly, with little evidence that isn’t anecdotal or biased. This isn’t an approach that helps animals. Western cities are full of dogs and cats that are harmfully overweight and dangerously misbehaved because their owners treat them like little furry humans. If the evolutionary history of domesticated animals teaches us anything, it should surely be that these beings are fundamentally different from us; their emotional lives have evolved to deal with social structures, habitats and food sources that are very different from our own, and so we’d expect those emotional lives to look different from ours.

So Masson ends up treading an odd tightrope. On the one hand, he’d like us to think that animals are worthy of the same respect and freedoms as we are. On the other, he is patronising and sentimental about their lives and histories. If it isn’t already clear, I don’t think The Pig Who Sang to the Moon is a good book. It contributes nothing new to conversations about animal rights and capabilities; it has nothing original or well-founded to say.

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